Gotham Diary:
My Ireland Problem, concluded
12 June 2015

In this final installment of these notes on My Ireland Problem, I want to mention the priest in Blairstown.

This was fifty years ago. There was a small Catholic church in Blairstown, at the east end of the town (a very small town indeed) from Blair Academy, the prep school on the hill toward the west that I was attending. The church was small and plain. Mass was always crowded, with somewhat more than a full house. I had never seen anything like it. Even in Bronxville, where Catholics were the minority, the church was lofty stone Gothic, decorated in far from the worst taste. (For worse taste, you could drive a few miles up the road to Immaculate Conception, in Tuckahoe: far more flamboyant Gothic on the outside, but utterly barococo within.) You could not even say that the worst thing about St Joseph’s was that it was built on the tracks, because it wasn’t really, and the far more elegant Christ Church, housing another somewhat minority congregation (the Episcopalians) really was. I had no idea that a Catholic church could be set up in what was basically a one-room house.

This is not to say that the Blairstown parish was poor. If I ever knew anything about that, I forgot it long ago, just as I can’t recall the name of the church. (Today’s St Jude is not in the town; I shouldn’t have been able to walk to it so conveniently.) The Catholics in Blairstown would have been recent arrivals, the first emissaries of suburban sprawl. They probably weren’t poor themselves; they probably just needed a starter building on the cheap. I’m surmising all of this in retrospect. I shouldn’t have been at all curious about these things in those days. The very idea of a new Catholic church was unattractive. In general, I disliked new things. Later, this dislike would grow into a preference for things that had been handed around for generations, and finally flower into the realization that things that have been around for generations are rich in information, while new things are shrouded in ignorance.

That’s why I was in the Catholic church in Blairstown at all. I had stopped going to Mass with my family before I’d been shipped off to boarding school. My parents and I had been through all the rows about that, and they were not the really serious rows. Now that I found myself at the only school in the country that was owned by a Presbyterian synod, where daily chapel was compulsory, the Church in which I had been raised took on a golden glow. It was, of course, much older than the Presbyterians were. Vatican II had not yet replaced Latin with the vernacular. Being me, I was interested in the similarities and the contrasts. The Presbyterian service at Sunday chapel looked a lot like the Mass, although there was no Eurcharistic folderol. I had no idea of the theological loggerheads that lurked below the appearances, but I shouldn’t have been much interested in them. I was not sufficiently spiritual to grasp the protestant sense of an antagonism between private devotion and public show. But chapel at Blair taught me to look at the Catholic church from the outside, even if I didn’t know that that was what I was doing when I took to walking through Blairstown to the small Catholic church.

Aside from its size, the only thing that I remember about the Catholic church in Blairstown was its pastor. I don’t recall his name, so I shall call him Father Derg, after the lake in which St Patrick’s Purgatory floats. You can read about St Patrick’s Purgatory in Bad Blood, Colm Tóibín’s book about walking the Irish Border — although he doesn’t seem to call it that. He simply calls it “Lough Derg,” as if the lake itself were the purgatory (a Baptist idea?). He positions it on Station Island, which is correct but beside the point. It’s as though he is determined to undergo the three-day penitential rite without giving the ecclesiastical establishment the satisfaction of giving the site its official name.

Suddenly, I saw Lough Derg. The sky was a light blue and the water was light blue as well, so I had been looking at it a while before I realized that it was the lake. A few hills came into view between the trees and after a while through a clearing the forest I could see the green dome of a church and then I could plainly see the island, Station Island. I already knew of the pilgrimage there, from stories people had told me. There is a short story by Sean O’Faolain called Lovers of the Lake. There are poems by Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney about the island as a central repository of the faith of our fathers, Irish Catholicism, where people with simple faith came hoping for a cure or a favour or a strengthening of their belief. They had done this right through the days when Catholic practice was forbidden in the eighteenth century, and despite the specific ban on the pilgrimage in 1704.

Father Derg would have been much happier with a congregation of “people with simple faith,” on their knees at St Patrick’s Purgatory. What I remember is his florid face, his eyes goggled by indignation, and his angry, booming voice. These were the principal attributes of his sermons. What he actually said was much too familiar to remember. I may not have heard such stuff at Mass in St Joseph’s, but I had certainly heard it from the nuns in the parochial school. Absolutely everything in this world, the only thing that mattered, was Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, a misery undergone because I was a thoughtless naughty little boy. The disparity, the disproportion between the world-famous Saviour and squinty little me was gigantic enough to assure that I never took it seriously for a moment. A world in which such a thing could happen would be too preposterous to exist — bring on the asteroids!

Yes, Father Derg was Irish, but that’s all I remember: he was “Irish.” His accent, his manner of speaking, any idioms that he might have brought with him — I don’t remember any of that. He can’t have been unapproachable, because I did approach him. I approached him with the news that I might have a Vocation. A calling to the priesthood. Father Derg dutifully arranged for me to be given a tour of the nearest seminary, which was across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.

The visit to the seminary put an end to my Vocation. The priests took a good look at me, but, more to the point, I took a good look at the seminary. It was never quite true that I had a calling to the priesthood per se. I didn’t know this at the time, but you don’t actually have to be a priest to become a cardinal. Crazy, no? (The last serious contender for civilian cardinal was Jacques Maritain, the mid-century Thomist. The loophole may have been closed since then.) Just like everyone else, I thought you did, and what I wanted was to be a cardinal. Even crazier, yes? I wanted to be a cardinal along the lines of Richelieu, whose riveting portrait by Philippe de Champaigne I had just discovered. I ought to be embarrassed, but it’s too funny. I ought to be ashamed to say that, because I could not envision the seminary in Pennsylvania as an incubator of cardinals, I realized that my campaign such required drastic reconsideration that Vocation had best be put on hold.

My Ireland problem developed a new blister. Where there ought to be Richelieus, I realized, there were Spellmans. Spellmans and Cookes and O’Connors and Egans and Dolans, as it would turn out. By Cardinal Dolan’s time, though, I had gotten over my Ireland problem. Partly, as I said at the beginning, with the help of Colm Tóibín. But mostly because, in late middle age, I stopped worrying that being Irish would somehow prevent me from becoming the man I ought to be. That being an Irish Catholic would stunt my mind — had stunted it, for all I knew. One day, in the middle of my fifties, I understood that any stunting of my mind was probably attributable to other causes, and that in fact I had no cause to worry about being Irish, because I wasn’t. All the Irish had been laundered out of me, by my adoption by Midwesterners of long Iowan provenance (long by Iowan measure), by my rearing in a WASPy bubble, by my decades in polyglot Yorkville. All that was left was long-windedness, and that was something that I should have to work hard to live up to.