Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Letter to Rome

One morning the priest's housekeeper mentioned as she gathered up
the breakfast things, that Mike Mulhare had refused to let his
daughter Catherine marry James Murdoch until he had earned the
price of a pig.

"This is bad news," said the priest, and he laid down the

"And he waited for her all the summer! Wasn't it in February last
that he came out of the poor-house? And the fine cabin he has
built for her! He'll be that lonesome, he'll be going to America."

"To America!" said the priest.

"Maybe it will be going back to the poor-house he'll be, for he'll
never earn the price of his passage at the relief works."

The priest looked at her for a moment as if he did not catch her
meaning, and then a knock came at the door, and he said:--

"The inspector is here, and there are people waiting for me."

And while he was distributing the clothes he had received from
Manchester, he argued with the inspector as to the direction the
new road should take; and when he came back from the relief works,
there was his dinner. He was busy writing letters all the
afternoon; it was not until he had handed them to the post-
mistress that his mind was free to think of poor James Murdoch,
who had built a cabin at the end of one of the famine roads in a
hollow out of the way of the wind. From a long way off the priest
could see him digging his patch of bog.

And when he caught sight of the priest he stuck his spade in the
ground and came to meet him. He wore a pair of torn corduroy
trousers out of which two long naked feet appeared; and there was
a shirt, but it was torn, the wind thrilled in a naked breast, and
the priest thought his housekeeper was right, that James must go
back to the poor-house. There was a wild look in his eyes, and he
seemed to the priest like some lonely animal just come out of its
burrow. His mud cabin was full of peat smoke, there were pools of
green water about it, but it had been dry, he said, all the
summer; and he had intended to make a drain.

"It's hard luck, your reverence, and after building this house for
her. There's a bit of smoke in the house now, but if I got
Catherine I wouldn't be long making a chimney. I told Mike he
should give Catherine a pig for her fortune, but he said he would
give her a calf when I bought the pig, and I said, 'Haven't I
built a fine house and wouldn't it be a fine one to rear him in.'"

And they walked through the bog, James talking to the priest all
the way, for it was seldom he had anyone to talk to.

"Now I must not take you any further from your digging."

"Sure there's time enough," said James, "amn't I there all day."

"I'll go and see Mike Mulhare myself," said the priest.

"Long life to your reverence."

"And I will try to get you the price of the pig."

"Ah,'tis your reverence that's good to us."

The priest stood looking after him, wondering if he would give up
life as a bad job and go back to the poor-house. But while
thinking of James Murdoch, he was conscious of an idea; it was
still dim and distant, but every moment it emerged, it was taking

Ireland was passing away. In five-and-twenty years, if some great
change did not take place, Ireland would be a Protestant country.
"There is no one in this parish except myself who has a decent
house to live in," he murmured; and then an idea broke suddenly in
his mind. The Greek priests were married. They had been allowed to
retain their wives in order to avoid a schism. Rome had always
known how to adapt herself to circumstances, and there was no
doubt that if Rome knew Ireland's need of children Rome would
consider the revocation of the decree--the clergy must marry.

He walked very slowly, and looking through the peat stacks he saw
St. Peter's rising above a rim of pearl-coloured mountains, and
before he was aware of it he had begun to consider how he might
write a letter to Rome. Was it not a fact that celibacy had only
been made obligatory in Ireland in the twelfth century?

When he returned home, his housekeeper was anxious to hear about
James Murdoch, but the priest sat possessed by the thought of
Ireland becoming a Protestant country; and he had not moved out of
his chair when the servant came in with his tea. He drank his tea
mechanically, and walked up and down the room, and it was a long
time before he took up his knitting. But that evening he could not
knit, and he laid the stocking aside so that he might think.

Of what good would his letter be? A letter from a poor parish
priest asking that one of the most ancient decrees should be
revoked! The Pope's secretary would pitch his letter into the
waste paper basket. The Pope would be only told of its contents!
The cardinals are men whose thoughts move up and down certain
narrow ways, clever men no doubt, but clever men are often the
dupes of conventions. All men who live in the world accept the
conventions as truths. And the idea of this change in
ecclesiastical law had come to him because he lived in a waste

But was he going to write the letter? He could not answer the
question! Yes, he knew that sooner or later he must write this
letter. "Instinct," he said, "is a surer guide than logic. My
letter to Rome was a sudden revelation." The idea had fallen as it
were out of the air, and now as he sat knitting by his own
fireside it seemed to come out of the corners of the room.

"When you were at Rathowen," his idea said, "you heard the clergy
lament that the people were leaving the country. You heard the
Bishop and many eloquent men speak on the subject, but their words
meant little, but on the bog road the remedy was revealed to you.

"The remedy lies with the priesthood. If each priest were to take
a wife about four thousand children would be born within the year,
forty thousand children would be added to the birth-rate in ten
years. Ireland would be saved by her priesthood!"

The truth of this estimate seemed beyond question, nevertheless,
Father MacTurnan found it difficult to reconcile himself to the
idea of a married clergy. One is always the dupe of prejudice. He
knew that and went on thinking. The priests live in the best
houses, eat the best food, wear the best clothes; they are indeed
the flower of the nation, and would produce magnificent sons and
daughters. And who could bring up their children according to the
teaching of our holy church as well as priests?

So did his idea speak to him, unfolding itself in rich variety
every evening. Very soon he realised that other advantages would
accrue, beyond the addition of forty thousand children to the
birth-rate, and one advantage that seemed to him to exceed the
original advantage would be the nationalisation of religion, the
formation of an Irish Catholicism suited to the ideas and needs of
the Irish people.

In the beginning of the century the Irish lost their language, in
the middle of the century the characteristic aspects of their
religion. He remembered that it was Cardinal Cuilen who had
denationalised religion in Ireland. But everyone recognised his
mistake, and how could a church be nationalised better than by the
rescission of the decree? Wives and the begetting of children
would attach the priests to the soil of Ireland. It could not be
said that anyone loved his country who did not contribute to its
maintenance. He remembered that the priests leave Ireland on
foreign missions, and he said: "Every Catholic who leaves Ireland
helps to bring about the very thing that Ireland has been
struggling against for centuries--Protestantism."

This idea talked to him, and, one evening, it said, "Religion,
like everything else, must be national," and it led him to
contrast cosmopolitanism with parochialism. "Religion, like art,
came out of parishes," he said. Some great force was behind him.
He must write! He must write... .

He dropped the ink over the table and over the paper, he jotted
down his ideas in the first words that came to him until midnight;
he could see his letter in all its different parts, and when he
slept it floated through his sleep.

"I must have a clear copy of it before I begin the Latin

He had written the English text thinking of the Latin that would
come after, and very conscious of the fact that he had written no
Latin since he had left Maynooth, and that a bad translation would
discredit his ideas in the eyes of the Pope's secretary, who was
doubtless a great Latin scholar. "The Irish priests have always
been good Latinists," he murmured as he hunted through the

The table was littered with books, for he had found it necessary
to create a Latin atmosphere before beginning his translation. He
worked principally at night, and one morning about three he
finished his translation, and getting up from his chair he walked
to the whitening window. His eyes pained him, and he decided he
would postpone reading over what he had written till morning.

His illusions regarding his Latin were broken. He had laid his
manuscript on a table by his bedside, and on awakening he had
reached out his hand for it, but he had not read a page when he
dropped it; and the manuscript lay on the floor while he dressed.
He went into his breakfast, and when he had eaten his breakfast
his nerve failed him. He could not bring himself to fetch the
manuscript, and it was his housekeeper who brought it to him.

"Ah," he said, "it is tasteless as the gruel that poor James
Murdoch is eating." And taking a volume from the table--"St.
Augustine's Confessions"--he said, "what diet there is here!"

He stood reading. There was no idiom, he had used Latin words
instead of English. At last he was interrupted by the wheels of a
car stopping at his door. Father Meehan! Meehan could revise his
Latin! None had written such good Latin at Maynooth as Meehan.

"My dear Meehan, this is indeed a pleasant surprise."

"I thought I'd like to see you. I drove over. But--I am not
disturbing you.... You've taken to reading again. St. Augustine!
And you're writing in Latin!"

Father James's face grew red, and he took the manuscript out of
his friend's hand.

"No, you mustn't look at that."

And then the temptation to ask him to overlook certain passages
made him change his mind.

"I was never much of a Latin scholar."

"And you want me to overlook your Latin for you. But why are you
writing Latin?"

"Because I am writing to the Pope. I was at first a little
doubtful, but the more I thought of this letter the more necessary
it seemed to me."

"And what are you writing to the Pope about?"

"You see Ireland is going to become a Protestant country."

"Is it?" said Father Meehan, and he listened a little while. Then,
interrupting his friend, he said:--

"I've heard enough. Now, I strongly advise you not to send this
letter. We have known each other all our lives. Now my dear

Father Michael talked eagerly, and Father MacTurnan sat listening.
At last Father Meehan saw that his arguments were producing no
effect, and he said:--

"You don't agree with me."

"It isn't that I don't agree with you. You have spoken admirably
from your point of view, but our points of view are different."

"Take your papers away, burn them!"

Then, thinking his words were harsh, he laid his hand on his
friend's shoulder and said:--

"My dear MacTurnan, I beg of you not to send this letter."

Father James did not answer; the silence grew painful, and Father
Michael asked Father James to show him the relief works that the
Government had ordered.

They walked to where the poor people were working, but important
as these works were the letter to Rome seemed more important to
Father Michael, and he said:--

"My good friend, there isn't a girl that would marry us; now is
there? There isn't a girl in Ireland who would touch us with a
forty foot pole. Would you have the Pope release the nuns from
their vows?"

"I think exceptions should be made in favour of those in orders.
But I think it would be for the good of Ireland if the secular
clergy were married."

"That's not my point. My point is that even if the decree were
rescinded we should not be able to get wives. You've been looking
too long in the waste, my dear friend. You've lost yourself in a
dream. We shouldn't get a penny. Our parishioners would say, 'Why
should we support that fellow and his family?' That's what they'd

"We should be poor, no doubt," said Father James. "But not so poor
as our parishioners. My parishioners eat yellow meal, and I eat
eggs and live in a good house."

"We are educated men, and should live in better houses."

"The greatest saints lived in deserts."

And so the argument went on until the time came to say good-bye,
and then Father James said:--

"I shall be glad if you will give me a lift on your car. I want to
go to the post-office."

"To post your letter?"

"The idea came to me--it came swiftly like a lightning flash, and
I can't believe that it was an accident. If it had fallen into
your mind with the suddenness that it fell into mine, you would
believe that it was an inspiration."

"It would take a great deal to make me believe I was inspired,"
said Father Michael, and he watched Father James go into the post-
office to register his letter.

As he went home Father James met a long string of peasants
returning from their work. The last was Norah Flynn, and the
priest blushed deeply. It was the first time he had looked on one
of his parishioners in the light of a possible spouse; he entered
his house frightened, and when he looked round his parlour he
asked himself if the day would come when he should see Norah Flynn
sitting opposite to him in his armchair. And his face flushed
deeper when he looked towards the bedroom door, and he fell on his
knees and prayed that God's will might be made known to him.

During the night he awoke many times, and the dream that had
awakened him continued when he had left his bed, and he wandered
round and round the room in the darkness, seeking a way. At last
he reached the window and drew the curtain, and saw the dim dawn
opening out over the bog.

"Thank God," he said, "it was only a dream--only a dream."

And lying down he fell asleep, but immediately another dream as
horrible as the first appeared, and his housekeeper heard him
beating on the walls.

"Only a dream, only a dream," he said.

He lay awake, not daring to sleep lest he might dream. And it was
about seven o'clock when he heard his housekeeper telling him that
the inspector had come to tell him they must decide what direction
the new road should take. In the inspector's opinion it should run
parallel with the old road. To continue the old road two miles
further would involve extra labour; the people would have to go
further to their work, and the stones would have to be drawn
further. The priest held that the extra labour was of secondary
importance. He said that to make two roads running parallel with
each other would be a wanton humiliation to the people.

But the inspector could not appreciate the priest's arguments. He
held that the people were thinking only how they might earn enough
money to fill their bellies.

"I don't agree with you, I don't agree with you," said the priest.
"Better go in the opposite direction and make a road to the sea."

"Well, your reverence, the Government do not wish to engage upon
any work that will benefit any special class. These are my

"A road to the sea will benefit no one.... I see you are thinking
of the landlord. But there is no harbour; no boat ever comes into
that flat, waste sea."

"Well, your reverence, one of these days a harbour may be made,
whereas an arch would look well in the middle of the bog, and the
people would not have to go far to their work."

"No, no. A road to the sea will be quite useless; but its futility
will not be apparent--at least, not so apparent--and the people's
hearts will not be broken."

The inspector seemed a little doubtful, but the priest assured him
that the futility of the road would satisfy English ministers.

"And yet these English ministers," the priest reflected, "are not
stupid men; they are merely men blinded by theory and prejudice,
as all men are who live in the world. Their folly will be apparent
to the next generation, and so on and so on for ever and ever,
world without end."

"And the worst of it is," the priest said, "while the people are
earning their living on these roads their fields will be lying
idle, and there will be no crops next year."

Father MacTurnan began to think of the cardinals and the
transaction of business in the Vatican; cardinals and ministers
alike are the dupes of convention. Only those who are estranged
from habits and customs can think straightforward.

"If, instead of insisting on these absurd roads, the Government
would give me the money, I should be able to feed the people at a
cost of about a penny a day, and they would be able to sow their
potatoes. And if only the cardinals would consider the rescission
of the decree on its merits Ireland would be saved from

Some cardinal was preparing an answer--an answer might be even in
the post. Rome might not think his letter worthy of an answer.

A few days afterwards the inspector called to show him a letter he
had just received from the Board of Works, and Father James had to
write many letters and had to go to Dublin, and in the excitement
of these philanthropic activities the emigration question was
forgotten. He was talking to the inspector about the possibility
of obtaining a harbour when the postman handed him a letter.

"This is a letter from Father Moran. The Bishop wishes to see me.
We will continue the conversation to-morrow. It is eight miles to
Rathowen, and how much further is the Palace?"

"A good seven," said the inspector. "You're not going to walk it,
your reverence?"

"Why not? In four hours I shall be there." He looked at his boots
first, and hoped they would hold together; and then he looked at
the sky, and hoped it would not rain.

The sky was dim; all the light seemed to be upon the earth; a
soft, vague sunlight floated over the bog. Now and again a yellow-
hammer rose above the tufts of coarse grass and flew a little way.
A line of pearl-coloured mountains showed above the low horizon,
and he had walked eight miles before he saw a pine-wood. Some
hundred yards further on there was a green field, but under the
green sod there was peat, and a man and a boy were cutting it. The
heather appeared again, and he had walked ten miles before he was
clear of whins and heather.

He walked on, thinking of his interview with the Bishop, and was
nearly at the end of his journey when he noticed that one of his
shoes had come unsewn, and he stopped at a cabin; and while the
woman was looking for a needle and thread he mopped his face with
a great red handkerchief that he kept in the pocket of his
threadbare coat--a coat that had once been black, but had grown
green with age and weather. He had out-walked himself, and feeling
he would be tired, and not well able to answer the points that the
Bishop would raise, he decided to rest awhile. The woman had found
some beeswax, and he stopped half an hour stitching his shoe under
the hawthorn that grew beside the cabin.

He was still two miles from the Palace, and this last two miles
proved very long. He arrived footsore and covered with dust, and
he was so tired that he could hardly get up from his chair to
receive Father Moran when he came into the parlour.

"You seem to have walked a long way, Father MacTurnan."

"About fifteen miles. I shall be all right presently. I suppose
his Grace does not want to see me at once."

"Well, that's just it. His Grace sent me to say he would see you
at once. He expected you earlier."

"I started the moment I received his Grace's letter. I suppose his
Grace wishes to see me regarding my letter to Rome."

The secretary hesitated, coughed, and Father MacTurnan wondered
why Father Moran looked at him so intently. He returned in a few
minutes, saying that his Grace was sorry that Father MacTurnan had
had so long a walk. He hoped that he would rest awhile and partake
of some refreshment.... The servant brought in some wine and
sandwiches, and the secretary returned in half an hour. His Grace
was now ready to receive him. Father Moran opened the library
door, and Father MacTurnan saw the Bishop--a short, alert man,
about fifty-five, with a sharp nose and grey eyes and bushy
eyebrows. He popped about the room and gave his secretary many
orders. Father MacTurnan wondered if the Bishop would ever finish
talking to his secretary. He seemed to have finished, but a
thought suddenly struck him, and he followed his secretary to the
door, and Father MacTurnan began to fear that the Pope had not
decided to place the Irish clergy on the same footing as the Greek
clergy. If he had, the Bishop's interest in these many various
matters would have subsided; his mind would be engrossed by the
larger issue. On returning from the door his Grace passed Father
MacTurnan without speaking to him, and going to his writing table
he began to search amid his papers. At last Father MacTurnan

"Maybe your Grace is looking for my letter to Rome?"

"Yes," said his Grace, "do you see it?"

"It's under your Grace's hand, those blue papers."

"Ah, yes," and his Grace leaned back in his arm-chair, leaving
Father MacTurnan standing.

"Won't you sit down, Father MacTurnan?" he said casually. "You've
been writing to Rome, I see, advocating the revocation of the
decree of celibacy. There's no doubt the emigration of Catholics
is a very serious question. So far you have got the sympathy of
Rome, and, I may say of myself; but am I to understand that it was
your fear for the religious safety of Ireland that prompted you to
write this letter?"

"What other reason could there be?"

Nothing was said for a long while, and then the Bishop's meaning
began to break in his mind; his face flushed, and he grew
confused. "I hope your grace doesn't think for a moment that--"

"I only want to know if there is anyone--if your eyes ever went in
a certain direction, if your thoughts ever said, 'Well, if the
decree is revoked--'"

"No, your Grace, no. Celibacy has been no burden to me--far from
it. Sometimes I feared that it was celibacy that attracted me to
the priesthood. Celibacy was a gratification rather than a

"I am glad," said the Bishop, and he spoke slowly and
emphatically, "that this letter was prompted by such impersonal

"Surely, your Grace, His Holiness did not suspect--"

The Bishop murmured an euphonious Italian name, and Father
MacTurnan understood that he was speaking of one of the Pope's

"More than once," said Father MacTurnan, "I feared that if the
decree were revoked, I should not have had sufficient courage to
comply with it."

And then he told the Bishop how he had met Norah Flynn on the
road. An amused expression stole into the Bishop's face, and his
voice changed.

"I presume you do not contemplate making marriage obligatory; you
do not contemplate the suspension of the faculties of those who do
not take wives?"

"It seems to me that exception should be made in favour of those
in orders, and, of course, in favour of those who have reached a
certain age like your Grace."

The Bishop coughed, and pretended to look for some paper which he
had mislaid.

"This was one of the many points that I discussed with Father
Michael Meehan."

"Oh, so you consulted Father Meehan," the Bishop said, looking up.

"He came in one day I was reading over my Latin translation before
posting it. I'm afraid the ideas that I submitted to the
consideration of His Holiness have been degraded by my very poor
Latin. I should have wished Father Meehan to overlook my Latin,
but he refused. He begged of me not to send the letter."

"Father Meehan," said his Grace, "is a great friend of yours. Yet
nothing he could say could shake your resolution to write to

"Nothing," said Father MacTurnan. "The call I received was too
distinct and too clear for me to hesitate."

"Tell me about this call."

Father MacTurnan told the Bishop that the poor man had come out of
the work-house because he wanted to be married, and that Mike
Mulhare would not give him his daughter until he had earned the
price of a pig. "And as I was talking to him I heard my conscience
say, 'No man can afford to marry in Ireland but the clergy.' We
all live better than our parishioners."

And then, forgetting the Bishop, and talking as if he were alone
with his God, he described how the conviction had taken possession
of him--that Ireland would become a Protestant country if the
Catholic emigration did not cease. And he told how this conviction
had left him little peace until he had written his letter.

The priest talked on until he was interrupted by Father Moran.

"I have some business to transact with Father Moran now," the
Bishop said, "but you must stay to dinner. You have walked a long
way, and you are tired and hungry."

"But, your Grace, if I don't start now, I shall not get home until

"A car will take you back, Father MacTurnan. I will see to that. I
must have some exact information about your poor people. We must
do something for them."

Father MacTurnan and the Bishop were talking together when the car
came to take Father MacTurnan home, and the Bishop said:--

"Father MacTurnan, you have borne the loneliness of your parish a
long while."

"Loneliness is only a matter of habit. I think, your Grace, I'm
better suited to the place than I am for any other. I don't wish
any change, if your Grace is satisfied with me."

"No one will look after the poor people better than yourself,
Father MacTurnan. But," he said, "it seems to me there is one
thing we have forgotten. You haven't told me if you succeeded in
getting the money to buy the pig."

Father MacTurnan grew very red.... "I had forgotten it. The
relief works--"

"It's not too late. Here's five pounds, and this will buy him a

"It will indeed," said the priest, "it will buy him two!"

He had left the Palace without having asked the Bishop how his
letter had been received at Rome, and he stopped the car, and was
about to tell the driver to go back. But no matter, he would hear
about his letter some other time. He was bringing happiness to two
poor people, and he could not persuade himself to delay their
happiness by one minute. He was not bringing one pig, but two
pigs, and now Mike Mulhare would have to give him Norah and a
calf; and the priest remembered that James Murdoch had said, "What
a fine house this will be to rear them in." There were many who
thought that human beings and animals should not live together;
but after all, what did it matter if they were happy? And the
priest forgot his letter to Rome in the thought of the happiness
he was bringing to two poor people. He could not see Norah Mulhare
that night; but he drove down to the famine road, and he and the
driver called till they awoke James Murdoch. The poor man came
stumbling across the bog, and the priest told him the news.

- George Moore, 'A letter to Rome',
The Untilled Field, 1903

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