Does ‘isolated and at risk’ describe the rural priest today?
The average age of Catholic clergy is now 64 clergy and as we age visibly, we find ourselves more and more isolated. We live alone, retirement is more problematic as the conditions that made it desirable – a satisfactory pension, adequate accommodation and the like – are no longer secure. Even retirement itself is becoming less possible. We may be expected to continue working until we drop.
Journals now ritually refer to us as ‘isolated and at risk’. Novelists like Richard Power in The Hungry Grass and Michael Harding in Priest dissect in fictional form the limitations of the clerical life and the varied pathologies to which we are endemically prone. Everything seems to be closing in on our once confident and self-contained world.
To a burgeoning list of apprehensions – ill-health, false accusations, mockery – yet another terror has been added. We are now, it seems, targets of gangs descending on presbyteries intent on parting us from the Sunday collections. The case of Fr Pat O’Brien, PP of Caherlistrane, underlines once again our vulnerability. Four men invaded his presbytery, tied him up, ransacked his home and stole his money. Old age for clergy is a progressively dismal prospect.
At a human level, the life-support systems for priests used to be much better. Full-time housekeepers lit fires, put out the ashes, tidied the house, put food on the table and hot-water jars in the bed. Canon William Healy, who was PP of Kilglass in Sligo, had two housekeepers and two men ‘in the yard’ – tending the needs of his few acres, saving the turf and so on. At the time priests were the equivalent of minor gentry, living in significant houses and in control of everything worth controlling.
But even then priests struggled with the isolation. One such was John Lavelle, a native of Ballycastle, whose isolation in the parishes he served was compounded by his inability to relate to his parishioners. A stubborn and reclusive man, there’s a story still told in Kilcommon Erris of a parishioner who described Lavelle as ‘looking out the window of his house, mad at everyone’.
Born in 1892 and ordained in 1916, Lavelle taught for a while in St Muredach’s College, during which time he published a pamphlet entitled, The Correct Use of ‘Is’, The Verb ‘To be’ as he sought to instruct recalcitrant schoolboys in the intricacies of Irish grammar. However, though he was a gifted academic and had a profound knowledge of his subject, the tediousness of teaching did little for his sensitive and brittle nature.
His first parish appointment was as curate in Kilmore Erris but a literate and cultured man, he found the intellectual and social climate of Erris undemanding and the stultifying interests of his flock unsatisfying. He pined for an intellectual stimulation that didn’t exist, either in the people or in his fellow-priests. However, he developed an interest in antiquities, did some research on Inniskea islands, and later became a member of the Royal Irish Academy. His next move was to Lahardane, which he found equally oppressive, though he started producing pamphlets on the history of Lahardane and Crossmolina and writing poetry, which was published in a few journals.
Later he was appointed PP, Kilcommon Erris but his difficulties continued. He seemed to have a deep-seated inability to achieve the kind of flexibility in his relations with his parishioners out of which he might have harvested a reasonable contentedness. An example makes the point.
It was the late 1940s, and some parishioners persuaded him to convert a building, locally known as ‘The Power House’, into a parochial dance-hall for the purpose of raising funds for the proposed new church in Aughoose.
It was a successful enterprise, drawing huge crowds from around Erris and becoming a popular venue. One night, however, when Lavelle decided to pay a visit to the hall, he had to sternly reprimand the men at the door for not doffing their hats when he arrived. He was even less impressed when he entered the hall and found couples with their arms around each other as they waltzed round the dance floor, and girls sitting on fellows’ laps. Fr Sean Noone, in his book, Crossing the Channel, explained what happened: ‘In utter consternation he (Lavelle) went directly on to the stage and demanded the music to stop. He then demonstrated as to how they should dance, with arms fully stretched and bodies well apart. Next he ordered all men who were not dancing to occupy one side of the dance hall and women the other, as was customary in the old church at that time. This caused some booing and bull whistling at the back of the hall. He called for silence and threatened that, should there be further whistling, all would be told to leave the hall. No sooner said than done; somebody whistles and everyone was ordered to leave. An expensive band packed-up its belongings and the hall was closed’.
The loneliness and isolation of Lavelle’s life, coupled with the lack of job satisfaction he must surely have experienced, led to the development of a drinking habit that he struggled to overcome. He was suspended by Bishop Naughton for a time because of his drink problem, and was temporarily off the mission in 1937 when he received monthly payments of £8-6s-8d from the diocesan Sick Priests’ Fund.
He was retired in 1951 by the newly-appointed Bishop Patrick O’Boyle because of ‘ill-health’ but everyone knew it was because of a drink problem and his inability to cope with the demands of the parish. Bishop O’Boyle directed that £100 be forwarded to him and that he would be paid an annual pension of £200 a per annum from the same diocesan fund.
John Francis Lavelle – priest, antiquarian, historian and sometimes poet – is buried in the grounds of Ballycastle Church. He lived in retirement in Cum, Lahardane and in Shanaghy, Ballina until his death on December 24, 1961.
John Lavelle is one of fifty Killala priests whose stories I tell in my new book, Trouble & Strife, Fifty Killala Priests, 1600-2000, which has just been published. It sells at €35.