06/01/2015 12:51 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2016

Ireland, Gay Marriage and the Church

I was greatly impressed when I arrived by bus on a bright morning last September at Dalgan Park, about an hour's ride northwest of Dublin. From the front gate a long, grass-lined avenue leads to massive, handsome, grey-stone building that is the home of a Catholic missionary society, the Columban Fathers. The man I had come to see, my cousin Eamonn, had been a seminarian there six decades earlier, and as soon as I entered the vestibule I learned something remarkable about its present status as a seminary.

In Ireland nearly every stranger you meet engages you in a bit, or more than a bit, of talk. An oldish priest entered behind me as I asked the receptionist where I might find Father Horgan.

"Is it Ned Horgan?" he asked.

"Yes," I answered, for I was familiar with Eamonn's nickname.

"We've only one Horgan, but two Hogans."

He then volunteered to me how many priests lived there - I forget the number.

"We were all in seminary here. There's not one seminarian now."

I was a bit shocked by this report, even though I was aware that the once extravagant flow of Irish priests had trickled down over the past few decades until, reportedly, in one recent year the count of ordinations had reached zero.

Eamonn Horgan may be the most broadly intelligent person I've ever known. As a young man he wired the little thatched Galway farmhouse that my father had been born in. Several years ago he published a splendidly informative, historically significant memoir about the rural Kilkenny he grew up in during the '30s and '40s. His family was deeply religious. I remember as a child being required to participate, on my knees, in a nightly recitation of the rosary when I visited them. His younger brother became a priest and a sister is a missionary nun. But they were not sourpusses cloistered from the wide world. They were bright and good-humored and fond of laughter. I vividly remember a moment when the brothers Horgan revealed to me that being a Catholic, even a Catholic cleric, was not equivalent to being puritan, as had been my impression as a parochial-schoolboy in Brooklyn. Word had just arrived that Marilyn Monroe had killed herself in California.

"Poor Marilyn," Eamonn lamented to his brother.

What? Hadn't that woman been a great sinner, with her come-hither sexual radiation, her Playboy centerfold and multiple marriages? Not a word of it, not on the occasion of her death.

The Columban Fathers were launched a century ago as a mission to China, and have since worked largely but not exclusively in the Far East. Eamonn spent more than half a century in Japan. Another man who joined us for lunch that day had served in Korea. Many others went to the Philippines. Now these priests I sat among were old and spent. Eamonn came to greet me pushing a walker. Nearly half his confreres, it seemed, used either that implement or a cane. All that I spoke to were genial, but I had never conceived such a clear application of the phrase "elephants' graveyard."

This experience came back to me this week as I read and thought about the powerful vote in Ireland last weekend in favor of gay marriage, the principal opponent of which was the Catholic Church. There is not enough space here for me to ruminate on how vastly the country has changed since I first traveled there as a boy more than 50 years ago. But the juxtaposition of Dalgan Park's sadness and the nationwide rejection of church authority in that plebiscite forms a focus on which to meditate about the enigmas of the Irish people and Irish history, of religious faith and doubt, conviction and rejection. And it leads me to consider once again the lingering prejudice against and misunderstanding of the Irish that I frequently sense as a resident of this bastion of tolerance, New York City.

Colonization and a horrific mid-19th-century famine turned the Irish away from their best instincts, to be independent and cheerful and congenial, and toward their worst, to be fearful and superstitious and judgmental. And those same opposing inclinations are found everywhere in the Catholic Church. Indeed, the famine turned the people perforce away from their own country, and turned those who stayed from their own language -- and into the seminaries and convents, into a more rigid and authoritarian brand of Catholicism, and into the bosom of Rome. In earlier centuries they had been maverick Catholics who liked being physically and theologically distant from the Vatican and wanted to live by their own limited rules and their own ecclesiastical calendar

But where I live, most of the liberal supermajority assume that the Irish are backward, reactionary, rain-soaked, still potato-fed and priest-ridden. When I tell neighbors that dining in Ireland is generally superb they look at me as if as if they suspect that I was too drunk to judge reasonably what I was eating. They seem to think that the country is the dullest location on earth when in fact it is one of the most engaging, as well as one of the most welcoming to Americans. What gave me most joy about the gay-marriage vote is that it forces people like these to reconsider their view of the Irish and serves final notice to the Irish Church they no longer have the power to dictate. The Catholic Church in Ireland will not pass away, but theocracy had to end, and it could only end with a strong and even excessive wave of reaction. I remain sad, though, for those Columbans, who did not stay at home to dictate to their compatriots but flew far away because they wanted to spread their belief that Jesus Christ is Lord. "I don't preach," Eamonn has told me. "I don't like the word at all."

Many Irish people, wrote The New York Times, felt that the election results "pointed not only to change nut also to the compassion and tolerance of the Irish people." That is to say, they were that way always, and in a way they haven't changed much at all. As my fellow Brooklynite Marianne Moore once opened a poem:
Spender's Ireland
has not altered; --
a place as kind as it is green