jueves, 20 de febrero de 2014

The Deposition of Father McGreevy by Brian O’Doherty

In The Deposition of Father McGreevy Brian O’Doherty transports us into a world and culture that will be quite alien to most readers. By the book’s end, we may even be convinced that this might be a different universe.

But Brian O’Doherty’s book is set in Ireland, not some distant, fanciful galaxy. It’s the west of Ireland, County Kerry to be precise, where there is a remote community on a mountain side. A harsh winter has brought sickness and, in this small place, all the women have died. It’s a momentous calamity, rendered all the more devastating by the community’s inability to bury the corpses, because the earth is too frozen to break. The local priest, Father McGreevy, takes up his pen to describe the plight of his parishioners, as they struggle to come to terms with the fate that has befallen them.

Father McGreevy’s view of the world, of course, comes from a particular standpoint. He deals with sin, guilt and all the other trappings of Roman Catholicism. But he is also a man of the world, and understands much, though not all, of what makes men tick, even though women do seem to remain a tad beyond the pale. He is also aware of how the demon drink can enter a man’s soul and transform him into something he might never have wanted to be.

None of this would have come to light, however, if William McGinn, a journalist in the 1950s, had not come into the possession of Father McGreevy’s jottings. The old fellow was gone to earth himself by the time an envelope with his testimony passed into the hands of McGinn who, out of curiosity and a need to unearth a good story, tells us the priest’s tale. Footnoted to explain the more obscure allusions and references to Irish history, literature and folklore, Father McGreevy’s notes begin with the winter tragedy. What begins to unfold, however, is a decline to death of an entire community, itself a metaphor for a whole way of life.

Pestered by progress, battered by the elements and deserted by its masters, the peasant existence, that for so long had been life’s only option, was now being squeezed into the shape of an in-bred deformity. This village on a mountainside is frozen as much by time as by its winter frost. Perhaps McGreevy’s reliance on religion to seek an explanation for illness and misfortune, an approach that in the past might have united a community struck by adversity, was already itself part of the problem, part of the frostiness that hardened everything into an unyielding, unforgiving, inflexible and hostile environment.

But what we are not prepared for in this tale of degeneration and decline is how McGreevy’s tale develops. The priest bears witness to some deep sins, acts that he previously had never even imagined possible. The lad might have been a half-wit, but he had a complete body, that’s for sure. And, again for sure, the acts in question are not what you think they are. The Father’s deposition has it all, and it’s there for you and William McGinn to read. Let it be said that the local doctor, himself a metaphor for a more pragmatic and modern way of life, takes a remarkably casual, even ungodly line, when McGreevy bares his soul to describe these shocking practices.

But, as ever, as sin leads to more sin, grievous acts lead to more eve grievous consequences. And it’s only via locating some of the participants, still alive but incarcerated in mental hospitals in their decrepit old age, that McGinn forms his own version of what happened up there in the frost on that Kerry mountainside.

The Deposition of Father McGreevy is an extended poem. But it is also a deeply surprising, ever shocking tale of the desperation that almost inevitably rules a way of life. Strangely, we never really did establish what happened to all those women, the ones who died that winter. And we never really established why the ailment was so gender-specific. We do know, however, why the men might just have been the cause of the plague. Because, when left to their own devices, it may be sin and depravity that beckons, and this just might be their true nature. The Deposition of Father McGreevy is often funny, is always graphic and is continually evocative of a potentially endearing culture. But it’s not a reassuring vision of humanity.

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