Ireland’s very national identity and character are like a tapestry where each weave is tightly intertwined with its rich and ancient Catholic tradition. Until recently, cultural practices and discourse were more heavily influenced by the Church than secular elements. Of course, Saint Patrick (387-461), the patron saint of Ireland, comes quickly to mind when looking for the beginning of this Catholic influence. His deeds and words, like the excerpt that follows, set a spiritual flame alight across Ireland.
This is because there is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father. He is the one who was not begotten, the one without a beginning, the one from whom all beginnings come, the one who holds all things in being – this is our teaching. And his son, Jesus Christ, whom we testify has always been, since before the beginning of this age, with the father in a spiritual way. He was begotten in an indescribable way before every beginning. Everything we can see, and everything beyond our sight, was made through him. He became a human being; and, having overcome death, was welcomed to the heavens to the Father… He is judge of the living and of the dead; he rewards every person according to their deed. He has generously poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality, who makes believers and those who listen to be children of God and co-heirs with Christ. This is the one we acknowledge and adore – one God in a trinity of the sacred name. (Saint Patrick, web)
If we consider that more than a millennium separates modern times from the start of this religious and cultural legacy, then we catch a glimmer of the significance of faith within Ireland. It is no exaggeration to declare that there is very little simple about practicing the Christian faith in the Emerald Isle. What may seem (to an outsider) as a harsh critique of the Catholic Church, for instance, might be recognized as more of a gentle reproach by the Irish audience. Context, history, and language connotations all serve to potentially obfuscate the meanings behind Irish literature. The works of Samuel Beckett and Paul Durcan offer a striking and vivid contrast in their approaches to Catholicism. Through careful examination of the differences, the reader gains clearer insight of both the meaning of the Church to these respective writers, as well as the unique role Catholicism has played over the centuries in Ireland.
Before directly comparing and contrasting the differences in religious perspectives offered by Samuel Beckett and Paul Durcan, this essay will examine these writers individually in an indirect contrast and comparison. Beckett’s treatment of matters of faith within More Pricks than Kicks was particularly evocative of the early life of C.S. Lewis, who was raised in Belfast. In Joseph Pearce's remarkable book entitled C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, he makes some assertions regarding Lewis’ religious formation that are clearly relevant to this discussion. The passage that follows is from an online article by the author about of the aforementioned book.
One of Lewis's closest friends, the great Catholic writer, J. R. R. Tolkien, believed that Lewis failed to become a Catholic because of the deep-rooted and ingrained prejudices that he inherited as a Belfast Protestant. As the Troubles in Northern Ireland have shown, Belfast is one of the most sectarian cities in the world. It would indeed be a rare occurrence for someone raised in such an Anti-Catholic culture to overcome the prejudices of his upbringing and there is no doubt that Lewis's discomfort with the position of the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition and his unease with the institution of the papacy are typical of the prejudices held by Ulster Protestants. On the other hand, as my book seeks to demonstrate, Lewis seemed to be moving ever closer to Catholicism as he grew in his faith. It is this tension between Lewis's ingrained opposition to Catholicism and his rational attraction to Catholic doctrine which makes the study of Lewis's relationship with the Church so fascinating. (Pearce, Web)
It appears that Lewis' own troubled feelings from being a young Protestant in Belfast may shed further illumination upon Samuel Beckett's perceived ambivalence and alienation with regards to Protestantism in Ireland--and religion in general. The shared faith experiences of Beckett and Lewis are interesting as both turned away from organized religion for a period. While, of course, C.S. Lewis returned to the faith with a passion, the alienation experienced by Beckett permeates his work.
Religion seems to occupy the mind of Belacqua Shuah primarily when he is alone, however. In the presence of others, his mind seems less drawn to reflect on the eternal. In the opening of "Walking Out," there is a short, but telling observation from the character. "It was one of those Spring evenings when it is a matter of some difficulty to keep God out of one's meditations." (Beckett, 101) This implies not only an indifference to God, but an active opposition to the presence of the eternal. When Belacqua is in public settings, however, he seems less prone to this kind of introspection. In this way, then, we could argue that noise and bustle is perhaps partially pursued as a means to drown out the other, more troubling thoughts.
The introspection appears to also catch Belacqua in his nature escape at the opening of "Fingal." "He began to feel a very sad animal indeed." (Beckett, 23) When he wistfully refers to a distant sight as "magic land," Winnie corrects him reproachfully; his meandering mind gets him into trouble. (Beckett, 24) Again at the conclusion of "Walking Out," he seems caught off guard by the silence and stillness of the forest as he waits in vain for Lucy. This passage is also enlightening with regards to a kind of deep-seated guilt that rises to the surface with the mysterious reference to the Tanzherr. This word, not found within the Oxford English Dictionary, appears to be German for something along the lines of “Mr. Dance.” (Babylon, web) Belacqua is ashamed to admit his true voyeuristic behavior here even to himself. Instead, he masks his getting beaten up by the angry lover as the haunting attack of the “Tanzherr.” This not only highlights his own lack of courage and honesty, but it also draws attention to his lack of self-control; Belacqua possesses no control of his impulses. As an Irish Literature professor recently described the character, he is “unmoored,” and “grasping after bits of spiritual understanding but always cut off from his religious tradition by a combination of disdain for the way it's practiced in Ireland, and a literal spiritual laziness bound up with his very conflicted attitudes to his bodily appetites.” 
It is also helpful here to briefly point out that the protagonist of these tales by Beckett, shares a name with a minor character from Dante's Divine Comedy. So, is Belacqua perhaps a sort of secular pilgrim? Instead of searching for the spiritual, the character is doing his best to avoid any hint of the supernatural in his pursuit of secular knowledge and experience. In this determination to avoid the spiritual dimension of Irish life, he is further alienating himself from his countrymen (not to mention God). This paints a picture, then, of someone who is timidly committing to the secular, turning his back on all associations with faith, yet unable to avoid the occasional backslide back to reflections upon the nature of faith and reality. He is in a self-imposed exile.
Turning to Paul Durcan’s “carnivalesque” titled work “The Hauler’s Wife Meets Jesus on the Road Near Moone,” the reader has a particularly vivid example of what might be described as a feminist-themed poem about an unhappily married woman. (Augue, Chapter 6) Her husband is an emotionally and physically abusive trucker—a character that Durcan may envision as a type of “chaste soldier,” a misguided example of Irish manhood. (Augue, Chapter 6) Yet, because of the selection of the name Jesus for man this unnamed character meets, the poem is also infused with a mysterious dimension of the faith and spiritual. The following passage is particularly illustrative in setting the scene and characterization.
Yet in my soul I yearn for affection,
My soul is empty for the want of affection.
I am married to a haulier,
A popular and a wealthy man,
An alcoholic and a country councillor,
Father with me of four sons,
By repute a sensitive man and he is
Except when he makes love to me:
He takes leave of his senses,
Handling me as if I were a sack of gravel,
Or a carnival dummy,
A fruit machine or a dodgem.
He makes love to me about twice a year;
Thereafter he does not speak to me for weeks,
Sometimes not for months. (Durcan. 291)
In selecting the name “Jesus” for her desired lover, the poet may seem at first glance to be leveling an attack upon Christianity for somehow sanctioning or approving of the abusive husband’s behavior. While there may be truth in this first impression, understanding some background concerning this poet helps the reader to plumb the depths of this work more effectively. According to Andrew Augue’s A Chastened Communion: Modern Irish Poetry and Catholicism, conclusions regarding this poet shouldn’t be treated as quite so black and white.
Durcan's positive representations of sensitive, down-to-earth priests deviates sharply from the norm in contemporary Irish culture. In the wake of the abuse crisis, as Harry Ferguson notes, a new stereotype of the "paedophile dophile priest" has emerged. The trauma caused in Ireland by the clerical abuse of children cannot be overestimated. But restrictively linking pedophilia to priests not only stigmatizes an entire group for the crimes of a relatively small minority, but it obscures the more extensive abuse perpetuated by men outside the priesthood.50 Nonetheless, priests have become a convenient vehicle through which the Irish public can convey its contempt for the Catholic hierarchy's myriad failures. (Augue, Chapter 6)
When reading the works of Paul Durcan, it is also critically important to bear in mind his own troubling past. According to Andrew Augue, the poet as a young man was not sufficiently masculine for his father. In an attempt to make a man of this “sissy,” he was institutionalized in an asylum for a short period of time. Ironically, this is one the times in which he received his father’s approval during his part in a sports competition at the asylum. As a way to perhaps deal with his own pain with regards to his identity, Durcan took a view of Christ himself as an example of androgeny.
Even more strikingly, he found sanction for his advocacy of androgyny not in avant-garde psychology or exotic religious traditions as the Beats did but rather in the Christian faith that was the bedrock of Western culture. In conjuring the image of Jesus Christ as androgynous, Durcan turns the tables on the Victorian cult of "muscular Christianity" that was a central pillar of the Irish standard of masculinity. It is an altogether more pliant Christ figure that Durcan can evokes, abstractly in the recent "The Origin of Species," which pays homage to "Christ, all-fathering mother!" and more concretely in the earlier "The Haulier's Wife Meets Jesus on the Road Near Moone." The latter poem from The Berlin Wall Cafe focuses upon the travails of a woman trapped in a loveless, and virtually sexless, marriage to a prototypical Irish businessman: "A popular and wealthy man, / An alcoholic and a county councilor" (LD, 117). Granted a brief reprieve from her marriage, she dresses up like a "femme fatale" and heads off to Dublin for a night out at the Abbey Theatre. Having gotten lost, she is rescued by Jesus, who describes himself as a "travelling actor." Her description of her "savior" identifies him as being as capacious as her husband is constricted… (Augue, Chapter 6)
The reader and student may certainly strenuously disagree with the poet’s characterization of Christ in this way. If the poet’s position is viewed as potentially heretical with regards to traditional Christianity, it is more in-line with a different kind of spiritualism or universalism. Further, the poet’s positive characterizations of priests make simple black and white characterizations of Anti-Catholic or anti-religious perhaps a bit more complicated.
Having examined these two writers and their works individually, what is the best method for contrasting them in a meaningful way? Standard analysis would begin with selecting portions of text from each work(s) and placing them (figuratively) side-by-side, but is that the best approach for subtle comparisons of this type? Given the unorthodox characters present within these readings, the comparison and contrast should perhaps begin with a less orthodox or formal approach. If the student pauses and reflects upon what has been discussed regarding the characters of the “haulier’s-wife” and Beckett’s Belacqua, how might these two characters interact face-to-face? This approach may assist the reader in catching the differences in a fresh or unique light. Imagine this chance meeting, then, taking place outside Saint Philomena’s Catholic Church in lower Dublin under partly cloudy skies. For the purposes of this essay, the haulier’s-wife is identified as “Caitlin.” Relying upon an omniscient narrative perspective, what would her impressions be upon meeting Belacqua, and what might they discuss?
Caitlin leaves church slightly ahead of her husband and four sons, as she troubled by a stubborn sense of guilt and conviction. The paintings and artistic renderings of Christ and the saints within the church seem to all stare at her with a knowing reproach. The pangs of guilt for her recent tryst at the Cross at Moone come more fiercely at church than at home. On the outside, her demeanor and appearance are proper with an air of Sunday elegance. Belacqua is seated on the edge of an old flower box on the opposite side of the church’s rock wall. His hair is somewhat disheveled, and he is preoccupied in thought. He immediately notices Caitlin and quickly tucks a magazine into an inside pocket of his jacket. She thinks him to be an odd-looking character, yet she confides that she had “had just about enough” that morning. Belacqua nods knowingly at the attractive woman, glancing back at the emptying church behind him. He wonders if she came to church alone. He casually remarks that religion is like a “sickness” from which one could never quite recover.
“A necessary evil,” he whispers.
“Perhaps,” Caitlin replies with a moment’s hesitation. “But, why do you say it’s necessary at all? I mean… Isn’t God in each of us? She doesn’t have to be worshiped in some fancy building to be real, does she?”
Belacqua squirms and looks back at the church doors, as if wishing the newcomer to be back on her way. Caitlin follows his gaze, noting that people are still gathered speaking in groups upon the church steps. She feels uncomfortable and on-display, yet also curious in the stranger’s view.
“It’s real, but no one understands or lives it right, I guess,” Belacqua replies.
“Do you?” Caitlin inquires pointedly.
“No,” Belacqua answers without hesitation. “Nobody does, but that doesn’t make it less real or more false. Faith makes me mad and sad all at the same time, because I see truth like a lovely landscape or a melody that I can’t quite reach or touch. Oh, what does it matter anyway? I have to go…”
In the above exercise, the reader may glimpse some of the distinctions in religious views between the writers as perhaps made clearer through the use of their own characters’ unique voices. Paul Durcan embraces something close to universalism, a spiritual landscape devoid of doctrines and dogmas yet proclaiming a spiritual dimension to life nonetheless. Samuel Beckett uses a dysfunctional character to express an ambivalence and deep cynicism regarding faith. The short passage below from the chapter “What a Misfortune,” for instance, highlights the Belacqua’s own confused and cynical mind regarding the spiritual dimension.
The elder daughter was very dull. Think of holy Juliana of Norwich, to her aspect add a dash of souring, to her tissue half a hundredweight of adipose, abstract the charity and prayers, spray in vain with opopanax and assafoetida, and behold a radiant Una after a Hamman and a face massage. (Beckett, 121)
Spiritual cynicism, in particular, seems the appropriate description or categorization for Samuel Beckett’s view. Faith seems something considered briefly, then discarded as having no immediate usefulness or practicality. Belacqua appears to be a character who struggles with feelings of faith, as Christians might describe struggling with an unbelief. One interesting common denominator between both of these writers, however, seems to be a grudging respect for those who successfully live a life of faith, despite doubts and failings. In the end, though, it is Paul Durcan who seems to be searching the hardest for spiritual and eternal truth, yet he is clearly troubled by what he sees as the patriarchal nature of the Catholic Church. Like the enigmatic nature of faith in Ireland itself, these two writers serve as a vivd contrast between cynicism and hope.
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Beckett, Samuel. More Pricks than Kicks. New York: Grove, 1972. Print.
Durcan, Paul. "The Haulier's Wife Meets Jesus on the Road Near Moone."
Ed. Patrick Crotty. Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology. Belfast: Blackstaff, 1995. 290-94. Print.
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