NOMI MORRIS November 27 1995


NOMI MORRIS November 27 1995

LETTER FROM Ireland Of faith and divorce

Another Yes versus No referendum—on the other kind of separation

Father Patrick Staunton cuts across the Catholic cemetery in the one-pub, west coast Irish town of Tourmakeady, picking his way between the tombstones of “those whom death has already parted,” as he wryly puts it. On this November morning with County Mayo’s bald hills turned soggy by rain, marriage_not death—is on his mind. Ireland is rushing towards a second referendum in nine years on whether to drop its constitutional ban on divorce, and the country’s bishops have instructed priests to push the Vatican’s hard line on marriage: that every union between husband and wife is a sacred bond, forged for life. On the coming Sunday, the last chance to preach from the pulpit before the Nov. 24 vote, priests in parishes across Ireland’s 26 counties were supposed to deliver the bishops’ message that marriage vows should indeed be broken only by death.

It is not an opinion shared by Father Staunton. The soft-spoken, bearded priest is a bit of a rebel, a black-leather-jacketed sheep in Ireland’s rigidly conservative church. For one thing, he writes novels in his spare time: stories about Catholic clerics succumbing to the temptation of sex, about priests who marry their “housekeepers” (the commonly whispered Irish euphemism for a clergyman’s mis-

tress), and about priests who father children. “It was once said that there are only two sins for a priest: drink and ink,” he says with a smile, and his hobby has clearly added to his notoriety within the Irish church. For Father Staunton was also one of a handful of Irish priests to publicly urge legalization of divorce in the last referendum—and he is doing so again. “The scriptures suggest that if the law becomes a burden to people, if it is a sword rather than a shield, then the law must be changed,” he says. “The church’s bottom line must be compassion.”

Divorce has been illegal in Ireland since its constitution was drawn up in 1937, one of several beacons of the republic’s theocratic nature. It is now conventional wisdom that the church establishment s fire and brimstone campaign was crucial to defeating the pro-divorce forces in the 1986 referendum. But the clerics’ political influence has waned in recent years as a once-parochial society grows more urban and more liberal. Condoms, once illegal, can now be sold. Another law was changed this year to allow doctors to offer women information on how to obtain an abortion. The ban on divorce remains as one of the church’s few defences against the secularization of Irish society. Now, the battle to legalize it—endorsed by all major political parties—has become a key part of the continuing struggle between Modern and Holy Ireland.

The referendum may well be a litmus test of how much the church’s political influence has declined. In 1986, early opinion polls showed the pro-divorce side well ahead, but the clerical campaign eventually helped swing two of every three voters behind keeping the ban. The difference this time is that Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church has fallen from grace, staggered by a steady, three-year drip of sex and sex-abuse scandals. It began with revelations in 1992 that popular Bishop Eamonn Casey of Galway was the father of a teenage son and had used church funds to quietly pay for the boy’s American education. Then came last year’s alarming news that Father Brendan Smyth had been systematically abusing children for years, and that church leaders who knew of his pedophilia never called police.

By now, church scandal has become a weekly feature of Irish life. Each charge of sexual abuse brings more evidence that the church’s standard response was to transfer the accused priest and hush up his crimes. Last month, the Archbishop of Dublin admitted lending a priest more than $55,000 of diocesan funds to settle allegations of sexual abuse from a former altar boy. And one of the more shocking scandals for its degree of sheer hypocrisy concerned the late Father Michael Cleary of Dublin who, until his death in 1993, was one of the most prominent defenders of Pope John Paul II’s ultraconservative orthodoxy. This year, his former housekeeper Phyllis Hamilton recounted how she and Father Cleary had privately exchanged marital vows— and were parents to two children.

Not surprisingly, all this has damaged the church’s credibility. A poll released this month showed that Catholics’ attendance at weekly mass has fallen to 64 per cent from 91 per cent in 1974. Accustomed to being above criticism, the clergy is suddenly under attack. In an exchange that would have been unheard of a few years ago, Cahal Cardinal Daly was jeered this month on a television talk show when he defended the Irish church against charges of being “out of touch.”

The audience included nuns and priests.

“We won’t know until the votes are counted whether we truly are a tolerant society that looks after its minorities,” says Siobhan Fitzmahony, the 40-yearold volunteer running a group called Galway for Divorce. “The anti-divorce side list all sorts of reasons why divorce is bad—it will cost the state more money, children will suffer—but at the core, theirs is a fundamentalist argument based on the Vatican’s teaching.” Fitzmahony is a mother of two who separated from her husband 17 years ago, part of an estimated 75,000 Irish citizens who live apart from their spouse but cannot divorce. “I can accept the argument that the ban was introduced in 1937 to protect women,” she says. “There wasn’t work for women then and there was no welfare to care for a wife who was abandoned. But women can survive financially now.” Yet, if she is willing to forgive the generation who wrote the law, she doesn’t easily forget the one who voted to keep it. “In 1986, it was my people who voted No,” she says. “This is clearly the last chance we will have to change the law because politicians hate these kinds of issues. What happens on the 24th will decide what kind of society we pass on to my children.”

But those who want to keep divorce illegal say they, too, are fighting to make a better Irish society. “This is not a fight between modernization and the church, it is a fight between stupidity and common sense,” says an angry Des Hannafin, chairman of the anti-divorce campaign, waving a fork for emphasis over Sunday lunch with his

wife, Mona. “Things happen last in Ireland. We’ve had a chance to see exactly what happens in other places before we take things on, and we’ve seen the bad effects divorce has had on families and society in places like England.” Although Hannafin, a former senator, says he would like to see the church play an even more prominent role in the debate, his campaign has clearly muffled any religious tone. When early polls showed the pro-divorce side building a solid majority, its opponents responded with ads and billboards claiming that the social cost of broken families would be a 10-per-cent increase in everyone’s taxes. Polls soon showed the pro-divorce margin narrowing, making it a race too close to predict

That is a reminder that the anti-divorce side fought—and may have won—the 1986 campaign by fanning fear that legalized divorce would strike at the Irish love and reverence for the land. The prospect of family farms and houses being divided or lost in a divorce settlement played well in a country where three-quarters of the people own their own home. And it is in farming regions like Hannafin’s County Tipperary that the pro-divorce side still faces its most entrenched suspicion. “Sure it is sad when marriages fail, but you can’t legislate for the individual,” says Michael Dundon, editor of the weekly Tipperary Star. ‘You’ve got to legislate for the common good, and it goes against the grain to see farms divided up because of something like divorce.”

“The most awkward disputes I have to deal with are still about property issues,” says Noel Davern, a fourth-generation member of the Irish Dáil (assembly) from one of Tipperary’s oldest political families. Davern is a supreme fixer, accustomed to working out differences in the back room of a pub, settling local disputes with a handshake and a pint rather than a trip to court. He will vote Yes on Nov. 24, but he warns of the emotional power wielded by the other side. His wife and daughters are voting No. “We have passed 18 pieces of legislation to address the fears raised in 1986,” he says. ‘You would have to be separated for four years before a court ^ could grant a divorce. And still you can § scare people about what might happen o to their homes.”

z Yet, the arguments over religion and ° land may only be convenient expressions of a more universal struggle, where a small, largely homogenous people is trying to preserve its place and traditions against the tide of global change. “We are really only trying to stabilize what we have, to make a better society,” says Hannafin, who waged past crusades against liberalizing abortion laws and the power of the European Union. “We think people are intelligent and at the end of the day, they will do what’s right for Ireland.” It is an age-old message: what we have, we hold.

Hannafin was once a ferocious drinker, but he has stopped now. At lunch this day he drinks only water, and only bottled Tipperary water at that He can appear angry when he argues, spitting out opinions in stark contrast to his gentle, smiling wife sitting across from him. But he softens when he speaks of his Tipperary home, the power of the old Ireland washing over him. “I met him in his cabin rude,” recites Hannafin, suddenly breaking into 19th-century poetry, his voice now lyrical. “Dancing with his dark-haired Mary/And you’d think they knew no other mood/Than mirth, and song, in Tipperary.” Mona smiles and leans over to pat his hand. They have been married 37 years. And Hannafin rises to his feet to say the lines again, his voice catching as he repeats them, an incantation to the past