A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

517aoFLZWZL“Propelled into the priesthood by a family tragedy, Odran Yates is full of hope and ambition. When he arrives at Clonliffe Seminary in the 1970s, it is a time in Ireland when priests are highly respected, and Odran believes that he is pledging his life to “the good.”
Forty years later, Odran’s devotion is caught in revelations that shatter the Irish people’s faith in the Catholic Church. He sees his friends stand trial, colleagues jailed, the lives of young parishioners destroyed, and grows nervous of venturing out in public for fear of disapproving stares and insults. At one point, he is even arrested when he takes the hand of a young boy and leads him out of a department store looking for the boy’s mother.
But when a family event opens wounds from his past, he is forced to confront the demons that have raged within the church, and to recognize his own complicity in their propagation, within both the institution and his own family.”

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Rarely has a quote summed up a book so well. Odran Yates is a good man (probably) however he is also naive and prefers to ignore things which he finds uncomfortable. The book follows him from his childhood in 1960’s Ireland to middle age in the present day, from the last glory days of the Catholic Church in Ireland to its death throes.

A man destined to be uninspiring, Odran’s mother pushes him into the priesthood at a time when having a priest in the family was a still subject of pride. For those who may find that concept difficult to appreciate, there was a time in Ireland when having a priest in the family held the same status as having a doctor in the family does in many cultures. It was a big deal, and something to be lauded over the neighbours.  Odran is a deeply irritating character, not necessarily unlikable he’s too insipid for that, but none the less irritating. I honestly can’t decide whether he is as naive as he acts, or just in denial and unable to face the corruption and evil surrounding him. He seems to shy away from what would be blatantly obvious to anyone else in his position.

Honestly it is a book full of unlikeable characters. There are no heroes here. Odran’s mother, admittedly due to the harsh hand life has dealt her, is a bitter woman and religious fanatic. Classic Legion of Mary type. Then there is Tom Cardle, once a sympathetic character who becomes completely corrupt and loses all sense of right and wrong, viewing himself as a victim. To be fair he was once a victim but by the end he is also a perpetrator, forfeiting any sympathy we once had. The Archbishop is almost a caricature, full of his own importance, and the divine rights of the Church. He hawks back to what he views as the glory days of John Charles McQuaid, a very real Archbishop of Dublin renowned for his conservatism and the unimaginable (now anyway or indeed to anyone outside of Ireland) power he exerted over politicians, judges, the Garda, the media and indeed every institution of public life. What he said went, went. The only likeable characters are really Hannah, Odran’s strong willed sister, and Pope John Paul I. Hannah refuses to bow to parental pressure and is extremely cynical of the Church when it was still not entirely acceptable to voice such things. At Odran’s ordination she remarks of Pope John Paul II, a man held in deep reverence in Ireland for many years, “That man hates women”. She isn’t entirely wrong. The Church , at least in Ireland had a rather dysfunctional relationship with women to put it mildly. Pope John Paul I is presented as the only person within the Church willing to deal with the corruption which had engrossed it, both in terms of the Vatican Bank and the “problems” in Ireland. Pity he was only Pope for thirty three days. I have no idea how accurate a portrayal it is, but the impression I got was had Pope John Paul I survived history would have been a very different.

This is a bleak book. There’s no two ways about it. Both Odran and the reader are forced to consider how events in Ireland, both within the Church and within society, were allowed to occur. Whether it was the abuse of children at the hands of those charged with their care, or the maddness of the Celtic Tiger, we are left wondering what has happened to this country of our. How did we let this happen? Did we know and choose to ignore it? Why did we let evil endure?

Yet for all that I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a masterpiece critique of Ireland. Boyne really does not pull the punches. His own concerns, fears and dissatisfaction leap off the page. It is a book all who want to understand Ireland should read. It is a welcome and extreme counterbalance to the twee romantic nonsense that so many believe. This is Ireland, though I hold out more hope for my country then Boyne appears to. I cannot believe that:

Ireland is rotten. Rotten to the core.

Am I as naive as Odran, or just not yet as cynical as Boyne?


5 star

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