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The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
I Was a Teenage Catholic
by Jimmy McAleavey
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Leaving aside the absolute good of the exposure of abusive clergy, it often seems that there's a queue forming to bash Catholicism. A number of factors combine to create this impression: the intolerance coiled within British liberalism, a kind of adolescent reaction in the Republic to its aged and failing spiritual parent, and of course the ready audience in the north for anyone who will cast a stone at the Whore of Babylon, or lift her skirts to find the IRA lurking there. O'Doherty, whose column fits snugly just to the right of the Belfast Telegraph editorial, has often appeared to be at the head of the queue in the north.
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The preoccupations which have given this impression, the link between the Catholic church and the IRA and the venality of the Christian Brothers, are present in this book too. These opinions are based on his personal experience of growing up in West Belfast and being educated at St Mary's, which tends to lend them some credibility, particularly with people from different backgrounds.
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Coincidentally, I also grew up in West Belfast and went to the same school about 15 years later. My experience was different. It seemed there was hardly a week went by when the priest wasn't preaching against the IRA. Our Irish teacher refused to teach us the Soldier's Song. The strategy of the Christian Brothers was to pack the middle class with Catholic solicitors and doctors, not the Maze with prisoners or the cemeteries with Protestants. The golf club in one hand and a degree certificate in the other.
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This is not to deny that there were Christian Brothers (as well as lay teachers) who shouldn't have been let near children. And it is not to deny O'Doherty's experience. It is merely to question the dogmas he founds on the authority of his own experience. For all the strap-wielding and brutal sarcasm of some of the Brothers he mentions, I also recall the ceremony for the closure of the Barrack Street premises. The elderly headmaster waved cheerily as the last past pupil drove off in his Mercedes, and had to ask for a lift up the road from the film crew covering the event.
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But enough of conspiracy theories, because this is a much bigger book than that. It is actually an old-fashioned spiritual autobiography. It tells the story of his religious education from comically pious child, to doubting teen, to trainee yogi in India, to sceptical religious affairs correspondent for BBC Northern Ireland. And it tells the story of someone who has been acutely attentive to the religious experience all his life, and does so with frequently novelistic power. Perhaps scepticism is the wrong term for his final destination. O'Doherty may be scathing of the religion he was brought up in, but he is generous about the religious impulse as a whole. In fact, you're left with the impression of a deeply religiose, if not religious, person. I know few writers, with the exception of DH Lawrence, who could have written this about his first wank: 'Finding something in your body which is preordained to work in a certain way raises all the questions about God in nature that occurred to the first people to be stirred by a thunderstorm. Now I was alone with the force that moves through all things, and it had my attention'.
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This sense of biological preordination culminates in something close to a credo later in the book, where he writes that consciousness and the apprehension of the divine aren't written into the human being for nothing. 'Why do we have this if we can do nothing with it? If this is a prompting that cannot be gratified, it is the only one of its kind we know.' Darwin becomes a kind of prophet.
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Despite our differences, I found this a valuable and absorbing book and I'm glad I've got to know Malachi O'Doherty better. He's ploughing a lonely furrow with great dedication and I hope he continues to do so in his next book. As he says himself: 'Nowadays we tell people who dwell on these things that they take life too seriously'. His witness to the full range of human experience is the type of thing we usually only get from poets and, erm, priests.
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One quibble in the cosmic scheme of things. If this book ever goes to a second edition, they could do something about the spelling mistakes and misplaced commas throughout. 'O'Doherty! Come up here and put out your hand!'
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