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Confessing Ireland: Gerald Griffin and the Secret of Emancipation

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 3&4, Fall/Winter 2013
pp. 79-102 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0030

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There is only one state of perfect confidence on earth—it is that which exists between a Catholic penitent and his confessor. Here alone there is no reserve—here alone the heart is truly laid bare—and the soul exposed in its true colours. The confidence of the most intimate friendship must still have some reserve and … a degree of secrecy.

Gerald Griffin, Common Place Book A

In 1825, while Gerald Griffin was in London writing his Tales of the Munster Festivals (1827), a Parliamentary select committee was compiling evidence for an exhaustive report on the state of Ireland. Among the witnesses questioned were a host of Catholic priests, whose testimonies were directed repeatedly to the practice of confession among Irish Catholics, and in particular to the secrecy at the heart of that ritual. With its claims to divine authority and its inviolable secrecy, confession seemed to offer in distilled form everything that was problematic about Britain’s new “step-daughter” in Union. Here was a shadowy corner of Irish life beyond the reach of progressive reformers, sealed off from the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle, offering an alternative courtroom of judgment, punishment, and pardon. Here, it was believed, Catholic ritual and Irish rebellion formed a dangerous combination. From the muttered sins of the faithful, confessors might enjoy unlimited access to plots against the state. For some landlords, Catholic priests were “secret enemies of the government,” absolving rebels from violent sins and breathing never a word of warning to landlords or local authorities.

The report, unsurprisingly, tells us more about certain Protestant gothic fantasies about Catholic ritual than about the actual Irish practice of confession. Most Irish Catholics failed to make even the minimum yearly requirement of two confessions, and those most involved in agrarian unrest were least likely to participate in the sacrament. The discourse swirling around the seal of the confessional is testimony rather to the anxious years leading up to Catholic Emancipation. The lengthy minutes of evidence, the scores of witnesses questioned, and the excavation of Catholic ritual in this official discourse suggest that the insecure voice was not unique to Irish fiction writers of this period. If Gerald Griffin struggled with how to write down the troubled matter of Irish identity, so too did Westminster. The report forms part of an ongoing enquiry—literary and political—into the possibility of normality in what Seamus Deane has described as the “dark, phantasmagoric unreality” of Ireland. This fixation on the confessional is part of the attempt after the Union to transform Ireland with the light of reason and reform, to make the Irish fit for emancipation. For the sectarian state, a country of ritualized secrecy is a country enslaved to rebellious and superstitious ways. Only an Ireland unsealed will ever be free, for emancipation and secrecy are opposing values.

Gerald Griffin’s literary project is often read as forming part of the cultural wing of the political campaign for Emancipation, his novels an attempt to demonstrate Catholic respectability—not least in their lavish style and plush layers of deference to English readers. The product of a Catholic middle-class family, Griffin is keen to present his Catholic protagonists as calm, rational, honest, and upright. As Deane has pointed out, Griffin attempts to emancipate his characters from Ireland’s murky past in order to make them ready for participation in the modern political world. Kyrle Daly, the composed Catholic hero of The Collegians, preaches that memory serves only to make us weak and effeminate, calling his equally bloodless bride Anne Chute to look only towards the future. Like much of Griffin’s writing, this novel reads like a guidebook to Emancipation: a suitable subtitle might be “The Several Habits of Highly Acceptable Papists.” Critics of Griffin have focused on this schizophrenic spectacle, this attempt, in John Cronin’s words, to wed “a grand pseudo-Augustan style” to a “homey peasant discourse.” Divided between dazzling London and defending Ireland, between waxing cosmopolitan and going native, Griffin ends up with, in Cronin’s view, a “peculiar, penetrating, bifocal vision.”

The hidden Ireland and the emancipated Ireland are thus frequently understood to be conflicting forces in the Limerick writer’s fiction...



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