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  • Fear, Trembling, and Carousing:Father Phelan in Michael Crummey's Galore
  • Beth Downey (bio)

The island of Newfoundland, located off the east coast of Canada and independent from that nation until 1949, is a critical center of North American Irish diaspora. Its geographic isolation and economic history have made it, among other things, a kind of "time capsule" where linguistic, folkloric, and religious cultural artifacts are preserved in a detail and clarity exceeding that of more trafficked mainland centers.1 Local poet and historical novelist Michael Crummey's Galore (2009) is a reflection of the process whereby transatlantic Irishness has unspooled in Newfoundland and stitched itself into the place. Inspired in part by Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Galore follows two family dynasties in a fictional pair of twin outports.2 The Irish Catholic Devines, peasant fishermen all, populate the Gut. Just over the hill, the English Protestant Sellers family of Paradise Deep are merchants whose hard work, bolstered by the prejudices of British rule, keep the Devines and their ilk in continuous debt. Over the course of almost two centuries extending fore and aft, the families feud, fall in love, and forge unholy alliances. For the first few decades, the only clergyman for miles around available to witness, narrate, and solemnize the assorted mischief is Father Phelan—a brand of mischief all his own.

On publication, many reviewers pointed out Galore's dense texture of religious allusion, wrought in what some called a "magical realist" narrative [End Page 116] approach.3 A few also noted, more with readerly relish than academic appetite, what a larger-than-life figure Phelan cuts in the story.4 To date, scholarly work has revolved mainly and appropriately around Galore's postcolonial significance and its depictions of memory and place.5 As a counterpoint, Samuel Martin presents the compelling language of a sacramental or "Eucharistic" turn in Galore, which aligns categories of the transcendent and the real rather differently, opening up broad new (old) avenues of analysis.6 In this article, I aim to extend and deepen what Martin began—in places recovering old ground to furnish new insights—through an in-depth study of Father Phelan as spiritual anchor, central religious figure, and frontier priest.

Father Phelan, an itinerant Irish Dominican friar defrocked by his order some years before the start of Galore, appears at first to confound every definition of a priest. Yet for all that he is deeply flawed—a lewd, raucous, womanizing winebibber with few certainties—Phelan is sincere almost despite himself, a priest to his own chagrin. Vocation sticks to this man like mashed potatoes on a toddler's hands. And offensive though his ways may be to more pious sensibilities, the facts of his life emulate the life of Christ with undeniable precision. Unsanctioned, suspect to the moral establishment, even against the law, he pursues his ministry to Newfoundlanders in a place that more self-interested clerics actively shun. He breaks all the rules, goes where he should not go, mixes with the poor, the ignorant, the low, and the rowdy, forgiving sins no matter how "unforgivable." In a scene that recalls Christ's harrowing of Hell between the crucifixion and resurrection, Phelan even goes so far as to hear confession from the ghost of a murderer, dead by suicide.7 Following his own excommunication by a fellow priest, shunned by his friends and erstwhile parishioners, Phelan performs an act of clerical service that not only liberates the ghost but also reaffirms Phelan's priestly legitimacy, this time on a spiritual level beyond the reach of human dictum. [End Page 117]

Given the history of priest figures in Irish literature, with a nod to developments wrought by Catholic Revivalist Graham Greene, I read Phelan as a priest of particular clerical lineage and (diegetically speaking) socio-geographic placement. I acknowledge Phelan (hyperdiegetically speaking) as a man lodged out of time. I also recognize him, by virtue of his transatlantic and transhistorical contexts, as a unique conduit for the advancement of clerical leitmotifs within Irish diaspora and Canadian literatures, and for retroactive commentary on the same. Further, this article analyzes specific theological statements made...


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