Next Sunday, for the first time in living memory (in centuries!), Sunday Mass will not be celebrated in Ventry parish church. The reason: a shortage of priests in the Kerry diocese.
I don't attend Mass, and indeed the number of people in the parish who do attend has dropped dramatically since we first came here to live for a year in 1972. Still, I can't help but feel sorrow for the Sunday silence that will now fall upon this lovely church.
The church sits on one corner of a crossroad, centrally located in a parish where until relatively recently (within our tenure here) people came to Mass by shank's mare or donkey cart. A pub on the opposite corner, and a shop on another.
The church is dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, martyr. Local legend has it that her body washed up on Ventry Strand in a barrel that took seven men to lift. She is said to be buried here, which is a lovely enough myth, it seems to me, to imbue the church with a special ambience.
Something else special: The wall-sized mural behind the altar, showing Pontius Pilate as his moment of remorse for killing Christ, was painted by my friend Bob O'Cathail, who illustrated Honey From Stone.
All this lore, legend and loveliness will now presumably fade away.
Our arrival in 1972 came just at the end of an era for Catholic Ireland. It was the year that John Charles McQuaid retired as Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, he who ruled the roost with an iron fist. The next year, Eamon de Valera, McQuaid's political ally, retired as President of Ireland. Together they nurtured a vision of a happy peasantry secure in the arms of Mother Church.
The reality was something other. The writer Sean O'Faolain called McQuaid's and de Valera's Ireland a "dreary Eden."
It certainly wasn't bursting with joy. The cities and towns were gray places. Censorship of press and film was strict. Contraception and divorce were banned. Girls and boys were put away in Church-run institutions for any inclination toward sin, or for nothing at all. We now know that abuse at the hands of priests, brothers and nuns was common.
We didn't know much about any of this at the time. We loved the place for its geographical beauty, its laid-back pace of life, its rich cultural heritage, and the kindness of the people.
What a difference a few decades made. Ireland is now a go-ahead, prosperous, secular nation. Towns are bright with paint and flowers. Girls and boys are indistinguishable from girls and boys anywhere. The Church is in collapse mode, and vocations are few.
And here below is perhaps the most striking symbol of the new Ireland, a four-story high Abercrombie & Fitch banner, temporarily covering the new A&F store to open in Dublin's most central location, College Green, formerly the very epicenter of decorum. One cannot imagine this happening in McQuaid's Ireland, although one can imagine the archbishop insisting on being driven downtown from his palace at Drumcondra to check it out for himself.
I'll leave you to decide whether the old Ireland or the new is better –- Saint Catherine in a barrel, or the A&F model in the bare.