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Published by the Irish Times, Saturday 23rd December, 2017.


In Underground Cathedrals (2010), the Glenstal monk and author Mark Patrick Hederman described artists as the “secret agents” of the Holy Spirit: “Art has the imagination to sketch out the possible. When this happens something entirely new comes into the world. Often it is not recognised for what it is and is rejected or vilified by those who are comfortable with what is already there and afraid of whatever might unsettle the status quo”. Reflecting on this position, one wonders to what extent Irish novelists have fulfilled the important role outlined by Hederman. In the past, they definitely did offer an alternative view of existence by challenging aspects of church and state dominance, and suffering severe consequences as a result. In 1965, for example, John McGahern’s second novel The Dark unveiled a hidden Ireland where guilt, domestic violence, hypocrisy and sexual abuse seemed to thrive in a supposedly “Catholic” country. The novel attracted the attention of the Censorship Board, was banned and its writer lost his job as a primary school teacher in Clontarf. McGahern displayed no real bitterness as a result of this unfortunate interlude, realising that he lived in a “theocracy in all but name” and describing the Ireland of his youth and early adulthood in the following terms: