The American and the Bishop

Inch Beach, County Kerry

Advertisements

Photo of Inch Beach by Jerry Dohnal, licensed under Creative Commons

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough sold over 30 million copies and became a hugely successful mini-series. Part of its attraction was the scandalous relationship between the Irish priest Father Ralph de Bricassart and a younger Australian woman, Meggie Cleary. Their relationship was finally consummated on a tropical beach.

When Annie Murphy travelled from America to Ireland in 1973, she (like Meggie Cleary) was looking for a retreat from a broken marriage. She chose, not a tropical island, but the quiet green of County Kerry. A family friend was sent to meet her at the airport. Eamon Casey had first met Annie (as Father Ralph had first met Meggie) as a child. She was now 25. He was 45, the Bishop of Kerry.

When Eamon picked me up from the airport that day in 1973, a light went on, there was a spark, that was it.
– Annie Murphy in an interview with The Irish Independent, 2012

Anyone who met Bishop Casey remarked on his energy and charisma. He was a hard man to dislike, even for those who disagreed with him. He was seen as progressive, working for Irish immigrants in Britain, supporting those who protested against the apartheid regime in South Africa, opposing U.S. foreign policy in Central America. He loved to drive fast, to put his foot to the pedal, to push limits.

Casey, Casey, you’re the divil
When you get behind the wheel
– Casey, song by Christy Moore

Red Cliff House was an 18th century hunting lodge which had become a summer residence for members of the Catholic hierarchy. Nearby was the long sandy stretch of Inch Beach, where Ryan’s Daughter had been filmed four years earlier. For Eamon and Annie, Red Cliff House became a hideaway from the world and Inch Beach a place for romantic walks.

Like Rosy and Doryan from Ryan’s Daughter, like Meggie and Father Ralph from The Thorn Birds, Annie and Bishop Eamon became lovers. And like Meggie, Annie became pregnant.

Wear a condom, just in Casey
– T-shirt slogan

The romance ended with her announcement of the pregnancy. Casey insisted that Murphy was in no position to care for a child. Not long after she gave birth, he presented her with adoption papers for their son. She refused to sign and instead returned to America to raise Peter with the help of her parents. Casey sent regular payments for his upkeep, some of it from church funds.

The world didn’t find out until 1992, when Murphy’s partner took the story to The Irish Times. The scandal echoed around the world. Casey resigned as bishop and went to Ecuador as a missionary. Murphy was suddenly in the limelight, roasted on air by talk-show hosts. Later commentators would see it as one of the turning points where the Catholic Church began to lose its grip on the nation’s identity.

Gay Byrne: If your son is half as good a man as his father, he won’t be doing too badly.
Annie Murphy: I’m not so bad either, Mr Byrne.
– The Late Late Show, 1993

The Bishop Casey affair has long since been overshadowed by more disturbing priestly scandals. Few are still shocked by the tale of a bishop who had a consensual affair with a grown woman. Today, he is in a nursing home in County Clare, suffering ill health and dementia. Annie Murphy lives in California, far from Inch Beach.

Update: Eamon Casey died at Carrigoran nursing home on 13th March 2017 at the age of 89. His son Peter joined other relatives in paying tribute to his father.

Links

A Long Time Ago in a Monastery Far, Far Away

Skellig Michael, County Kerry

Photo of Skellig Michael by styrovor, licensed under Creative Commons

Contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

***

The spaceship landed on the planet and the girl stepped out onto the surface. She looked up at the jagged rock and the alien creatures swirling around. To this place at the edge of the known universe, she had come to learn the ways of the Force.

Her sandals climbed the stone steps that wound upwards. The way was unforgiving as it grew steeper; one slip and she could fall to her death. She touched the mossy rocks to steady herself. At the top, the Jedi Master pulled back his hood as he turned to greet her.

***

As they watched the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, viewers had many questions. What is Luke Skywalker’s relationship to Rey? Why is he hiding in such an out-of-the-way place? And what is that place anyway? A CGI backdrop, surely.

In fact, that rocky island exists about 12km off the shore of Ireland. Those stone steps and beehive huts were not built by 21st century set designers, but by medieval monks over a thousand years ago.

The era between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D. is considered the “Dark Ages” in most of Europe. In Ireland it was a golden age of “saints and scholars”, when monks formed thriving communities such as Glendalough, and preserved their learning in beautiful manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.

Some monks eschewed the relatively cozy world of the regular monastery to live in more out of the way places, all the better to commune with God. They were following the example of the “desert fathers”, early Christian hermits who retreated to the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa. Ireland did not have deserts, but it did have islands that were just as remote and forbidding, although a good deal wetter.

The monastery at Skellig Michael was founded some time in the 6th to 8th centuries, reportedly by Saint Fionán. Even by the standards of the day, it was a harsh life. Food came from their own vegetable gardens, or from the surrounding sea, or from the cliff faces which the most agile would climb down to retrieve wild eggs. No more than 12 monks lived here at any one time.

***

The boat anchored at shore and the boy stepped out onto the island. He looked up at the jagged rock and the seabirds swirling around. To this place at the edge of the known world, he had come to learn the ways of God.

His sandals climbed the stone steps that wound upwards. The way was unforgiving as it grew steeper; one slip and he could fall to his death. He touched the mossy rocks to steady himself. At the top, the abbot pulled back his hood as he turned to greet him.

***

Vikings attacked the settlement in 823, but it was a change in the weather that finally did for the community. In the 12th century, the climate became colder and the ocean more prone to storms, and the monks retreated to Ballinskelligs on the mainland.

Skellig Michael remained a place apart, occasionally visited by pilgrims and, from the 19th century on, by tourists.

I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world.
– George Bernard Shaw, from a 1910 letter following a visit to the Skelligs

The monastery was made a World Heritage Site in 1996. Then in 2015, it hit the world stage as millions viewed Episode 7 of the Star Wars saga.

The decision to film on Skellig Michael was not without controversy. Some believed that the priceless monuments would be damaged by filmmakers, or by the tourists that such a high-profile film was likely to bring. Pressure might be placed to expand the season when boats travel to the island, or to increase the numbers allowed there. This would be a bad idea for many reasons, not least of which is safety. Tourists have died from falling on Skellig Michael.

It was decided not to film Episode 8 on the island but instead to build a replica in Pinewood Studios. However, in 2016 the crew came back to Ireland to film in Kerry and Donegal. It seems the Western Irish seaboard will once again be playing a starring role on the big screen.

Links