John Boyne is back with the priest’s story

by John Boland

The Carmelite priests who run Terenure College may well feel aggrieved at the depiction of their illustrious school by John Boyne, author of global bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and also one of their former pupils.

Writing recently in an Irish newspaper about trying to get singer Sinead O’Connor’s attention at last year’s Irish Book Awards, Boyne fantasised rugby-tackling her to the ground and added: “I didn’t go to Terenure College just for the beatings”.

And near the outset of A History of Loneliness, his first novel to be set in Ireland, the picture is no rosier – we’re told that the school was “one of those elite establishments” populated by sons of “property developers, bankers, businessmen who thought their good times would never come to a halt” and that these boys “could be hateful and wicked in their attitude towards those who had not been born into similar privilege.”

We’re also told that a former accountancy teacher at the school, named as Father Miles Donlan, took over the training of the rugby team, which turned out to be “a terrible mistake and one for which the college, and a handful of innocent boys, continues to pay”. Yet while the reader can only assume that this Fr Donlan is an invention (googling his name doesn’t reveal any such person), it’s puzzling that this character should be placed in a school that does exist.

The person relating all this to us is Fr Odran Yates, who tells us that for almost 30 years he taught at Terenure College and looked after its library – a cushy sinecure from which he has lately been removed by a cynical and autocratic archbishop who, for his own duplicitous ends, relocates him to a north Dublin parish, though not before reminiscing about his own school days at Terenure: “When I think of some of the beatings I took in that school, it’s a wonder I ever got out of the place alive.” (It’s hard not to feel that the author has some issues about Terenure).

Unaware of why he’s being shunted off to this northside backwater, Odran looks back on a religious life that, for most of its length, has left him oblivious to the sexual perversion of some of his diocesan colleagues and to the cover-ups routinely engineered by his clerical bosses, up to and including his Vatican masters.

In fact, he’s an exasperatingly naïve narrator, constantly three steps behind the reader in his realisation of awful truths. “Was I stupid or what?” he asks of a 2011 incident in Brown Thomas, where he leads a lost child by the hand out of the store and then buys him an ice cream before all hell breaks loose and he’s apprehended by gardaí. The reader may well conclude that this calamitous course of action makes him not so much stupid as incredible.

The reader is also three steps ahead of him when it comes to his lifelong friend and fellow Clonliffe novice Cardle, who has been moved from parish to parish 11 times without Odran ever wondering why. And when Cardle opts to stay the night in the home of Odran’s young nephew, the reader predicts the inevitable outcome long before he does.

Other-worldly to a fault, he doesn’t know the name for a cappuccino (“one of those coffees with the frothy white head”), even though he spent a year in the Vatican as a novice, but it’s not as if his other-worldliness stems from any noticeable idealism – he disgraced himself in Rome by breaking into the apartment of a waitress on whom he was fixated and in his later life he offers no evidence of any real spiritual or pastoral concerns or even acts of kindness or empathy.

In fact, he registers mainly as a conduit for the author’s outrage at the venalities of a corrupt and depraved church. “That man hates women,” Odran’s sister remarks after an audience with Pope John Paul II and late in the narrative the narrator repeats her words as having “a ring of truth about them”.

Boyne clearly feels the same about John Paul II, which is fine, though this sense of authorial coerciveness pushes the book into the realm of tract rather than fiction. And when Odran sits in Cardle’s dingy flat after the latter is released from prison, Cardle’s withering attack on Odran’s lifelong denial of realities seems less directed at his former friend than at any reader who mightn’t have got the message about the evils of silence and avoidance.

Given the author’s narrative flair, the novel is never less than engrossing, though its central figure remains too implausibly obtuse, or perhaps simply too gormless, both for his own and for the reader’s good – parish priest William King’s first novel, The Strangled Impulse, written in 1997 and now reprinted by Lilliput, is a more subtle account of a cleric in crisis.

And for a Dubliner, Boyne has a couple of odd local lapses: twice locating O’Connell Street’s famous Metropole cinema behind Tara Street station and having the narrator’s drunken actor father being “given short shrift” when he tried to make amends to Sean O’Casey at the playwright’s North Circular Road home – not surprising really as O’Casey had left it for an English address almost 40 years earlier.

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