by John Boland

Two weeks ago, on RTE1’s The Meaning of Life, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern paid homage to a deity who forgave and forgot earthly transgressions and who had no problem with such footling matters as extra-marital relationships. That wasn’t the God familiar to me from the same kind of upbringing and education that Bertie experienced, but it’s a handy one all the same for those who espouse a la carte Catholicism.

Gerry Adams’s deity is even handier. “The one thing I’ve always liked about Jesus,” he solemnly informed us towards the end of his contribution to The Bible: A History (Channel 4), “is his lack of condemnation, his lack of denunciation.”

Not that Gerry has anything to be denounced for. In fact, as he sees it, he’s been more sinned against than sinning. Take, for instance, his attitude to forgiveness, about which he was asked in the film. Actually, what he was really being asked was whether he thought he and his cronies in the Provisional IRA should be forgiven for their part in thirty years of bloodshed, but he chose not to see it that way. Instead, he magnanimously declared that, although “bad things have been done to me, I have forgiven those who did them.”

This tied neatly in with his declared intention in fronting this personal investigation into the life of the son of God, which was  “to explore the Jesus message of forgiveness” and how, after decades of mayhem and murder (my words, not his) in the North, “this has affected me and victims of the conflict.”

By now Gerry’s own message had become clear – if Jesus could see fit to forgive, then so could he, though he had to draw the line somewhere. “I don’t forgive the conditions that were created by those in powerful positions,” he declared, likening such oppressors to those who, in Jesus’s time, “made a conscious decision to construct a cross.” Again the message was clear – like Jesus, radical visionaries such as Gerry were also martyrs to a cause, even if the unbelievers hadn’t quite succeeded in crucifying them.

The parallels with Jesus persisted as the film unfolded, Gerry reminding us that he “helped bring peace”  to Northern Ireland before fondly reading Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount tribute to the “blessed” peacemakers. And there were other pertinent comparisons, too, as when, standing in Jerusalem, Gerry recalled that, two-thousand years ago, “the Jews were desperately looking for a leader to free them from Roman occupation” and then “into this tense and threatening situation came Jesus.” But perhaps Jesus, for all his goodness, was too passive a figure because, as Gerry noted, “it needs generals to make peace.”

So was there nothing to feel contrite or remorseful about? Not really. Although he’d been “leader of a struggle” that had caused “hurt and damage,” he had “done my best by my own lights.” And while sometimes his actions and those of his comrades were “in tune with the Jesus message, sometimes not,”
well, there are situations in which “you have to harden yourself,” given that “it isn’t a natural thing to go out and do harm to other human beings.” That must have been comforting to all the victims of sectarian violence.

At the close, the unseen interviewer asked him if he’d be more at peace if people forgave him, eliciting the answer “I’m perfectly at peace,” though he acknowledged that now and again he’d “made mistakes.” At which point the filmmakers missed a trick in not having Sinatra croon over the end titles: “Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.” Or, to put it another way, blessed are the self-righteous, though Jesus mightn’t agree.    

Meanwhile, in this week’s The Meaning of Life (RTE1),  Edna O’Brien had her own take on forgiveness. Asked by Gay Byrne what she would say to Jesus if she encountered him at the pearly gates, the 79-year-old writer offered “Bless me. Thirty years ago I might have said ‘Forgive me’ but not any longer.”

That’s what happens after a childhood spent in fearful thrall to a Catholic clergy whose “blatant hypocrisy” amounted to the edict “You do that but I can do what I like.” However, as she told her interviewer, she’d never felt “let down” by the Church, “but that’s because it never tried to build me up.” She still prays, though, even if to an entity “I’m not even sure exists.”

Occasionally you can be pleasantly surprised when trawling through channels in search of something – anything – to watch, and this week I found myself engrossingly ambushed by Brian Cox’s Jute Journey (BBC4). Up to then I hadn’t even been sure what jute was, but the actor’s account of how it had been a thriving industry in Dundee before moving to Calcutta in the 1930s made for a riveting sixty minutes.

Cox’s parents had laboured in the grinding, health-damaging  jute mills of the Scottish town and this led him to the Indian city, to which thousands of jute managers and executives had migrated in search of a better life – though not better for the native workers, who were paid abominably and treated contemptuously by their new masters.

Enough of these ex-pat wallahs were still around to tell their stories and the result was a film that vividly evoked a whole way of life I’d never known about.

ITV has been trumpeting its new drama series Married Single Other as “the new Cold Feet” – a boast that, given the quality of the first episode, seems likely to backfire. There had been something zeitgeisty about Cold Feet that made the antics of its sparring couples attractively feelgood. But that was then – pre-9/11, pre-recession – and this is now, when the same kind of carry-on among three new couples comes across as contrived and jaded.

It would help if any of the six characters had the remotest charm, but they don’t and so you couldn’t care a hoot about what happens to them, which makes the frequent lurches into sentimentality even harder to stomach.

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