On a bleak weekday morning a few months ago, novelist Tom Phelan painted an almost idyllic picture of his childhood growing up in County Laois in the 1940s and 1950s.
He told the meeting organized by the Shelter Rock Public Library on Long Island that he viewed his parents and the community’s adults as “giants” – as much for the wisdom they possessed as for their superior size.
This was still the era in rural Ireland before the widespread use of motorcars and electricity. Little, he said, had changed since Peter Bruegel’s “The Harvesters,” the 1565 field scene on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In any case, Phelan argued, agriculture has always mechanized at a much slower pace than industry.
Threshing Day, though, did involve a borrowed machine, and that was one reason why it was as important as Christmas in the child’s calendar.
Phelan entertained the audience with extracts from “Derrycloney,” his “fanfare for the common man and woman” of his childhood. There was a certain emphasis on the comedy and warmth of rural life that morning, but his novels, which are set and in most cases published first in Ireland, forcefully suggest that that wasn’t the whole story; his latest, “Nailer,” for example, has the clerical abuse scandals as a central theme.
There was a dark side, and that was made possible by the fact that the bright side was far from ideal. “We were happy and content in our ignorance,” Phelan said in an interview last week with the Echo. “It was certainly very secure. I’m not sure if that was good or bad. We knew how to behave and we expected behavior from our parents in return. We knew our place. Everybody knew their place.
“Everybody looked out for us as children,” he recalled. “Nobody was looking to give you a swift kick for no reason.”
Nonetheless, every child was also fully aware of the fearsome reputation of St Conleth’s, the industrial school in neighboring County Offaly run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
In “Nailer,” a whodunit set in Laois and Offaly in 2007, the former industrial school is known as Dachadoo, run by the Order of Saint Kieran, two of whose members are found murdered within a couple of weeks of each other. Their bodies are nailed to the floor. Two Garda detectives, Tom Breen and Jimmy Gorman, are assigned to track down the serial killer the tabloid press has nicknamed Nailer.
It’s not all unrelieved gloom: the cops are conduits for some humor and another character is a sympathetic brother of the Order of St. Kieran. Yet, even if he’d stayed on the dark side throughout, Phelan could hardly have been accused of exaggeration. The real-life St. Conleth’s was closed down in 1970 after the publication of a damning government report.
The future novelist was then a disillusioned 30-year-old priest working in England. He came to America in 1972, and was assigned to successive parishes in Long Island, the second of them in Freeport, where he still lives. He left the priesthood in 1975. He later married, became a father to two sons, divorced and remarried.
The influences that pushed him in the direction of a religious life were many, but the contrast between the church and the world of hard labor, big animals and dampness was certainly one. Stepping into it was like attending a “glittering ball,” he remembered.
“Everything about the building was seductive, as it was supposed to be; it was clean, bright, warm, the pews were smooth and polished, the floor was terrazzo, the windows were bright with stained glass,” he said, “the sanctuary lamp glittered, the vestments were full of color, the priest was self-assured and clean-shaven, the altar boys were the privileged ones. The seduction was powerful.”
Religious leaders, however, weren’t always stellar role models. He recalled the local stories of a fistfight between two priests and, earlier during the Emergency, the parish priest who every Sunday “gave the Hitler side of the war” from the pulpit. “It’s only looking back that I realize how oppressed we were,” Phelan said.
Yet his devout father, despite having two sons and a daughter in religious life, possessed a strong anti-clerical streak. The novelist remembered his rage at a priest who turned up at a funeral with his golf clubs clearly visible in the back of the car.
“A lot of priests were not as educated or as intelligent as we allowed them to be in our minds,” Phelan said, adding that that was something he learned later on from direct experience. Many of his own classmates from the seminary, he believes, never read a book after ordination.
The decline of the church’s authority hasn’t surprised him much. He has been shocked, though, by the Vatican’s incompetence.
“They’ve been shown to be completely out of touch with reality — with their offices and lawyers and commission to take care of this and the commission to take care of that,” he said.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny might agree. He said in his Dáil speech on July 20 that the Cloyne report “excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”
Phelan uses a simpler word when discussing Rome’s officials: “Dumb.”
“Nailer” is published by Glanvil Enterprises. For more information go to www.tomphelan.net.