By Frank O’Shea
Casey, Casey you’re the divil
When you get behind the wheel
It was a bad day for the Kerry sheepdogs
When your Firestones they did feel (Christy Moore)
I was sad to hear of the death of bishop Eamonn Casey. And though I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, it was a form of cosmic kindness that in his final years, dementia wiped all memory of his former life from his consciousness.
As humans, we would like to think that all our life work and experiences will be taken into account when the final books are balanced. And on that count, Eamonn Casey would fare better than most of us. He was responsible for housing work among the Irish postwar emigrants in Slough and later in London. In Ireland, he was one of the founders and first President of Trocaire, the third-world charity which last year provided almost 60 million euro to small causes in Africa and South America.
After his affair with Annie Murphy was revealed, he spent some time in Mexico learning Spanish and then worked for six years among the poor in Ecuador before returning to parish work in England. He was 79 years old when he finally returned to Ireland where he was not allowed to say mass publicly.
We heard of the Casey story in this country only third-hand; it was before the internet, so we were depending on occasional papers sent from Ireland or on the only Irish newspaper in Australia The Irish Echo. Writing for that publication back then, I noted Irish opinions that Annie Murphy’s book Forbidden Fruit would “rock the Irish church … to its foundations.” Unable to resist the free kick, I said that this was “two clichés for the price of one and neither of them is true.”
No need to rub it in: I was wrong, I admit it.
At the time that the story broke, more than 80 per cent of Irish people declared themselves to be weekly churchgoers; that figure today is about 30 per cent and is much lower for people under 35. This is a huge change in Irish attitudes to religious practice. The Casey story cannot alone be blamed for this, but it is reasonable to assume that the idea of a bishop preaching one thing and enthusiastically practising something else had a huge impact. Obviously the subsequent revelations about sexual abuse of children was even more significant, though it is worth stating that Casey was one of the few church leaders who was not blamed for their handling of those problems.
There is an almost amusing irony about Casey’s troubles. Aged 45, he had a consensual affair with a woman of 25. I don’t fault him for that and, though they might declare otherwise, many Irish people back then would have given a silent cheer. Where I find amusement is in the fact that he would not use a condom, because his church forbade them, a position that he as bishop defended. So, a pregnancy eventually followed and his troubles multiplied. No sniggering please if I say that ‘hoist with his own petard’ never seemed more appropriate.
But I come again to my contention that this was no more than two human beings seeking consolation in each other and that each should be evaluated by what happened later. On that basis, neither escapes without criticism. Casey had to be compelled to take some financial responsibility for his son and it is regrettable that when he did so, he had to be dragged there. The Irish and Vatican hierarchy could not get rid of him quickly enough, and should thank the deity they serve that they were dealing with a man of honour.
Annie Murphy had a clear run from there on, because her former lover never made any public statements about the affair. I was not impressed by her story as told in Forbidden Fruit. Reviewing it back then I described it as tedious. ‘Her story,’ I wrote, ‘starts out as a soppy romance and ends up suspiciously close to blackmail; the background music is a continuous self-pitying whine.’
I will remember Eamonn Casey as the lad from mid-Kerry who found himself representing his uninterested fellow-bishops at the funeral of Archbishop Romero of Nicaragua. And when the death squads shot up that service, he was the only bishop to stay behind to administer the church rites to the dying. He told Ireland and the world about US involvement in that part of the world and when Ronald Reagan came to Galway subsequently, he pointedly absented himself from meeting him.
The Saw-Doctors did him a service in their song:
He helped the starvin’ millions and he got them food to eat
And the homeless Irish immigrants are livin’ on the street
And when it came to singin’ his repertoire was vast
He swore that he’d be celibate; he slipped and broke his fast
I add here the comments of a man who knew Casey in London: all the more eloquent for being immediate and unedited. The speaker is Muiris O Bric, now living in New Rochelle New York, whose story The Birthing was in our issue of Dec 2016.
I remember him in the 60’s in London. There was a tidal wave of young from Ireland 16 & up. Young fellas & girls. The Irish Government was delighted to be rid of us as the unemployment & dole numbers plummeted. But many who came to London were ill prepared for the venture. The newfound freedom proved their undoing – they couldn’t handle it & they were on the streets lost, hungry & drunk laying in their vomit & the average English passed & remarked ‘another Paddy, sleeping it off’, never noticing they were mere boys. I saw them. Some girls didn’t fare too well either. I was once involved in a Street Rescue mission with the Legion of Mary & I obtained some insight into the plight of some 16’s & up who arrived in the raw early morning in Euston Station, wide eyed & knowing nothing. Easy prey for pimps who offered them an immediate flat with a radio & inside toilet. Of course the quid pro quo was totally unknown to them. Catholic Ireland had banned The News Of The World so these young girls hadn’t a clue. Believe me, I talked to a few. But that’s a story for another day. Fr. Casey fought hard for a place for them. A friendly place where they could walk in, in Camden Town & seek some nourishment of the body & soul. He stood before the local Borough Council who were reluctant as hell to grant permits for such a building. Afraid of an influx of rowdy Paddies usurping the quiet of the staid English neighborhood. He was not afraid. He said his piece with authority & they were no match for him in the end. And they granted the permit & the place was built & it helped hundreds. I admired him for that for there was no better man. I was bereft of the attributes of clairvoyance. Truthfully. I would have still admired him & I still do. The quality of mercy was not strained when it came to his group’s handling of his demise. None of them had been in London at the time. I suppose he did shirk his responsibility regarding Peter. Regarding her, I have my doubts. He sure paid dearly for whatever pleasure he was engaged in. A lot more than the f***ers who abused the helpless young boys & girls. Sin an Saol, I suppose. Beannacht Dé Lena Anam.