and My God
J. P. Donleavy Talks to Frances Welch
From Opinions Electronic Telegraph, April 11, 1998
J.P. Donleavy disliked the effect upon Irish women of sexual liberation. Donleavy, whose play of his novel The Ginger Man was closed down in Dublin by the Roman Catholic Church in 1955, was once quoted as saying: "The only advice I could give women is to return to the Church."
"Did I say that?" he comments mildly when I put the quote to him at his Georgian home in Ireland. "I was probably saying that the Irish idea is to vulgarise things as a way of demonstrating their liberation from the shackles of the Church. The other night I was watching a programme on Irish television with a group of women discussing their sex lives. I can't say I'm not liberal, but I found it slightly objectionable. People forget there's such an element in life as good taste."
"Don't you think that books such as The Ginger Man were instrumental in bringing about that sexual liberation?"
"I know it was influential in one way. I remember a girl coming up to me in Dublin. She was a lesbian and she said The Ginger Man had helped her with her sexuality. Several people said it allowed them to see sex as natural. But as a farmer, I watch what goes on in the herd. It is a mirror of life itself. I know how cows behave. I know how the bull behaves. They do it very discreetly."
"So you support the Church?" I ask.
"The Church is the biggest cultural influence on this country and I'm certainly not against religious ceremonies. The act of going to church is important for the psyche."
Donleavy's voice is cracked and gentle, with vestiges of American, Irish and English accents; his phrasing is urbane. It is hard to equate the tone and sentiments of what he says with his image as a former enfant terrible of the literary world. His quiet good humour is unfailing, even in his description of the way he was hounded by the Church after the opening of The Ginger Man. "We had three performances of the play in Dublin and I was followed the whole time. The telephone lines were controlled. Even if I went on a bus, I'd know the bus driver was watching me."
In America, where Donleavy grew up, encyclicals were read out in Roman Catholic churches forbidding worshipers to read the book. I asked him what his mother, a devout Catholic, made of it all.
"She never said a thing - it was her way."
Donleavy grew up in New York, the son of Irish-born Roman Catholic parents. He believes his father to have been a spoiled priest. "As far as I know he was sent to study for the priesthood but left when a crisis occurred on the family farm. When the crisis was over he went to America instead of returning to the priesthood."
Donleavy was sent to a Jesuit school but was expelled after three years for trying to start up his own personal fraternity. He became an atheist aged 13 or 14. "My parents didn't approve, but they never insisted I change my attitude. The only breach with my mother occurred when I told her I was marrying outside the Church. She threatened to disinherit me. In fact, she did disinherit me - for 24 hours - then I was reinstated."
In 1946 Donleavy went to Trinity College, Dublin, one of a handful of Catholics at a Protestant university. I was instantly aware of a degree of secrecy in the way people approached you and introduced themselves if they'd learned you were Roman Catholic. I had a Roman Catholic girlfriend from a 'refeened' family. It was not long before a priest turned up at my rooms to try to break up the relationship. It had been reported that I was a non-believer. I had an Anglo-Irish friend who married an Irish Catholic girl. When he went to the dentist, the dentist would signal the local priest to visit the wife. It would be too strong to say the Church had set up a conspiracy. But it did operate like a giant octopus."
The octopus has loosened its grasp, but Donleavy finds that the consequences are not all to his liking. No such ambivalences colour his views on the existence of God.
"I did sit down a month ago and waste a few minutes wondering what it was all about. But there comes a point at which you can go no further. It's like the Jewish joke. Someone asks the rabbi: 'What hold the world up?' He says, 'An elephant.' The man says, 'What holds the elephant up?' The rabbi replies, "Another elephant.' The man says, 'What holds that elephant up?' The rabbi says, 'Don't ask me any more; it's elephants all the way down.' "
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