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Once again, this book was not at all what I was expecting. I had expected this to be a rather unusual romance, the story of the enduring love between Sean and Sheila Cloney under the greatest adversity. Don't get me wrong, that story is still in this book, but it is only one of many smaller stories in the background. I had expected Sean and Sheila to take centre stage throughout this book, especially since the author has known them from boyhood, but instead this book reaches much deeper into the roots of the problems in Fethard, the history of boycotts, the motivation of the participants, and the affects, not just on this small Irish town, but on the nation as a whole as well as events in the North.
This book is an accounting of a well known historical incident. As such, most readers, at least in this country will already know the outcome. Even so, I would usually avoid mentioning how a story ends, but this book begins with the author's childhood visits to the home of Sean and Sheila Cloney many years after the event, so we know that eventually the couple will be reunited. It is just a matter of when, and on what terms.
For those unfamiliar with the story - Sean Cloney, a very wealthy Catholic landowner, married Sheila Kelly, the Protestant daughter of a local farmer who was working as a domestic servant prior to meeting Sean. They chose a quiet civil ceremony in England and agreed that any children would be raised in both faiths. They even resorted to renting a post office box in Dublin while residing in England in secret in the early days of their marriage, but some how the local priest was able to hunt them down on the mainland and demanded that they be remarried in The Catholic Church. He was able to prevail on them to accede to his demands and Sheila was forced to sign the Ne Temere Decree, which was required for a mixed marriage and demanded that the non Catholic give up all rights to raising their children in their own beliefs. The signing of the Ne Temere decree was held as legally binding in the Irish courts at this time ( although in the other case it may have been used an excuse to protect the best interests of the children as this was before children had rights).
Despite both Sheila and Sean being very devout in their own beliefs, there seems to have been little issue of religion between them. Both were from families that were well known as tolerant, open minded and getting along with everyone. The children were taken away and baptised in the Catholic faith immediately after birth by the midwives against the wishes of their mother, who had planned to have them baptized in both religions, but this was only possible if they were babtised in the Church of Ireland first, as the CoI recognised baptisms by the Catholic Church as valid and would not rebaptise, but the Catholic church did not recognise any other baptism as valid. This might have raised some issues in a mixed marriage, but apparently Sheila did not make an issue of it.
The issues really arose when it became time for their oldest child to be enrolled in school. Sheila wanted the child to be enrolled in the small CoI school. Sean in the Catholic school. Both schools were struggling and the enrollment of an additional child could make the difference in whether a Catholic teacher was laid off - or the Protestant school lost it's transportation services so the child became a scrap of meat to be fought to be over. The priests began showing up frequently demanding that the child be enrolled - as well as that her music lessons with a Protestant teacher be cancelled. In addition, there appears to have been a major issue with not allowing Catholic lands to fall into Protestant hands ( to be fair this had happened in reverse in previous centuries). If the children were not raised good Catholics - how the church collect it's share of the revenues of the farm? Apparently they threatened Sheila with the Ne Temere decree - and she fled North, into the arms of Ian Paisly's Free Presbyterian Church who offered her and her children sanctuary.
The Catholic Church was furious and decided if they couldn't get their hands on Sheila to inflict punishment - her friends and family would suffer in her absence. The priests ordered all parishioners to boycott Protestant owned shops, farms, and people. It even went as far as trying to force Protestants off their farms with armed attacks, in which Sheila's sister in law lost her unborn child. They were no longer to buy from a Protestant or even pass a friendly word with them. A shadowy group called the Vigilence league was brought into enforce this degree. This group had previously been responsible for patrolling the area to prevent courting couples from behaving improperly, and enforced payment of tithes. None this slip in a basket at church type of thing. Heavy muscle would appear at your door with demands for what was due.
Support for the beleaguered protestants came from the most unlikely of sources. The only Catholics not afraid of the vigilance committees seemed to be the IRA, who were firmly against the boycott. Once relief funds began to pour in to allow Protestants to keep their farms and businesses, the wife of the first IRA hunger striker Terrence Mac Swiney was among those sending support. I have to admit, this revelation left me stunned. My opinion of said group is not particularly high. This has forced me to take a new look at at least some of its members.
Although there will always be some evil people willing to jump in on any chance to harm a member of another group, it does not seem that this whole community did so willingly, but rather out of coercion. This was a frightening time to live in the Republic. The priests held so much power in the area that when a well known pedophile priest called at local homes to demand their sons be handed over to spend a weekend with him -it was done without a whimper. Sean Cloney would later be among the few who tried to stop the abuse, but Father Fortunes reign of terror would continue until 1995, despite the church hierarchy being well aware of the allegations against him. I can't even imagine living under such oppresion. To just allow some evil man to take my sons like that - I'm afraid I'd have considered murder a community service in this case.
The author describes various causes of hostility in the area dating back nearly 300 years. Among the most serious is the Scullabogue in which Protestant men were executed but more of them and all of the women and children including infants were burned alive. Other issues included the penal laws, the abuse of Catholic tenants by absentee landlords and their agents, and the deep resentment that one Protestant landlord had offered reduced rents to newly arrived German refugees - who happened to be Protestant and were the subject of extreme hatred, both because of their religion, and their status as foreigners. The fact that Sheila is descended from one of these hated German refugees who had the affront to become successful as a tenant farmer as well would seem irrelevant anywhere else - but the Irish have long memories. In addition to this there is an explanation of the original Boycott introduced against an especially hated landlord, Charles C. Boycott, and the use of this tactic by the land league as means of reducing the wave of tenant evictions as poor farmers struggled to pay the rents. The boycott was originally developed as a non-violent means of resistance to oppression. It expanded from boycott of wealthy landlords to any who would later lease land from which the original tenants had been evicted and amounted to complete social and economic ostracisation.
The main focus of the book though is the climate of fear, in which not only Sean Cloney and his family lived, but all of those who lived under the control of local church. This book could easily have turned into a monologue against the Catholic church - but the author goes to great pains to be fair. He points out repeatedly the number of decent Catholics, even hard line Republicans who were willing to help and he doesn't seem the least bit sympathetic to Northern Unionists. One could take his praise of the IRA here as support for their actions, and in all honesty I would be quick to take offense at this. But I don't think this is the case. I think he is just trying very hard to show that not all Catholics supported this action, and perhaps many who took part in the boycott did so out of fear. He also pointed out very strongly the damage this event did to the cause of reunification, very rightly pointing out that this event would only increase Protestant fears of a United Ireland. That it most certainly has done. This event still holds a strong sense of fear for any Protestant contemplating what life would be like in a United Ireland..
The author does not restrict blame to the Catholic Church only though. In fact both churches shoulder some of the blame, and the overwhelming response of both was that the couple deserved this suffering for the sin of entering into a mixed marriage. One will not come away with feelings of respect for either church here.
The author is himself a Catholic, and may very well have some Republican leanings, so he can not be accused of bigotry in this. He has simply felt compelled to bring one of the most shameful chapters in the history of the modern republic to light. He felt that the history of the events should be recorded, but I strongly believe his intent was that history be used in this case as something to learn from. Not just another of many events to beat each other over the head with.
This book was not at all what I wanted to read, it is not a story of the Cloney family themselves, but it a book which I will never forget. I thought I knew the story of Fethard before, but I was wrong. I have learned a great deal of history from this book - but I think it offers more than that as well. I have learned not just about what Protestants suffered in this era, but I have learned something of what Irish Catholics suffered before partition as well. Underneath all of the politics, all of the arguing and all of the religious issues, there is also something here about the power of one good man. In my opinion Sean Cloney was just that, a good man with an incredible amount of courage whose legacy is that of understanding. Sheila Cloney was also a remarkable woman who serves as inspiration for oppressed women everywhere. She had the courage to stand up to a monolithic institution, and by her sacrifice - and sadly she paid quite a lot for this , she opened up the flood gates of questioning the role of the church in the lives of private citizens. She took incredible risks but refused to bow down and keep her head down and drew worldwide attention to the plight of many.
Finally, the love this couple held for each other - through all the hardnesss and adversity really impressed me. Romance to me isn't flowers and chocolates - it's standing by each other through the worst life can throw at you. This couple honestly went through hell and back - and came out on the other side still in love.
I think by this point - it fairly obvious I will be giving this book 5 stars. I will not close however without commenting on the books biggest flaw. Quite frankly, proof reading for this book was severely lacking. I know full well that I am the pot calling the kettle black here, my own typing is rubbish and I make the exact mistake of reversing two characters as I type - so the become teh etc.... But a publisher should catch this, and there are a few typos in this book, the ones I noticed involved the use of ['s in the wrong place such as this " T[homas". There was also a problem in that the text was significantly lighter on one page, especially as one got nearer the bottom of the page. I can only guess that the printer was running out of ink. I do think this is a minor issue however, and even if I were to deduct a full star for it that would still leave this book with 9 out 5 stars. I am also very dissapointed not to learn anymore about Sheila, and apparently she kept to herself after these events, never discussing what happened so we will never know her feelings, but this is quite understandable as well.
If you are at all interested in Irish history, or simply interested in very ordinary people with the courage to stand up for what is right against all odds, then you simply must read this.