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A History of Loneliness
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Emma Flanagan (emma89) This is the spoiler thread for A History of Loneliness

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Great idea to set this up early. Allan just finished it and I read it recently. There's lots we can discuss in this thread.

Susan | 4707 comments Book discussions are really slow this month. I loved this book and would love to talk about it with anyone.

Sara | 2357 comments Mod
Well luckily with this one we have all the way until July to talk about it! I just saw that my copy came in at the library, and I hope to pick it up this weekend to start after I finish the monthly read.

Susan | 4707 comments I guess I am waiting for Allan to join it. I would like to know if there was the same situation in NI. It is interesting that it was centered in Ireland. Many of the priests involved in the U.S. were from Ireland. It doesn't make sense to me that it is a cultural thing.

Emma Flanagan (emma89) Susan I suspect sheer numbers may explain the predominance of Irish priests involvement combined with cultural factors. Ireland was and to a certain extent still is predominantly catholic. At the time almost every family would have had at least one family member in a religious order. This would have meant compared to other countries a disproportionate percentage of the population was in the religious life. We also exported huge numbers of priests etc to foreign postings. The Catholic Church also held an unusual position in being responsible for pretty much all the schools in Ireland and the orphanages. There are I suspect few countries which had such a unique set of circumstances which allowed some terrible people access to vulnerable children and the protection to commit terrible crimes.

Susan | 4707 comments Very good points, Emma. It makes sense to me. Thanks for the clarification.

Allan Susan, apologies for my late entry into this thread. I suppose I was waiting for others to post their thoughts as well.

I thought that this was a very powerful novel, almost 'state of the nation' in its portrayal of attitudes both within and outside the Catholic Church over the last generation. In my eyes it was a very angry book, but at the same time a very measured one on Boyne's part, and novel in the sense of it telling things from the point of view of a priest, which of course allowed for the arrogance of the hierarchy to be exposed.

What has stayed with me most was the portrayal of the way Ordran himself found himself treated while out going about his business wearing his clerical collar, from his train journey in the eighties where the other passengers were basically fighting over themselves to help and indulge him, to the incident with the child who was lost on Grafton Street, and the resulting way he was treated by the public and even by the Garda. I was wondering if this latter example was completely exaggerated, or has society's view of the priest gone this far in ROI? The way he had to have another adult present at all times when dealing with the choir boys etc was also something that jumped out at me-almost guilt because of your profession.

To answer your question, Susan, because of NI's divided religious makeup, there wouldn't be the same percentage of society as a whole involved in religious life, although I'm sure that in the Catholic community there maybe was-I know that my other half was educated by priests / Christian Brothers etc, and that his folks have neighbours who have family in the priesthood. 

I thought that it was telling though, that at the last mass I attended in March, a funeral, it was a Polish priest that took the service. I know that Maynooth is now the only seminary in Ireland, and that their intake last year was very small-the reason I am aware of this is because they actually broadcast a documentary up here about a teenager from Enniskillen in NI who was joining the college after school, because it was such an unusual thing to happen these days-so different from the intakes in Ordran's time in the book. It seems that, in order to fill posts, the church is now having to appoint priests from abroad, such has been the impact of the issue on this island.

It was actually a case involving a priest born in Belfast that really brought the issue of clerical abuse in Ireland to the fore in the early 1990s. Brendan Smyth was wanted for extradition by the RUC at the time to answer allegations of abuse in Belfast, but was shielded by the church and the government in the south, an action which, when exposed, actually brought the government at the time down.

I know that there is an inquiry going on at present up here looking into the whole issue of institutional abuse, some of which has dealt with clerical sexual abuse, as well as neglect etc in church run care homes, but interestingly,  the highest profile case from the last 40 years actually involves the highest reaches of the British establishment, with Unionist and Loyalist figures allegedly involved in either participating in the abuse of boys from Kincora home, or ensuring that the acts were covered up. This is still very much a live issue, with some very senior politicians and Protestant religious figures allegedly having super injunctions out to stop the media reporting on their involvement in the case. I'm sure that truth will eventually prevail, although with the added complication of the political situation here, it may take a while. One can only hope that when the truth does come out, the effect will be the same up here as it was in the south, in that the stranglehold on power held by the religious fundamentalists will be broken, once the hypocrisy of their message is exposed.

It should also be noted that Ireland isn't alone in its suffering from these cases. At present in the UK, a very high profile investigation into the abuse perpetrated by celebrities, Operation Yewtree, was launched a few years ago, after it came to light that Jimmy Saville, a high profile tv personality from the 1970s and 1980s, had managed to get away with abusing hundreds of children, despite many complaints being made to the authorities, who turned a blind eye.

Anyway, I'm sure I have a lot more to say about the book, but I'll wait for others to post to jog my memory and the discussion.

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Really great comments and insights Allan. I saw Boyne present this book at Politics and Prose. As is common (sadly) for many Irish authors such as Boyne and Sebastian Barry who appear at Politics and Prose, the audiences are inexplicably small. Washington is a literary city but quite a few Irish authors don't even attract the big groups of Irish Americans who tend to go see any old Irish writer so they can personally get up and make frivolous comments about how much they love Ireland. Sorry, getting off the point.

Boyne is his interviews as well as this reading is very careful not to give those who haven't read the book too many details. He carefully lays out the premise and how he came to decide that writing about a priest who was not involved in the abuse. But as you read the novel, you begin to consider that there are many layers of responsibility. Odran is, ultimately, guilty on many levels. He did know that his friend was very unhappy being the priest, and also focused on sex in ways that don't bode well for a priest to be. He also ignored many signs of problems along the way including the intereraction with the mother and her son, who it turns out was being abused by Odran's friend.

Boston and other heavily Catholic cities in the US northeast were heavily impacted by the abuse by priests. Numerous victims, trials, law suits, and bankrupt parishes. Bernard Cardinal Law was the head of the archdiocese from 1984-2002. He resigned in 2002 because of the sexual abuse scandal. He was accused of moving many of the problematic priests around. I always found him to be a very cold man and never really cared for him. On the other hand, the current cardinal of the Washington DC archdiocese, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, comes across as a caring man.

I do recall a time even in the US that priests were afforded respect even by the general public. Ireland though was an extreme in that respect. Now, of course, those occasions when I do go to mass, priests are treated with great respect by parishioners. The church I go to has a majority immigrant congregation and I am not sure if that makes a difference - Central and Latin Americans, Haitians, Africans, and Asians (from India and the Phillipines). This church has a number of American born priests, but another church I used to attend (maybe the one Sara and her parents attend, St. Michaels) had foreign-born, often African, priests.

At the Boyne reading, the store employee moderating did a terrible job. She rushed everything, cut off questions and the whole reading, questions and signing was over in 40 minutes! She cut me off but let some man get up and ramble on and on. I tend to get annoyed when I feel women are giving other women short shrift but not men.

I believe that Boyne's approach to this topic was brilliant. He was able to mine some of the subtleties of the impact of being a passive bystander and lead readers to consider how this behavior allowed abuse to continue. Some readers may wonder how Odran could be so blind to his friend's true nature. I truly understand how it is possible to grow up in a strict Catholic environment, and be so naive about so much of the world. I was fortunate (and ironically could say "blessed") to be spared 12-16 years of Catholic education which is what my father wanted for me. I spent 6 years in Catholic schools, 3 in DOD (Dept of Defense, schools overseas for children of military) and 4 years in public schools (high school). I understand at some level how protected children who go to any kind of parochial (Catholic, Muslim, Christian, Jewish) schools can be. That is why Odran's naivite was believable to me, particularly considering the era in which he grew up.

Susan | 4707 comments I thank both Allan and Barbara for their insightful comments on this book. For some reason the book has really gotten under my skin and impacted me in so ways. But much of it was foreign to me so it was like a whole new world.

I have only been to public school so the parochial system is beyond my experience. So I found Odran's naivety was so hard to understand. When I was growing up we knew where the pedophile lived and what houses and people to avoid. Of course I lived in a very small, isolated community of 4,000 so we knew what was going on.

I also wonder if growing up in Calif. made a difference rather than Barbara's East Coast roots. I think we are just looser or something and didn't have a large group, if any, emigrants from Ireland. I seemed to miss that influence.

Still, as I have said, this book really crawled under my skin. I worked at the community book fair today and there was a whole table of James Patterson (gag me with a stick) and another of Nora Roberts and they were flying out the door. I kept recommending "A History of Loneliness" and they would stare at me blankly. Sigh.

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Susan wrote: "I thank both Allan and Barbara for their insightful comments on this book. For some reason the book has really gotten under my skin and impacted me in so ways. But much of it was foreign to me so i..."

Agree with you on Nora Roberts and James Patterson. On the other hand, anything that gets people to read anything is a positive for me...

Susan | 4707 comments As I am gnawing on my lip, I am saying the same thing.

Allan What did people think of the Italian section of the novel? Was this simply to have a way of showing Ordran's confused notion of sexuality as an adult? I wasn't sure about the background to this section either-I'm assuming it was based on fact when dealing with the church politics? I'm not sure how much this added to the novel as a whole...

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments To me it was meant to show that Odran was sexually attracted to women and perhaps being out of Ireland he felt more free to pursue this attraction in his naive way. He was ruined by this temptation, losing his position in Rome. It seems ironic that Odran following his heterosexual impulses got him in trouble, even though he didn't act on them. Yet the priests who sexually abused children were ignored because they were committing crimes as well as "sins".

Susan | 4707 comments I thought the Rome section was there to show even the Pope knew what was going on in Ireland and did nothing about it. There was even a hint that John Paul I was murdered for his determination to clean house and Odran was complicit in that also. He was away from his post. Boyne seems to dislike the "Polish Pope" who I know next to nothing about.

Barbara (bdegar) | 4626 comments Susan wrote: "I thought the Rome section was there to show even the Pope knew what was going on in Ireland and did nothing about it. There was even a hint that John Paul I was murdered for his determination to c..."

I'd forgotten those details, thanks Susan. It's amazing what sticks with you and what doesn't a month or so after reading a book.

Allan Susan, was it the sexual abuse that they were trying to cover up in the Rome 1978 section, or financial irregularities? It was interesting to read of Ordran's doubts over the death of his pope, and wonder again if this is based on fact? It's interesting to see 'the Polish pope' (John Paul II) get such a bad treatment from Boyne-I'd always assumed he was well respected. I suppose a lot of these cover ups were exposed under his watch.

I wonder how many of those that went into the priesthood were 'told' of their vocation by their parents, as was the case by Ordran and the abuser? It's frightening to think that one could be forced into such a life-I thought Boyne created at least a little bit of empathy / sympathy for the priests by making that point, though obviously not for the actions of some.

I don't think that anyone has mentioned Ordran's family relationships yet either. His story was tragic, given his father's actions then his sister's degeneration in middle age. It was interesting that it was only after the event with his father / brother that his mum became religious at all.

Susan | 4707 comments Well if anything would make you religious it would the circumstances of the loss of your husband and youngest child. I think you'd either be extremely pious or extremely bitter. When you have two surviving children you'd almost have to go the religious route.

I think it was financial irregularities but I also think it was the child molestation too. Maybe I just read that into it but I do think it was to illustrate that cover-ups went all the way to the top. I, too, was surprised at the venom expressed by Boyne for John Paul II. He even said he hated women who have certainly gotten short shift from the church.

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Emma Flanagan (emma89) So i finished this today. I'd agree with Allan. It is extremely angry book. It leaps off the page. I think I read somewhere that it is semi-autobiographical, but I'm not sure.

It is interesting the treatment John Paul I and II get. JPII was beloved, in Ireland certainly. The scene with his sister in Rome there is so accurate. Even today in Vatican its like Vatican II hasn't happened. Its scandalous for a woman not to have her shoulders or knees covered, and I know you'd have been terrified to step foot into a church without your mantilla.

There was a time when you were guartenteed to find 4 pictures in an Irish home:
The Virgin Mary,
The Sacred Heart,
Pope John Paul II

JPII is still pretty beloved but its now clear that he must have know. I don't know enough about JPI but I got the impression that had he survived things would have been different. Its clear he intended on tackling the corruption within the Vatican Bank and Ireland.

The way Odran is treated regarding children, is more extreme because of his occupation but the reality is if a middle aged man took a child from a shop (however innocent his intentions) there would be war. Equally child protection is pretty strict now. Everyone has to be garda vetted and do a course in child protection. My youngest sister worked in a summer camp last year. They weren't allowed bring children to the toilet in groups of less than 3 children for their own protection (both the children and the camp leaders). My sister was 19 and still in school at the time. If those are rules for those still practically kids themselves its hardly surprising that a priest would be required to abide by even stricter rules.

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Emma Flanagan (emma89) I do wonder how this is doing outside of Ireland. Its extremely Irish in a way I don't think any of the other books we've read have been.

Does anyone feel Boyne is questioning not just how we let the abuse in the Catholic Church occur but also many of the other terrible things in Ireland occur? Like the banking collapse? The focus is clearly on the Church but towards the end there seems to be a wider condemnation of society.

message 22: by Donna (last edited Jun 04, 2015 07:59AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Donna McCaul Thibodeau (celtic_donna) | 1143 comments Wow. What a book! I found it slow going in the beginning but couldn't put it down once I got about a third in. As has been noted by others, a very angry book indeed. At first I wasn't crazy about skipping around through the years but after a bit, I was able to keep everything straight.
When I was a girl, a priest tried to molest me. My mother complained to the parish and they moved him. It left a very bad taste in my mouth regarding the Catholic Church. Then my husband and I decided to marry in church. We had to fill out questionnaires galore as well as attend a couples workshop for eight weeks. The priest who married us was from Kilkenny. I really liked him. Six months later, I saw him on the news. He was secretly married with a daughter down in Sarasota. At least he was not a pedophile. That was the end of me and the church.

Sorry for getting off subject. I just found this whole book fascinating.

message 23: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 04, 2015 11:20AM) (new)

How awful for you, Donna. I really don't know what else to say except I understand how you feel about the church.

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Emma Flanagan (emma89) Priests having children was so scandalous at one point. There was even a bishop who'd had a child with his housekeeper. I think if something like that came out now no one would care provided it was consensual.

It's terrible that you had to go through that as a child Donna.

For those interested John Boyne did a very interesting podcast with the Irish Times. It's the last link in the list I posted above.

Susan | 4707 comments Donna, what a horrible experience to go through. I am sorry and can see why it left a bad taste in your mouth. I view a priest with a secret family or having an affair with the housekeeper very differently from preying on children. Still you have to wonder about an institution that forces people to live lies in their efforts to live like Christ.

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Emma Flanagan (emma89) There are some within the Church who suggest that if we allowed priests to marry in the same way as the clergy in most other religions can, there would be less abuse as they would have a normal outlet for their sexual frustrations. It generally based on the logic that no other religion appears to have such an issue with the sexual abuse of children by the clergy. It's not the most scientific thought process so I'm not sure I buy it, though I do think priests should be allowed marry. I remember watching a documentary on BBC not long ago and historically within the Church the clergy were allowed marry. The rule against marrying only came in in the Middle Ages.

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Paul The point they miss when suggesting that celibacy vows cause the problem is that statistically the percentage of priests who abuse is the same as non clergy. The real problem with the catholic thing is the cover up and fear allowing years of abuse and reoffending.
But they dedinitely should be allowed marry. The original ban had nothing to do with religion but was a financial concern about looking after priests family.
My Uncle (a priest) has campaigned for years to allow marriage as he feels it would leas to a healthier happier priesthood more in touch with their followers. Its gotten him in a major pile of trouble over the years.

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Serf Have heard a priest arguing for celibacy and he had some points. Mainly that if a man of god has a family then that family will always be his priority and he will not be as available to people of the parish and the church as a man who has no wife and family. It should be a choice left up to the priest I would say

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Emma Flanagan (emma89) Of all the characters in the book I think the one which annoys me the most is the archbishop. He is a deeply unlikeable character anyway but he is also the one who I feel just isn't executed that well. He's a bit too caricaturish. In the contrast the mother, who is also a total stereotype, is executed much better and feels more believable.

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Hi everyone I just finished the book and here my review

Still taking it all in

message 31: by Emma (new) - rated it 5 stars

Emma Flanagan (emma89) It's interesting that in your review Kazzy you say you found the families using their children into the priesthood irrespective of how suitable they were for the job hard to believe. It's hard to believe now but at the time it was completely understandable and not just for religious reasons. Ireland was extremely poor really until the 1990s. Emigration was high. In a society where only the eldest son would inherit the property particularly in the case of land what to with other children was an issue. Education cost money. Free university didn't come in till the early 90s and free secondary was only introduced in the 60s. The Church represented security and guaranteed employment, and the Church I think paid for their education. Odran and his contemporaries don't enter the seminary till they are 17 and finished school but I think historically they use to take them younger before free secondary came in. Combined with the social prestige of having a child in a religious order it's hardly surprising parents pushed their children towards it when the alternative was emigration.

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Thanks Emma, it makes more since I was chatting a old lady about the book and she told me the same today on saying that she took the book home with her lol

Allan I know that Emma shared the Irish Times articles ref the book in the thread above, but I'm posting or possibly reposting the link to the podcast that they did, which I listened to today, and which provides some interesting insights by Boyne on the novel.

After discussion above, it's interesting to hear him say that he thinks the Rome section is the weakest in the book. I was also really interested to hear that he doesn't have a plan while writing, which I found unusual, given how intricately detailed his work that I have read has been.

Cathleen | 2409 comments I'm still reading this novel, so I won't comment yet, but I was just wondering--how "realistic" is the portrayal that Odran would have been jostled at, jeered at when he's out and about in Dublin? (I'm in the Rome section of the book now.) Was the sentiment in the area so strong that those kinds of episodes ring true for those of you who live in that area?

The sex abuse scandal was huge in the Boston area and sentiment about it still runs high and deep.

Allan Cathleen, Boyne talks about that specific incident in the podcast-the idea was one of the first he had about the book. Apparently when researching the book, a priest told him that if a child came and knocked his door with his arm hanging off, given the climate, his first reaction would be to close the door.

Cathleen | 2409 comments Allan wrote: "Cathleen, Boyne talks about that specific incident in the podcast-the idea was one of the first he had about the book. Apparently when researching the book, a priest told him that if a child came a..."

That says a lot. Thanks, Allan. The scandal was bitter here, and I remember emotional and heated confontations but they were towards priests accused and the cardinal here, but not so much about priests in general. I'll finish the book in the next day or two, then will delve more into this thread.

Cathleen | 2409 comments So...I've finished the book, and it was a powerful novel, and angry indeed. There were a few sections in the novel that pushed my willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point, though. The section when Odran breaks into the woman's apartment and then returns to find out that JPI has died didn't quite work for me. It seemed too much of a coincidence/a mechanism for Boyne, but I think it would have worked equally well for him to have wandered around--and then returned to the Vatican discredited and "shamed." I agree with everyone who said that they think the Rome section was the weakest. It seems that that section was to show Odran's passivity--even in terms of his own desires--to do anything, reinforcing the idea that his passivity was a "sin" in and of itself. And that adds to his culpability.

Cathleen | 2409 comments Emma wrote: "Back in Nov the Irish Times did this for their bookclub. Below are the articles on it:"

Thank you, Emma, for posting all of these links. I've been reading through them, and it provides me with so much useful context for the novel. I was a bit surprised at how dismissive Martin Boland is toward Boyne's portrayal of Odran Yates as a priest. He wrote that Odran is not shown with an interior life or with any transcendent purpose. As I read the novel, I thought that Boyne intentionally raised the question of whether Odran had a fully realized conviction or calling to the priesthood. I think that doubt is suggested throughout the novel.

I borrowed the book from the library, and I thought I was being sensible doing that, but now I have to return the book to the library tomorrow. I may end up buying it anyway. There are so many passages I'd like to look at again and again--and little details here and there I'd like to go back and check.

Susan | 4707 comments I got the book from the library, Cathleen, too and now want my own copy. I have recommended it so many times.

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