George Moore, The Untilled Field (1903)

[Note: Text digitised by Charles Franks, Robert Rowe et al., at Gutenberg Project in 2011 - online; edited for RICORSO by BS - 20.10.2015; updated 24.03.2023.]

I. In the Clay VIII. The Wedding-gown
II. Some Parishioners IX. The Clerk’s Quest
III. The Exile X. ”Alms-giving”
IV. Home Sickness XI. So On He Fares
V. A Letter To Rome XII. The Wild Goose
VI. Julia Cahill’s Curse XIII. The Way Back
VII. A Playhouse in the Waste
[ Note that the above index is reproduced for each story in this edition - the story in hand being unlinked and printed in bold. Each preceeding and succeeding story can be reached through the index or the links at the bottom of the page. ]

Chapter V: A Letter to Rome

One morning the priest’s housekeeper mentioned as she gathered up the breakfast things, that Mike Mulhare had refused to let his daughter Catherine marry James Murdoch until he had earned the price of a pig.
 “This is bad news,” said the priest, and he laid down the newspaper.
 “And he waited for her all the summer! Wasn’t it in February last that he came out of the poor-house? And the fine cabin he has built for her! He’ll be that lonesome, he’ll be going to America.”
 “To America!” said the priest.
 “Maybe it will be going back to the poor-house he’ll be, for he’ll never earn the price of his passage at the relief works.”
 The priest looked at her for a moment as if he did not catch her meaning, and then a knock came at the door, and he said: —
 “The inspector is here, and there are people waiting for me.”
 And while he was distributing the clothes he had received from Manchester, he argued with the inspector as to the direction the new road should take; and when he came back from the relief works, there was his dinner. He was busy writing letters all the afternoon; it was not until he had handed them to the post-mistress that his mind was free to think of poor James Murdoch, who had built a cabin at the end of one of the famine roads in a hollow out of the way of the wind. From a long way off the priest could see him digging his patch of bog.
 And when he caught sight of the priest he stuck his spade in the ground and came to meet him. He wore a pair of torn corduroy trousers out of which two long naked feet appeared; and there was a shirt, but it was torn, the wind thrilled in a naked breast, and the priest thought his housekeeper was right, that James must go back to the poor-house. There was a wild look in his eyes, and he seemed to the priest like some lonely animal just come out of its burrow. His mud cabin was full of peat smoke, there were pools of green water about it, but it had been dry, he said, all the summer; and he had intended to make a drain.
 “It’s hard luck, your reverence, and after building this house for her. There’s a bit of smoke in the house now, but if I got Catherine I wouldn’t be long making a chimney. I told Mike he should give Catherine a pig for her fortune, but he said he would give her a calf when I bought the pig, and I said, ’Haven’t I built a fine house and wouldn’t it be a fine one to rear him in.’”
 And they walked through the bog, James talking to the priest all the way, for it was seldom he had anyone to talk to.
 “Now I must not take you any further from your digging.”
 “Sure there’s time enough,” said James, “amn’t I there all day.”
 “I’ll go and see Mike Mulhare myself,” said the priest.
 “Long life to your reverence.”
 “And I will try to get you the price of the pig.”
 “Ah,’tis your reverence that’s good to us.”
 The priest stood looking after him, wondering if he would give up life as a bad job and go back to the poor-house. But while thinking of James Murdoch, he was conscious of an idea; it was still dim and distant, but every moment it emerged, it was taking shape.
 Ireland was passing away. In five-and-twenty years, if some great change did not take place, Ireland would be a Protestant country. “There is no one in this parish except myself who has a decent house to live in,” he murmured; and then an idea broke suddenly in his mind. The Greek priests were married. They had been allowed to retain their wives in order to avoid a schism. Rome had always known how to adapt herself to circumstances, and there was no doubt that if Rome knew Ireland’s need of children Rome would consider the revocation of the decree — the clergy must marry.
 He walked very slowly, and looking through the peat stacks he saw St. Peter’s rising above a rim of pearl-coloured mountains, and before he was aware of it he had begun to consider how he might write a letter to Rome. Was it not a fact that celibacy had only been made obligatory in Ireland in the twelfth century?
 When he returned home, his housekeeper was anxious to hear about James Murdoch, but the priest sat possessed by the thought of Ireland becoming a Protestant country; and he had not moved out of his chair when the servant came in with his tea. He drank his tea mechanically, and walked up and down the room, and it was a long time before he took up his knitting. But that evening he could not knit, and he laid the stocking aside so that he might think.
 Of what good would his letter be? A letter from a poor parish priest asking that one of the most ancient decrees should be revoked! The Pope’s secretary would pitch his letter into the waste paper basket. The Pope would be only told of its contents! The cardinals are men whose thoughts move up and down certain narrow ways, clever men no doubt, but clever men are often the dupes of conventions. All men who live in the world accept the conventions as truths. And the idea of this change in ecclesiastical law had come to him because he lived in a waste bog.
 But was he going to write the letter? He could not answer the question! Yes, he knew that sooner or later he must write this letter. “Instinct,” he said, “is a surer guide than logic. My letter to Rome was a sudden revelation.” The idea had fallen as it were out of the air, and now as he sat knitting by his own fireside it seemed to come out of the corners of the room.
 “When you were at Rathowen,” his idea said, “you heard the clergy lament that the people were leaving the country. You heard the Bishop and many eloquent men speak on the subject, but their words meant little, but on the bog road the remedy was revealed to you.
 “The remedy lies with the priesthood. If each priest were to take a wife about four thousand children would be born within the year, forty thousand children would be added to the birth-rate in ten years. Ireland would be saved by her priesthood!”
 The truth of this estimate seemed beyond question, nevertheless, Father MacTurnan found it difficult to reconcile himself to the idea of a married clergy. One is always the dupe of prejudice. He knew that and went on thinking. The priests live in the best houses, eat the best food, wear the best clothes; they are indeed the flower of the nation, and would produce magnificent sons and daughters. And who could bring up their children according to the teaching of our holy church as well as priests?
 So did his idea speak to him, unfolding itself in rich variety every evening. Very soon he realised that other advantages would accrue, beyond the addition of forty thousand children to the birth-rate, and one advantage that seemed to him to exceed the original advantage would be the nationalisation of religion, the formation of an Irish Catholicism suited to the ideas and needs of the Irish people.
 In the beginning of the century the Irish lost their language, in the middle of the century the characteristic aspects of their religion. He remembered that it was Cardinal Cuilen who had denationalised religion in Ireland. But everyone recognised his mistake, and how could a church be nationalised better than by the rescission of the decree? Wives and the begetting of children would attach the priests to the soil of Ireland. It could not be said that anyone loved his country who did not contribute to its maintenance. He remembered that the priests leave Ireland on foreign missions, and he said: “Every Catholic who leaves Ireland helps to bring about the very thing that Ireland has been struggling against for centuries — Protestantism.”
 This idea talked to him, and, one evening, it said, “Religion, like everything else, must be national,” and it led him to contrast cosmopolitanism with parochialism. “Religion, like art, came out of parishes,” he said. Some great force was behind him. He must write! He must write… .
 He dropped the ink over the table and over the paper, he jotted down his ideas in the first words that came to him until midnight; he could see his letter in all its different parts, and when he slept it floated through his sleep.
 “I must have a clear copy of it before I begin the Latin translation.”
 He had written the English text thinking of the Latin that would come after, and very conscious of the fact that he had written no Latin since he had left Maynooth, and that a bad translation would discredit his ideas in the eyes of the Pope’s secretary, who was doubtless a great Latin scholar. “The Irish priests have always been good Latinists,” he murmured as he hunted through the dictionary.
 The table was littered with books, for he had found it necessary to create a Latin atmosphere before beginning his translation. He worked principally at night, and one morning about three he finished his translation, and getting up from his chair he walked to the whitening window. His eyes pained him, and he decided he would postpone reading over what he had written till morning.
 His illusions regarding his Latin were broken. He had laid his manuscript on a table by his bedside, and on awakening he had reached out his hand for it, but he had not read a page when he dropped it; and the manuscript lay on the floor while he dressed. He went into his breakfast, and when he had eaten his breakfast his nerve failed him. He could not bring himself to fetch the manuscript, and it was his housekeeper who brought it to him.
 “Ah,” he said, “it is tasteless as the gruel that poor James Murdoch is eating.” And taking a volume from the table — ”St. Augustine’s Confessions” — he said, “what diet there is here!”
 He stood reading. There was no idiom, he had used Latin words instead of English. At last he was interrupted by the wheels of a car stopping at his door. Father Meehan! Meehan could revise his Latin! None had written such good Latin at Maynooth as Meehan.
 “My dear Meehan, this is indeed a pleasant surprise.”
 “I thought I’d like to see you. I drove over. But — I am not disturbing you… . You’ve taken to reading again. St. Augustine! And you’re writing in Latin!”
 Father James’s face grew red, and he took the manuscript out of his friend’s hand.
 “No, you mustn’t look at that.”
 And then the temptation to ask him to overlook certain passages made him change his mind.
 “I was never much of a Latin scholar.”
 “And you want me to overlook your Latin for you. But why are you writing Latin?”
 “Because I am writing to the Pope. I was at first a little doubtful, but the more I thought of this letter the more necessary it seemed to me.”
 “And what are you writing to the Pope about?”
 “You see Ireland is going to become a Protestant country.”
 “Is it?” said Father Meehan, and he listened a little while. Then, interrupting his friend, he said: —
 “I’ve heard enough. Now, I strongly advise you not to send this letter. We have known each other all our lives. Now my dear MacTurnan — ”
 Father Michael talked eagerly, and Father MacTurnan sat listening. At last Father Meehan saw that his arguments were producing no effect, and he said: —
 “You don’t agree with me.”
 “It isn’t that I don’t agree with you. You have spoken admirably from your point of view, but our points of view are different.”
 “Take your papers away, burn them!”
 Then, thinking his words were harsh, he laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder and said: —
 “My dear MacTurnan, I beg of you not to send this letter.”
 Father James did not answer; the silence grew painful, and Father Michael asked Father James to show him the relief works that the Government had ordered.
 They walked to where the poor people were working, but important as these works were the letter to Rome seemed more important to Father Michael, and he said: —
 “My good friend, there isn’t a girl that would marry us; now is there? There isn’t a girl in Ireland who would touch us with a forty foot pole. Would you have the Pope release the nuns from their vows?”
 “I think exceptions should be made in favour of those in orders. But I think it would be for the good of Ireland if the secular clergy were married.”
 “That’s not my point. My point is that even if the decree were rescinded we should not be able to get wives. You’ve been looking too long in the waste, my dear friend. You’ve lost yourself in a dream. We shouldn’t get a penny. Our parishioners would say, ’Why should we support that fellow and his family?’ That’s what they’d say.”
 “We should be poor, no doubt,” said Father James. “But not so poor as our parishioners. My parishioners eat yellow meal, and I eat eggs and live in a good house.”
 “We are educated men, and should live in better houses.”
 “The greatest saints lived in deserts.”
 And so the argument went on until the time came to say good-bye, and then Father James said: —
 “I shall be glad if you will give me a lift on your car. I want to go to the post-office.”
 “To post your letter?”
 “The idea came to me — it came swiftly like a lightning flash, and I can’t believe that it was an accident. If it had fallen into your mind with the suddenness that it fell into mine, you would believe that it was an inspiration.”
 “It would take a great deal to make me believe I was inspired,” said Father Michael, and he watched Father James go into the post-office to register his letter.
 As he went home Father James met a long string of peasants returning from their work. The last was Norah Flynn, and the priest blushed deeply. It was the first time he had looked on one of his parishioners in the light of a possible spouse; he entered his house frightened, and when he looked round his parlour he asked himself if the day would come when he should see Norah Flynn sitting opposite to him in his armchair. And his face flushed deeper when he looked towards the bedroom door, and he fell on his knees and prayed that God’s will might be made known to him.
 During the night he awoke many times, and the dream that had awakened him continued when he had left his bed, and he wandered round and round the room in the darkness, seeking a way. At last he reached the window and drew the curtain, and saw the dim dawn opening out over the bog.
 “Thank God,” he said, “it was only a dream — only a dream.”
 And lying down he fell asleep, but immediately another dream as horrible as the first appeared, and his housekeeper heard him beating on the walls.
 “Only a dream, only a dream,” he said.
 He lay awake, not daring to sleep lest he might dream. And it was about seven o’clock when he heard his housekeeper telling him that the inspector had come to tell him they must decide what direction the new road should take. In the inspector’s opinion it should run parallel with the old road. To continue the old road two miles further would involve extra labour; the people would have to go further to their work, and the stones would have to be drawn further. The priest held that the extra labour was of secondary importance. He said that to make two roads running parallel with each other would be a wanton humiliation to the people.
 But the inspector could not appreciate the priest’s arguments. He held that the people were thinking only how they might earn enough money to fill their bellies.
 “I don’t agree with you, I don’t agree with you,” said the priest. “Better go in the opposite direction and make a road to the sea.”
 “Well, your reverence, the Government do not wish to engage upon any work that will benefit any special class. These are my instructions.”
 “A road to the sea will benefit no one… . I see you are thinking of the landlord. But there is no harbour; no boat ever comes into that flat, waste sea.”
 “Well, your reverence, one of these days a harbour may be made, whereas an arch would look well in the middle of the bog, and the people would not have to go far to their work.”
 “No, no. A road to the sea will be quite useless; but its futility will not be apparent — at least, not so apparent — and the people’s hearts will not be broken.”
 The inspector seemed a little doubtful, but the priest assured him that the futility of the road would satisfy English ministers.
 “And yet these English ministers,” the priest reflected, “are not stupid men; they are merely men blinded by theory and prejudice, as all men are who live in the world. Their folly will be apparent to the next generation, and so on and so on for ever and ever, world without end.”
 “And the worst of it is,” the priest said, “while the people are earning their living on these roads their fields will be lying idle, and there will be no crops next year.”
 Father MacTurnan began to think of the cardinals and the transaction of business in the Vatican; cardinals and ministers alike are the dupes of convention. Only those who are estranged from habits and customs can think straightforward.
 “If, instead of insisting on these absurd roads, the Government would give me the money, I should be able to feed the people at a cost of about a penny a day, and they would be able to sow their potatoes. And if only the cardinals would consider the rescission of the decree on its merits Ireland would be saved from Protestantism.”
 Some cardinal was preparing an answer — an answer might be even in the post. Rome might not think his letter worthy of an answer.
 A few days afterwards the inspector called to show him a letter he had just received from the Board of Works, and Father James had to write many letters and had to go to Dublin, and in the excitement of these philanthropic activities the emigration question was forgotten. He was talking to the inspector about the possibility of obtaining a harbour when the postman handed him a letter.
 “This is a letter from Father Moran. The Bishop wishes to see me. We will continue the conversation to-morrow. It is eight miles to Rathowen, and how much further is the Palace?”
 “A good seven,” said the inspector. “You’re not going to walk it, your reverence?”
 “Why not? In four hours I shall be there.” He looked at his boots first, and hoped they would hold together; and then he looked at the sky, and hoped it would not rain.
 The sky was dim; all the light seemed to be upon the earth; a soft, vague sunlight floated over the bog. Now and again a yellow-hammer rose above the tufts of coarse grass and flew a little way. A line of pearl-coloured mountains showed above the low horizon, and he had walked eight miles before he saw a pine-wood. Some hundred yards further on there was a green field, but under the green sod there was peat, and a man and a boy were cutting it. The heather appeared again, and he had walked ten miles before he was clear of whins and heather.
 He walked on, thinking of his interview with the Bishop, and was nearly at the end of his journey when he noticed that one of his shoes had come unsewn, and he stopped at a cabin; and while the woman was looking for a needle and thread he mopped his face with a great red handkerchief that he kept in the pocket of his threadbare coat — a coat that had once been black, but had grown green with age and weather. He had out-walked himself, and feeling he would be tired, and not well able to answer the points that the Bishop would raise, he decided to rest awhile. The woman had found some beeswax, and he stopped half an hour stitching his shoe under the hawthorn that grew beside the cabin.
 He was still two miles from the Palace, and this last two miles proved very long. He arrived footsore and covered with dust, and he was so tired that he could hardly get up from his chair to receive Father Moran when he came into the parlour.
 “You seem to have walked a long way, Father MacTurnan.”
 “About fifteen miles. I shall be all right presently. I suppose his Grace does not want to see me at once.”
 “Well, that’s just it. His Grace sent me to say he would see you at once. He expected you earlier.”
 “I started the moment I received his Grace’s letter. I suppose his Grace wishes to see me regarding my letter to Rome.”
 The secretary hesitated, coughed, and Father MacTurnan wondered why Father Moran looked at him so intently. He returned in a few minutes, saying that his Grace was sorry that Father MacTurnan had had so long a walk. He hoped that he would rest awhile and partake of some refreshment… . The servant brought in some wine and sandwiches, and the secretary returned in half an hour. His Grace was now ready to receive him. Father Moran opened the library door, and Father MacTurnan saw the Bishop — a short, alert man, about fifty-five, with a sharp nose and grey eyes and bushy eyebrows. He popped about the room and gave his secretary many orders. Father MacTurnan wondered if the Bishop would ever finish talking to his secretary. He seemed to have finished, but a thought suddenly struck him, and he followed his secretary to the door, and Father MacTurnan began to fear that the Pope had not decided to place the Irish clergy on the same footing as the Greek clergy. If he had, the Bishop’s interest in these many various matters would have subsided; his mind would be engrossed by the larger issue. On returning from the door his Grace passed Father MacTurnan without speaking to him, and going to his writing table he began to search amid his papers. At last Father MacTurnan said: —
 “Maybe your Grace is looking for my letter to Rome?”
 “Yes,” said his Grace, “do you see it?”
 “It’s under your Grace’s hand, those blue papers.”
 “Ah, yes,” and his Grace leaned back in his arm-chair, leaving Father MacTurnan standing.
 “Won’t you sit down, Father MacTurnan?” he said casually. “You’ve been writing to Rome, I see, advocating the revocation of the decree of celibacy. There’s no doubt the emigration of Catholics is a very serious question. So far you have got the sympathy of Rome, and, I may say of myself; but am I to understand that it was your fear for the religious safety of Ireland that prompted you to write this letter?”
 “What other reason could there be?”
 Nothing was said for a long while, and then the Bishop’s meaning began to break in his mind; his face flushed, and he grew confused. “I hope your grace doesn’t think for a moment that — ”
 “I only want to know if there is anyone — if your eyes ever went in a certain direction, if your thoughts ever said, ’Well, if the decree is revoked — ’”
 “No, your Grace, no. Celibacy has been no burden to me — far from it. Sometimes I feared that it was celibacy that attracted me to the priesthood. Celibacy was a gratification rather than a sacrifice.”
 “I am glad,” said the Bishop, and he spoke slowly and emphatically, “that this letter was prompted by such impersonal motives.”
 “Surely, your Grace, His Holiness did not suspect — ”
 The Bishop murmured an euphonious Italian name, and Father MacTurnan understood that he was speaking of one of the Pope’s secretaries.
 “More than once,” said Father MacTurnan, “I feared that if the decree were revoked, I should not have had sufficient courage to comply with it.”
 And then he told the Bishop how he had met Norah Flynn on the road. An amused expression stole into the Bishop’s face, and his voice changed.
 “I presume you do not contemplate making marriage obligatory; you do not contemplate the suspension of the faculties of those who do not take wives?”
 “It seems to me that exception should be made in favour of those in orders, and, of course, in favour of those who have reached a certain age like your Grace.”
 The Bishop coughed, and pretended to look for some paper which he had mislaid.
 “This was one of the many points that I discussed with Father Michael Meehan.”
 “Oh, so you consulted Father Meehan,” the Bishop said, looking up.
 “He came in one day I was reading over my Latin translation before posting it. I’m afraid the ideas that I submitted to the consideration of His Holiness have been degraded by my very poor Latin. I should have wished Father Meehan to overlook my Latin, but he refused. He begged of me not to send the letter.”
 “Father Meehan,” said his Grace, “is a great friend of yours. Yet nothing he could say could shake your resolution to write to Rome?”
 “Nothing,” said Father MacTurnan. “The call I received was too distinct and too clear for me to hesitate.”
 “Tell me about this call.”
 Father MacTurnan told the Bishop that the poor man had come out of the work-house because he wanted to be married, and that Mike Mulhare would not give him his daughter until he had earned the price of a pig. “And as I was talking to him I heard my conscience say, ’No man can afford to marry in Ireland but the clergy.’ We all live better than our parishioners.”
 And then, forgetting the Bishop, and talking as if he were alone with his God, he described how the conviction had taken possession of him — that Ireland would become a Protestant country if the Catholic emigration did not cease. And he told how this conviction had left him little peace until he had written his letter.
 The priest talked on until he was interrupted by Father Moran.
 “I have some business to transact with Father Moran now,” the Bishop said, “but you must stay to dinner. You have walked a long way, and you are tired and hungry.”
 “But, your Grace, if I don’t start now, I shall not get home until nightfall.”
 “A car will take you back, Father MacTurnan. I will see to that. I must have some exact information about your poor people. We must do something for them.”
 Father MacTurnan and the Bishop were talking together when the car came to take Father MacTurnan home, and the Bishop said: —
 “Father MacTurnan, you have borne the loneliness of your parish a long while.”
 “Loneliness is only a matter of habit. I think, your Grace, I’m better suited to the place than I am for any other. I don’t wish any change, if your Grace is satisfied with me.”
 “No one will look after the poor people better than yourself, Father MacTurnan. But,” he said, “it seems to me there is one thing we have forgotten. You haven’t told me if you succeeded in getting the money to buy the pig.”
 Father MacTurnan grew very red… . “I had forgotten it. The relief works — ”
 “It’s not too late. Here’s five pounds, and this will buy him a pig.”
 “It will indeed,” said the priest, “it will buy him two!”
 He had left the Palace without having asked the Bishop how his letter had been received at Rome, and he stopped the car, and was about to tell the driver to go back. But no matter, he would hear about his letter some other time. He was bringing happiness to two poor people, and he could not persuade himself to delay their happiness by one minute. He was not bringing one pig, but two pigs, and now Mike Mulhare would have to give him Norah and a calf; and the priest remembered that James Murdoch had said, “What a fine house this will be to rear them in.” There were many who thought that human beings and animals should not live together; but after all, what did it matter if they were happy? And the priest forgot his letter to Rome in the thought of the happiness he was bringing to two poor people. He could not see Norah Mulhare that night; but he drove down to the famine road, and he and the driver called till they awoke James Murdoch. The poor man came stumbling across the bog, and the priest told him the news.

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