David Lean’s splendid movie, “Ryan’s Daughter”, is a saga set in an impoverished Irish coastal village one hundred years ago during World War 1, of the love-affair between Rosie Ryan, married daughter of a militant IRA republican publican, and a handsome British maimed Major in command of the local military outpost in occupied Ireland.
It was sex at first sight, but their adultery rapidly developed into a drama that would involve the whole village and notably its parish-priest, superbly played by Trevor Howard. Readers will understand the choice of the former priest who is writing this, if I reflect , not on the affair itself nor even on the Troubles which had been tearing the country apart for the last four hundred years, but on the central rôle of this remarkable, but not untypical, Irish priest.
Catholics who see the movie today may be surprised to discover the universally recognized authority and the exemplary, heroic decency and goodness of this Shepherd of God’s people in the tiny parish. The movie is worth watching for all sorts of reasons, including the opportunity to grasp one of the phenomena behind the power and influence of the Church in the first half of the 20th century, not only in Ireland but also in the U.S. and in my native Australia. I knew Irish priests in a far less volatile religious and political environment who were as admirable and as influential as our hero in the movie. It is hard today, for many, to imagine the aura that was the parish-priest’s in the Sydney of my youth. Today the reputation of the clergy in Ireland, the U.S. and Australia has been besmirched by the scandal of pedophilia in a Church weakened by a lack of priestly vocations and diminishing congregations. But it is worth remembering that it was not always so. People believed in the Church because they believed in its priests. Some still do. Among the clergy’s Faithful Remnant, there are still admirable men whose unselfish, dedicated ministry continues to provide parishioners with reasons for believing. I too can admire them, while regretting their credulity and that of their dwindling congregations. They are the Last of the Mohicans.