Forbidden satsumas

I read this evening of the death of the former bishop of Galway – Eamon Casey – at the age of 89.

That is a name from the past. The past is another country. And Eamon Casey’s story is a story of a time when Ireland was a lot more naïve (although certainly not more innocent).

He was involved in the first major scandal involving the catholic church in Ireland. His fall from grace was a precursor to the horrors of the coming decade, regarding the church. In hindsight it wasn’t much of a scandal.

Born in Kerry, he studied in Limerick, before becoming a priest. During the 1960s he was stationed in London where apparently he did great work for the Irish community living there in terms of helping them integrate into a hostile and racist society (this was the era of the ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ signs in hotel windows and boarding houses).

By the 1970s he was back in Ireland. He met an American divorcee (which is such a glamourous description of a person – American indicating swagger; and divorcee implying an exotic past) by the name of Annie Murphy (a surname of giants), and he began a torrid affair with her (I cannot vouch for the torridity of said affair, but I like to imagine their encounters on the beaches of Inch, country Kerry, and in the bishop’s palace involved passionate clinches. Not that I’ve thought about this pair being intimate too closely – the whole story is just so Mills and Boon, that I picture much swooning and secret rendezvous).

Well as sure as night follows day, Ms Murphy got pregnant – they wouldn’t have been using contraception of course – this was Ireland where contraception was a sin worse than sex outside marriage involving a bishop, not to mention the fact that it was illegal.

The bishop tried to pressure her into giving the baby up for adoption. She refused and returned to the US with her son Peter (born in 1974).

He did not meet his son again until he was fifteen years old. He paid some financial support over the years (which he stole from the catholic charity collections – he was a chairman of said charity.) In 1992 Annie Murphy needed to raise money to fund her son’s university education. The good bishop stole a big sum from the charity,. but it was too late.

Annie Murphy had already given an interview to the Irish Times revealing her affair and child with the bishop.

To say that this was sensational news in 1992 would be an understatement. This was the biggest press scandal of all time. Here was a man who lectured the nation about morality while he himself was doing exactly what he condemned – and then stealing from parishioners to cover his tracks.

At this time the catholic church’s iron fisted control of the state was already loosening – contraception was legal; and  within a year homosexuality would be decriminalised. This scandal was still major – being the first to expose the catholic church’s inner secrets and behaviour.

Annie Murphy released a book called ‘Forbidden Fruit’  about the affair. Due to my penchant for a lurid headline and melodrama, I renamed the book ‘Forbidden Satsumas’ to the amusement of my siblings. It recounted in breathlessly, lurid detail her Affaire du Coeur with the bishop. It became a bestseller. When Ms Murphy appeared on the Late Late Show (an Irish chat show and TV institution) she was subject to a very hostile interview by the host Gay Byrne, who famously ended the interview by declaring that if her son grew up to be half the man his father was, then he would be a good man. Murphy replied that she was a pretty good person herself and walked off the set.

The jokes in the press about the bishop and his mistress were entertaining. A condom advertising campaign used the tag-line ‘Just in Casey’. The phrase ‘it could happen to a bishop took on a new meaning. The TV comedy ‘Father Ted’ featured the lecherous Bishop Len Brennan as a character which was supposedly based on Eamon Casey.

Eamon Casey refused to resign his position and was therefore expelled by the church to Central America for the next fifteen years. By his son Peter’s account, he developed a friendly relationship with his son in the following years.

When you consider the avalanche of horror stories concerning the church, lurking in the shadows – paedophile priests; industrial scale child abuse being covered up by the hierarchy; mother and baby homes, international human trafficking, disposing of dead children in sewage tanks etc. – it seems that Eamon Casey’s transgressions were minor. He had a child with an adult woman following a consensual relationship. Fair enough he could have been a better father, and stealing from your parishioners is not exactly noble behaviour. But in light of what was to come he was small fish.

Rest in peace randy bishop Len Brennan. Your exploits now seem quite innocent. And you have provided hours of material for Irish comedians ever since.

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