AP 3 - 2022 - 200-2

21 August 1997 Edition

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Television: Why does the bell toll?

You have to feel sorry for unionists, and their attitude towards the part of the country they no longer control. Most of the defining moments in their history and culture and identity flow from points south of Newry, yet for them to accept this would be to undermine their political position.

From the Battle of the Boyne to Edward Carson, from the thousands of Irish people who helped the British run their Empire, to the greatest and most pointless sacrifice of all, the First World War - none of these stories can be told as Ulster tales alone.

Even when they say `The Province', meaning six rather than nine counties, unionists know in their hearts that they are living a lie. Is Donegal, where the Orangemen march each year in Rossnowlagh, a foreign country? Do the Free Presbyterians of County Monaghan regard themselves as missionaries?

One of the hardliners at Harryville, Councillor David Tweed, played rugby for Ireland. How did that young man feel when he won his first cap for his country? Did he really believe, when he played for Ulster against Leinster, that it was an international match?

In fact, the unionist rugby crowd indulges itself with a more sophisticated type of myth. Many will say that the South is a sectarian state, Home Rule is Rome Rule, and that the dwindling numbers of Protestants in the 26 Counties is the proof. They will invoke years of discrimination against the Protestant minority.

But by what measurement can such discrimination be seen? Have southern Protestants a lower per capita income? Are they more likely to be unemployed? Do they own fewer than average businesses? Have Protestant children less chance of going to college? Are there disproportionate numbers of Protestant homes to be found in drug-infested areas? Are Protestants more likely to wind up in jail than other citizens? Are Southern Protestants more likely to have heart attacks?

Uncomfortable as it is, the opposite seems more likely. Southern Protestants, on average, appear to be doing better than average on all economic and educational counts.

Perhaps it is in the more empiric field of social discrimination that they have suffered. Are Southern Protestants likely to be quietly barred from golf or tennis clubs? Perhaps they are refused entry to their local GAA clubs? Are they not served in pubs? Can they not get a reservation in a good restaurant? Do trade unionists, farming organisation committees and business people secretly refuse to vote Protestants into positions of influence? Are Protestants less likely to be appointed judges, to be elected to parliament, to be voted into the Senate?

The fact is that no one in the South gives one whit if you're Protestant or Catholic or anything else. It is simply not an issue. Try saying ``You know, he's a Protestant,'' in any pub; people will just look at you quizzically, waiting for you to make your point. One of your group will probably say, ``I'm a Prod.''

But before Southerners start getting smug about the little piece of heaven they've created, they should consider the history of their state. For years, Roman Catholic doctrine gripped the government - you couldn't even get a divorce.

True, in 1972, a large majority voted in a referendum to remove from the constitution the ``special position of the Roman Catholic church'', and now, divorce is available. But there is still one daily, noisy event to signal that the state favours the majority religion, and perhaps indicates the fear of those who would oppose this.

The Angelus (RTE1, 6.00 pm), which takes up a minute of prime time television right before the evening news, is an exclusively Catholic programme, revolving as it does around the Virgin Mary.

Back on 14 September 1724, Pope Benedict XIII granted an indulgence of 100 days for each recitation. In other words, if you say the three Hail Marys at 6 am, noon and 6 pm every day, you can get 2,100 days off purgatory every week.

That's 109,500 days off for a year's Angelus. And if you live until you're 70, and you say it thrice daily from the age of 7, that's - hey! - 6,898,500 days off, or 18,900 years.

Now while RTE managers no doubt think this is a great deal for their viewers, they haven't been keeping up with Rome. Catholics can now get the same indulgence without having to say the prayers at the exact time or hearing the bell toll.

``More recent legislation allows these conditions to be dispensed with for any sufficient reason, provided the prayer be said approximately at the proper hours,'' according to Herbert Thurston in the Catholic Encyclopedia. He wrote that in 1913.

Zooming right back to 1997, does anyone actually say the Angelus? Has any reader ever seen anyone, anywhere, stop what they were doing when the Angelus comes on television, drop to their knees and begin to pray?

Almost any other programming would attract a bigger audience. Anything. Art history, hot-air ballooning report, even a camera just trained on a pretty aquarium for 60 seconds.

So RTE, the State broadcaster, is favouring one religion over all others despite the fact that the constitution no longer allows for this, devoting free, prime air-time to what can be at best a miniscule audience, and is being more zealous than the Vatican in expecting Catholics to keep to a rigid prayer timetable.

Why? What are they afraid would happen if they just scratched it from the Autumn schedule?

No doubt RTE would say the station keeps doing it because it's traditional. Now why does that ring a bell?

By Michael Kennedy

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland