Michael Browne was catholic bishop of Galway in from 1937 to 1976 and seemed to exemplify everything that was wrong with the church… He was among those who led the hierarchy’s objections toNoël Browne’s mother and child health scheme. He supported a boycott of protestant businesses in Co. Wexford during a dispute over a protestant woman married to a catholic man who refused to educate her children at the local catholic school. He described Trinity College Dublin as “a centre for atheist and communist propaganda”. He forced the segregation of the sexes on Galway beaches. He seemed so perpetually angry that his episcopal signature — “† Michael” – was popularly rendered as “Cross Michael”. He supervised the construction of a grandiose new cathedral in Galway that local wits dubbed the “Taj Micheáil” (pronounced Meehaul).
That post also involves the late Brian Trevaskis, a perverse and interesting character who was a feature of TCD, overlapping Malcolm’s time.
The Fethard-on-Sea business was nasty in the extreme, and contributed mightily to the sectarian prejudices of Northern Protestants well after the original episode. Tim Fanning’s The Fethard-on-Sea Boycott is probably the fullest account. A summary of the main events is on Gareth Russell’s blog.
Anyone of a fair mind (and even other) would surely recognise that Browne was off-piste in oh-so-many ways. Or, “The Irish bishop stands on ceremony and sits on everybody,”as Seán O Faoláin put it. However, let’s pass on all that.
Going through the motions
Once upon a shitty time, when Galway hadn’t made much effort to filter its effluents, that was the experience of swimming in Galway Bay. To be strictly honest, across the city and county, there remain ample opportunities for improving water-quality. In 2007 it was cryptosporidium. In 2008 it was levels of lead. In 2011 it was oily waste. In 2012, e-coli.
Anyway, allegedly Bishop Browne liked to swim. Unencumbered by swimming costume. And to air himself in the Galwegian sunshine thereafter. Doubtless among males of similar disposition. He had a sign put up on the beach at Salthill, prohibiting women therefrom.
Elsewhere Bishop Browne was very much against any mixing of the sexes, even clothed, on beaches:
“Everywhere has changed in my life time”, [Christie Moore] says. “I remember Galway winning three-in-a-row; the Bishop of Galway banning “mixed bathing” — the dirty minded bollocks; Des Kelly and The Capitol being Number 1 in The Irish Charts; when there was only one De Danann; Michael D presenting me with a platinum disc; Moving Hearts falling asunder in St.Patrick’s Hall, and reforming two hours later in The Skeff.”
Out of the strange came forth sweetness
Bishop Browne’s prurience was the contrarian inspiration for an early Seamus Heaney poem, Girls Bathing, Galway 1965:
The swell foams where they float and crawl,
A catherine-wheel of arm and hand.
Each head bobs curtly as a football.
The yelps are faint here on the strand.
No milk-limbed Venus ever rose
Miraculous on this western shore;
A pirate queen in battle clothes
Is our sterner myth. The breakers pour
Themselves into themselves, the years
Shuttle through space invisibly.
Where crests unfurl like creamy beer
The queen’s clothes melt into the sea
And generations sighing in
The salt suds where the wave has crashed
Labour in fear of flesh and sin
For the time has been accomplished
As through the swallows in swimsuits,
Brown-legged, smooth-shouldered and bare-backed
They wade ashore with skips and shouts.
So Venus comes, matter-of-fact.
That now appears by the Galway Bay Hotel, opposite the beach — still ‘the Ladies’ Beach’ — on the Salthill Promenade, one of half-a-dozen bronze plaques celebrating poems along the Cúirt Literary Trail.
The poem seems superficially a slight thing, almost a piece of juvenilia. That’s Heaney’s deception: it anticipates so much of what Heaney’s later work would become. It is highly complex in its allusions and, appropriately in this context, in its undertow.
The incident is, on one level, from Marie and Seamus’s honeymoon.
The form is almost a ballad: quatrains of four-stresses to the line. There is the characteristic Heaney conflation of past and present, the classic and the work-a-day: So Venus comes, matter-of-fact. The implied visual references include Botticelli’s Nascita di Venere and St Catherine with her wheel: that, along with in fear of flesh and sin, must imply continuing martyring of women in Browne’s gynophobia.
There is is the nod to Irish tradition and history: the pirate queen in battle clothes is Gráinne Ní Mháille/Grace O’Malley/Granuaile/The Sea-Queen of Connacht.
Gráinne, another woman of strength, is depicted in the frontispiece to Anthologia Hibernica, no humble suppliant. She had been summoned in September 1593, to Greenwich to encounter Elizabeth I. The Queen acquiesced with all of Grace’s demands — to the profound disgust of Richard Bingham, Lord President of Connacht, who regarded her as nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years.
All that without the implicit physical sexuality: Brown-legged, smooth-shouldered and bare-backed.
Bishop Browne knew not what he had provoked.