Synopsis of Grace

Tom Kernan, agent for a London tea-merchant, has spent the evening drinking at a pub and has fallen down the stairs of the lavatory and hurt himself.  He is rescued and taken home by his more temperate and successful friend, Mr Power.  While Kernan is being put to bed, Power is shocked by the evident financial insecurity of his friend’s family life and later listens sympathetically to Mrs Kernan’s account of the difficulties of a marriage to a drunken and occasionally violent man.  He promises to do what he can to persuade Kernan to improve his behaviour, saying that he will find a means of doing so that Kernan will not find too painful.  
While Kernan is still in recovering from his fall, Power and some other friends visit him and talk about religion and the reputation of recent Popes.  Clearly operating to a pre-arranged plan, they then bring the conversation round to the fact that they are soon going on a retreat organised by the easy-going Father Purdon, which is aimed at professional and business men.  They persuade Kernan, who is not a devout Catholic and is sceptical about the Church, to join them.  The story ends with Kernan and his friends listening to Father Purdon’s sermon at the beginning of the retreat.

Commentary on Grace

‘Grace’ This word carries many associations. The religious inhabitants of Dublin would know that theologically it means ‘undeserved favour’, as a way of describing God's gifts to human beings (Ephesians 2:8). By implication, having received grace, people should bestow it upon others. It is also used to mean any pleasing or attractive quality of body or spirit and/or a special favour. ‘Grace’ also refers to a prayer offered in thanks to God before eating a meal.
curates A slang word for assistant barmen, likening them to assistant priests.
a suspicious provincial accent There is probably a double meaning here: on the one hand the policeman shows suspicion as he takes details of the incident; but at the same time his provincial, non-Dublin accent may seem suspicious to other customers in the bar.
Sha This is from the Irish word ‘seadh’ meaning, ‘yes’, or ‘it certainly is’ and is often misheard by English speakers as ‘sure’.
a long yellow Ulster A loose woollen coat, first made in Ulster in Northern Ireland.
an outsider A two-wheeled horse-drawn carriage, also known as a jaunting–car.
his Napoleon, the great Blackwhite Mr Kernan makes a hero of an earlier (fictitious) salesman, whose exploits he likens to the French soldier and later emperor, Napoleon
Royal … Castle Dublin Castle was the official centre of British power in Ireland and also served as the headquarters of the Royal Irish Constabulary, an armed police force or militia responsible for state security.
a character  In the sense of someone who cultivates an eccentricity of manner in order to achieve some kind of social standing.
what book The Irish school system prescribed particular books for each year group.
their accents Mr Kernan’s children speak with lower-class accents, an indication that he has married beneath him and is living in circumstances that belie the manner he adopts in public.
the holy alls of it A slang phrase meaning ‘that’s the truth of it’.
he does be Derived from the Irish form of the present tense of ‘to be’; also known as the continuous or habitual present, it is another indication of uneducated speech.
Glasgow … Belfast A good example of what seems like an incidental detail carrying some religious significance.  Kernan is a Catholic convert, of Protestant stock, and both his sons have gone to work in cities where the population was largely Protestant.
the pale The Irish pale was the area in and around Dublin controlled by the English before the whole country was conquered in the seventeenth century.  The literal meaning of a pale is an enclosure.
Margaret Mary Alacoquethe Sacred Heart It is believed that those who display an image of the sacred heart of Jesus in their home and take Friday Mass regularly will be especially blessed, as promised by Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-90), a French nun who experienced religious visions.
the banshee A female figure from Irish folklore who is said to appear wailing when a death is imminent.
The Irish Times … The Freeman’s Journal Both of these Dublin daily newspapers were conservative in outlook, but the former was Protestant and Unionist, while the latter was Catholic and sympathetic to the cause of Home Rule.
the Sub-Sheriff The principal duties of the Sub-Sheriff were concerned with the enforcement of evictions or the seizure of goods to redeem bad debts.
the City Coroner Coroners are responsible for holding an inquest into any death that is not from natural causes. 
boose A slang word for alcohol; also spelt ‘booze’.
bona-fide travellers Bona fide is the Latin for ‘good faith’, and the whole phrase refers to a clause in the law that allowed drinking outside normal licensing hours.  Anyone who had travelled more than five miles from a previous destination was regarded as a genuine traveller who could legally be served with food and alcohol at any time.  The law was frequently abused, with drinkers travelling to pubs on the fringes of Dublin specifically to drink until late night.
usury Usury is the lending of money at a rate of interest, and was frowned upon by the Church on the grounds that it was unnatural for an inert matter (money) to breed more money (interest).  In medieval and early modern Europe usury was associated with Jews, as in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice (1596-8).
peloothered A slang word for someone who is extremely drunk; the origin of this term is obscure. 
True bill This legal term refers to a case in which there is sufficient evidence concerning a crime for the matter to be tried in a courtroom.
a crusade … portmanteaus M’Coy is in the habit of borrowing pieces of luggage, supposedly for his wife’s non-existent bookings as a singer outside Dublin.  The implication is that M’Coy then pawns or even sells these goods to obtain money for his own use.
bostoons The Irish word bastun means a switch made out of rushes and is used to describe someone who is weak, a rascal and likely to be dishonest.
cabbage A much-favoured vegetable in Ireland, used to make soup and as an accompaniment to meat dishes.
omadhauns From the Irish amadán, meaning a fool or an idiot.
yahoos In this context, a rowdy and ill-mannered young man, probably from a rural rather than an urban background.  In London during the eighteenth century, the term was often used to describe young men of higher social status who used their money to get drunk and abused their social status by behaving riotously in the streets.  In the fourth and final book of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the Yahoos are disgusting quasi-human creatures whose bestial and uncontrolled behaviour is contrasted with that of the Houyhnhnms, the gentle and rational horses who inhabit the same imaginary country.
coming up here Moving from the country to the city. ‘Up to’ is often used to describe any journey to a city, especially a capital city (as in ‘up to London’), or a journey from the outskirts of a city to its centre (‘up to town’).
to make a retreat To withdraw from everyday life for a period of prayer and contemplation.
to wash the pot A reference to Confession, which is said to cleanse the soul
four handed reel A figure of speech suggesting that the inclusion of Kernan would be enough for the men to do an Irish folk dance which requires four people.
The General of the Jesuits The Jesuit religious order, founded in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1536), is organised in a similar way to an army and the General is its leader.  However, the characters are wrong in saying that the General stands next in rank to the Pope.  He is responsible to the Pope, but does not occupy an official place in the hierarchy of the Church. 
never once … fell away  The characters have a very insecure grasp of Church history, since it was the earlier orders of monks and friars, long pre-dating the Jesuits, that needed to be reformed  It’s likely that Mr Cunningham is half-remembering those historical periods when the actions of the Jesuit order brought it into disfavour with the Church.
their church … congregation The characters are discussing a particular church in Dublin, St Francis Xavier in Gardiner Street, which was known for its socially aspiring middle-class congregation.
secular priests Secular priests live and work in the community, ministering to a parish and serving a church, while those known as ‘regular’ clergy belong to religious orders and live in monasteries.
continent Mainland Europe.
Father Tom Burke Burke (1830-82), a Dominican, was something of a celebrity priest, famous for his forthright, populist, flashy and pro-Nationalist sermons delivered in Ireland, England and the United States.  Mr Cunningham is a great supporter of the Jesuits, who differ from the Dominicans in some theological doctrines, which explains his sceptical tone in speaking of Father Burke.
pit Mr Kernan is referring to the nave of the church, which is usually a step down from the chancel, where the priest operates. He does not know the correct word, so uses this theatrical term for the area immediately in front of the stage.
The Prisoner of the Vatican Popes Pius IX (1846-1878) and Leo XIII (1878-1903) thought of themselves as prisoners in Vatican City after 1870, when King Victor Emmanuel II, head of state in Italy, assumed the Vatican’s temporal (i.e. non-religious) state functions.
Orangeman The Orange Order was founded in 1795 in the northern part of Ireland and was dedicated to defending Irish Protestantism.  The Order is organised in lodges and an Orangeman is a member of such a lodge.  It takes its name from William of Orange (1650-1702), who became William III of England in 1689 and defeated the Catholic James II (1633-1701) at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, thus asserting Protestant rule in Ireland (see Social / political context).  Crofton (who also appears in Ivy Day in the Committee Room) is described by Kernan as ‘a decent Orangeman’, so he is probably one of those Protestant Unionists described as Orangemen without being members of the order.  This is supported by the facts that in Ivy Day in the Committee Room he is working for a Nationalist candidate and that, in this story, he has no objection to hearing a Catholic priest preaching.
the Redeemer A title referring to Jesus who is regarded by Christians and in the New Testament as being sent by God to redeem sinners (e.g. Titus 2:13-14). See Redemption, salvation.
the Pope and the Mother of God Like much of the theological discussion in this story, the characters are a bit muddled.  The fundamental points are that Protestants refuse to accept the power and authority of the Pope, especially in his priestly role as mediator between believers and God, and that they do not ascribe to Mary the mother of Jesus any special role in supplicating with God on behalf of believers.  The Protestant lack of special veneration of the Virgin Mary is one of the central doctrinal differences between Catholics and non-Catholics.
tie himself … brewers and distillers Fogarty does not possess sufficient money to establish a business serving products of high quality, so is forced to ‘tie’ himself to contracts with large producers to obtain cheaper but poorer quality goods.  
Leo XIII (see earlier note) Leo had a reputation as a notable scholar and was conservative in his social and theological outlook. 
Lux upon Lux The phrase is a comical mixture of Latin (lux = ‘light’) and English.  Popes do not have personal mottoes, as the characters here seem to believe; perhaps they have in mind the title of a nineteenth century papal encyclical, circulated among members of the Church and containing statements on doctrine and other matters.
Lumen in Coelo The notion of Lumen in Coelo or Light in Heaven was associated with Leo XIII.
Tenebrae Lux in Tenebris means ‘light in darkness’, but McCoy, in another comical muddle, confuses the phrase with Tenebrae, a ceremony held in Holy Week (i.e. the week leading up to Easter Sunday), when all lights in the church are extinguished to symbolise the darkness that, according to the gospels, came upon the world with the death of Christ.
Crux upon Crux Like ‘Lux upon Lux’, this mixture of Latin and English makes no sense.  However, Pius IX, predecessor to Leo XIII, associated himself with the idea of Crux de cruce (Cross from a cross) – yet another example of the many muddled facts and beliefs in this conversation.
great scholar and a poet  Some would argue that Leo was not a particularly distinguished scholar but he was certainly the author of verses in Latin, producing a poem on the invention of the photograph.
penny-a-week school Obviously very inexpensive and rather rough and ready schools for children of the poor.

sod of turf under his oxter  In addition to the payment of a penny, pupils at these schools were expected to help by bringing a turf of peat to heat the building, carrying it under their oxter (armpit).  
Great minds … madness A misquotation from (or allusion to) lines from Absalom and Achitophel (1681) by John Dryden (1631-1700): ‘Great wits are sure to madness near allied / And thin partitions do their bounds divide’  
up to the knocker Up to scratch or up to standard.  Kernan, like many other Protestants, has a sceptical view of the morality of historical popes.
ex cathedra Latin - from the chair.  The Vatican Council of 1870 declared that the Pope was infallible in what he spoke ex cathedra.

Dolling … John McHale Johann Dolling (1799-1890), a German, certainly opposed the dogma of papal infallibility but he did not vote against it since he was not a cardinal. He was excommunicated in 1871.  John McHale (1791-18810, Archbishop of Tuam in Connacht was also opposed to the dogma, although he accepted papal infallibility after the Vatican Council voted in its favour. McHale, who attended a penny-a-week school (see note above) was a staunch supporter of Irish Nationalism. 

some Italian or American Mr Fogarty is almost right for once, since the two bishops who voted against the dogma were Bishop Riccio from Italy and Bishop Fitzgerald, an American. 
Credo (Latin) I believe.
Sir John Gray Although a Protestant, as proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal, Gray (1816-75) was a great Irish patriot, who supported Daniel O'Connell’s repeal movement, argued for land reform and, when he was an MP (1865-75), campaigned for the disestablishment of Protestant Church in Ireland 
Edmund Dwyer Gray Gray (1845-1888) was Sir John Gray’s second son and took over from his father at the Freeman’s Journal.  He shared his father’s anti-Unionism and supported Parnell.
none … any good A seriously ill-informed and ungrateful comment about a family who did a great deal for the city of Dublin, especially in the area of public health.  Mr Power is probably unfairly extending to the whole family his dislike of Edmund’s son, one of the supporters of Parnell who deserted him when he was disgraced in 1891.
Get behind me, Satan! See Matthew 16:21-23: ‘Get thee behind me Satan’, Christ’s words to Peter.
baptismal vows  The vows made by godparents on behalf of children when they are baptised or christened.  When adult, the baptised are expected to renew these vows on their own behalf.
I bar the candles Mr Kernan is a member of the Protestant Church of Ireland, which associated candles with Catholic practice.
I bar the magic-lantern business This reference again voices Mr Kernan’s distaste for Catholic beliefs, particularly in visions of the Virgin Mary. When Mary was said to have appeared in the village of Knock in 1879 (accompanied by Saint Joseph and John the Evangelist), sceptical Protestants suggested that the ‘vision’ was a fraud on the part of the parish priest, using magic lantern slides.  Although he has converted to Catholicism, Kernan remains a Protestant at heart.
transept Many churches are built in the shape of a cross – the transept is the cross-ways section of that shape 
the lay-brother A non-ordained member of a religious order.

Sanctuary lampspeck of red light The sanctuary light marks the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, the communion bread/wafers blessed by the priest during the Mass/Eucharist service, and kept in a chalice in the locked tabernacle on the altar.
quincunx An arrangement of five objects in the corners and at the centre of a square.  Associated with many belief systems, in Catholic practice it is taken as a symbol of the five wounds (hands, feet and side) sustained by Christ at the crucifixion and serves as focus for meditation on Christ’s suffering.
the registration agent and mayor maker One of Mr Fanning’s professional duties is to organise the annual election of the mayor.
Town Clerk’s Referring to the offices of this important city official, a permanent employee who actually runs the business of the city.
white surplice The light upper garment covering a priest’s cassock, usually tunic-shaped with wide sleeves.
For the children … dwellings See Luke 16:1-9. In an unusual parable where Jesus is stressing the need for believers to be business-like in making use of every opportunity, Father Purdon makes the explication of the passage easier by substituting ‘die’ for ‘fail’ used in the King James Bible version of verse 9.  Father Purdon is given to making things easy.
Mammon Mentioned in the Old Testament as a pagan god, in the New Testament he is used to symbolise wealth and greed.

Investigating Grace

  • To what extent, and in what ways, is Grace a satirical look at religion?
  • What is the relationship between morality and Catholicism in Grace
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