In Reading Matters' top ten novels for 2011, Leaving Ardglass is not to be found in the library at UVa, but I was able to get it on the kindle. Through the lives of two brothers, it tells the story of changes in Ireland from the mid-1950s through the 1970s, beginning with times when migration to America and England was the key to getting out of poverty, to boom times in Ireland.
The narrator is the younger brother, who becomes an ambitious priest, never able to become a bishop. Thomas was expected to become an engineer and join his brother in the construction business. His brother has already left the village of Ardglass to become successful building house in London; Thomas works in the summer and learns that to be successful, one must pay bribes and cut corners. The Irishmen who do this work are despised by the English and live miserable lives as they send money home each week. Thomas figures out this is not for him and his brother accepts his decision and continues to support him.
It turns out that Thomas' life as a priest has its sordid bits as well. When Thomas began, priests were much loved and respected and young men entered the profession eagerly but all that changed over the course of the book. Thomas fell in love with a woman and had a long time affair with her, always promising himself each time they make love that this will be the last time. Eventually she realizes that he will not leave the priesthood and she ends it. He spends years propping up and doing the work for an alcoholic bishop in the belief that he will replace him. An even more ambitious priest out maneuvers him and is given the position. And then there's the sex scandals. Thomas' role was to recommend the usual course to his alcoholic bishop, sending an accused priest to a psychiatrist, who some months later, declares the patient is fine and won't offend again. Eventually Thomas moves out of the administrative work in the bishopric and becomes the priest for a small church.
The older brother, M.J., eventually encounters a scandal of his own. After years of financial shenanigans which involve paying bribes to someone who pays bribes to others and socks money away in off shore accounts, it all comes unraveled and hearings catch the public's attention for months.
This impressive book brings to life characters who are at once real and illustrate the arc of a part of Ireland in a particular period. I especially liked this description of what the nuns were up to in the early 70s as Thomas was working hard:
The weeks aren't long enough — lectures at All Saints, weekend seminars in convents where young nuns are discovering beautiful sunsets, and the healing effect of hugging trees; theology is jettisoned in favour of interpersonal relations. Egged on by those in their communities who have returned from San Francisco, aflame with Carl Rogers and other gurus, the young nuns get in touch with their feelings. When their older colleagues have trudged up the stairs to bed, they light candles and sit around on bean bags. Some pack their suitcases; those who remain cast off their veils and exchange friendship rings with priests. And, in desperation, Reverend Mothers ask me to come and talk sense to them.