In the 1870’s, Callan, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland was the site of a major schism in the Catholic Church – becoming the focus of a controversial power struggle between the British Parliament in Westminster and the Roman Empire, the repercussions of which were felt throughout Europe. The parish priest in a wild attempt to stand up for his beliefs, sued his Bishop and his Cardinal in civil court, and was defrocked and the church put under interdict. This sent the town into uproar, creating a bitter division in Callan, the echoes of which can still faintly be felt to this day.

Thomas Kilroy spent his childhood in Callan in the 1930’s and 40’s – a town still very much divided by the schism. Half of the town attended mass in the Church of the Assumption (the Big Chapel); the other half went to the Augustinian Friary, and ‘never the twain would meet’. 

Kilroy’s 1971 fictionalised re-telling of the events that unfolded is a masterpiece of story-telling. Among the many themes, Kilroy, with a keen eye firmly on the events in Northern Ireland at the time of writing, examines the dangers of blind belief, where religious fervour spills swiftly and easily into blind violence. He also explores the importance of education in society. 

The root of the schism was an attempt by the renegade priest to introduce radical educational reform to the town, in the face of hardline church authority – this, in the birthplace of Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers.

Today, the echoes of the big chapel bell take on new resonances. Callan becomes a microcosm of a broader global picture. 

The revelations of the Catholic Church’s fascistic control over Irish civil society in our recent past; the slow and painful separation of church and state in our education system, where access to non-denominational education is still limited to the lucky few.

In global terms, the novel tolls a warning against the dangers of dichotomy and over simplification. The Big Chapel‘s Reds and Schismatics reflect the polarisation of left wing v’s right, Catholic v’s Muslim, native v’s migrant. In the Trump/Brexit era you are either one of us or one of them; you’re in or you’re out; you’re black or you’re white. Ignorance triumphs over reason and knowledge; truth fights a desperate battle against ‘alternative facts’.Share