A Love Divided (1999)

“You can’t fight the whole Catholic Church.”

A Love Divided is an effective Irish film set in the 50s and based on a true story. Sheila (Orla Brady) is a protestant woman married to Catholic Sean Cloney (Liam Cunningham). They are very happy together and have 2 small girls. While Sheila goes to a protestant church with her father and sister each Sunday, Sean takes the two little girls and joins the swelling Catholic congregation. Sheila and Sean’s family and friends all accept this marriage of mixed religions, but their problems begin when it’s time to send the eldest girl to school. Sheila agreed to raise the children as Catholic, and when she made the promise, it didn’t seem to be a hardship. When it’s time for little Eileen to go to school, Sheila decides to send her to the small village school (where the teacher is, incidentally Catholic), but the local Catholic priest, Father Stafford (Tony Doyle) almost blows a circuit at the news. He demands that Eileen attend the local Catholic school.

As far as Sheila is concerned, her promise to bring up the girls as Catholic is fulfilled and doesn’t extend to which school they attend. When Sheila resists with the argument that it’s up to the parents where the child goes to school, the Priest puts the screws on Sean, and it soon becomes an issue of Sean not being able to ‘control’ his wife. Sheila doesn’t recognize the priest’s ‘authority’ over her life, and she enrolls Eileen in the village school. The enraged priest literally removes the child from the village school.

A crisis occurs. And while on one level, it’s a crisis about just where this little girl is going to be educated, in reality, it’s much more than that. Sean, as a Catholic is quite happy to bow to Father Stafford’s wishes–especially since it’s implied that he’s lost ‘control’ of his wife, and in the natural scheme of things, Sheila is supposed to bow to Sean, Sean is supposed to bow to the priest, etc. So Sheila’s disobedience throws perceived chains of authority into total upheaval. As the situation worsens, Sheila grabs the girls and goes into hiding in Scotland.

Meanwhile all hell breaks loose in the village. While the Catholics claim that their goal is to get the girls back, they manage to create wider divisions between Sheila and Sean. Soon it’s no longer about a man battling to get his kids back, it’s about which religion is dominant over the other. As the legal battle rages, a solution becomes more difficult to achieve. Under the auspices of “getting Sean’s girls back” the priest whips up the locals into a frenzy of hatred against the Protestant villagers. The community is wrecked as the Catholics boycott Protestant businesses, and vandalize their shops. But things turn even uglier….

Sheila’s father is a kind well-respected man in his community, and yet in the months after Sheila’s disappearance, he is reviled by those he’s helped. As Sean notes, the hatred was always there, and only just kept in check, and it’s just the excuse of the girls that whips up the hatred. Still, it’s chilling to see how quickly things disintegrate in this small, once peaceful village. This really is a remarkable portrayal of bigotry. The villagers all worship the same god, and yet the actions of the Priest illustrate the corruption of religion and also symbolize the conflict in Ireland. The only character who retains his sanity in this mess is the town’s sole atheist who serves as both the local undertaker and the pub owner. As an atheist, he remains outside of the religious conflict and serves as the voice of reason amidst encroaching bigotry. From director Sydney Macartney.

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