David Rice

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 2nd November 2018

David Rice is a name I know well. In journalistic circles his name is mentioned with respect verging on awe. I’ve a treasured copy of his Rathmines Stylebook, and have read Song of Tiananmen Square, his lauded novel about the 1989 massacre, but we’d never met. And when, a day before our proposed interview, he rings from his home in Killaloe, to say that he’s done his back in, so we’ll have to talk over the phone, I’m disappointed.

The hour spent talking to him proves an enlightening and highly satisfactory experience. And when we’ve finished, Rice urges me to visit him and his partner any time I find myself near Limerick.

We’re talking about I Will Not Serve, his recently published book on Franz Reinisch, a Roman Catholic priest who was executed because he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler. Rice read about the case years ago, when he, himself, was a seminarian.

“He was told, ‘if you sign here, everything will be okay. You can walk out,’ but he said, ‘Sorry. I cannot take an oath to a criminal, namely Hitler.’ That story haunted me for years, and twenty years ago, I decided to find out who he was.”

This proved difficult.

“I wrote to various religious orders and eventually received a letter for a diocese in Germany, saying, ‘maybe this is the man you are looking for.’ I flew there, and stayed for a while, getting familiar with him. The order kindly gave me everything they had on him; booklets, the sermons he had preached, and I spent ten years translating it all into English. I have a degree in German, but it was quite an ordeal.”

He then had to decide how to write the book.

“I didn’t want it to be a history book. I wanted to write it like a film script so that you could see things happening. I couldn’t be a fly on the wall, but I tried to get inside the protagonist’s head, and I took on Joyce and Proust’s stream of consciousness. I stayed inside Reinisch’s head and tried to portray what his thoughts would be when he was facing his trial, and on the eve of his execution.”

It’s a wonderful portrayal. Rice shows us how Reinisch grew from a reckless, selfish and vain young man into an inspiring spiritual leader whose decision of conscience led to his death.

“There’s that terrifying scene when he says, ‘I know I’m going to be shot,’ and he’s told, ‘you won’t be shot, you’re going to be beheaded.’ He goes to the window and throws up.”

I sense that Rice feels an affinity with Reinisch, and he confirms this.

“I took a stand,” he says. “I used to write a syndicated column in the States. I took a stand of conscience – it was a much lesser thing than Reinisch’s – but I suffered for it. People turned against me and life became very difficult afterwards. It still hurts very much.”

The book contains a quite wonderful depiction of what faith is. It contends that at some stage you have to doubt, and then take a leap of faith. And in order to do so, you get a special grace from God to do it.

“I can’t remember if those were Reinisch’s words of mine,” says Rice. And it’s clear, from our conversation, that although Rice left the church at 35, he is still a fervent believer. Indeed, he prays every day, and counts the Dominicans amongst his closest friends. Why did he leave?

“That would be sheer loneliness,” he says. “I lived my celibacy honestly, but I kept so many of other people’s problems to myself, and eventually I reached a kind of burnout.”

He recounts the conversations with his friar in Kilkenny, a man who, eventually, agreed that he needed to test his commitment, and that he should attend university. He went to Galway and had the most wonderful four years of his life.

“I became involved in everything and had my adolescence there, at the age of thirty-five.”

From there he was offered a fellowship to Carbondale, Illinois. He was still functioning as a priest at that stage, though mainly just at weekends. And when he was offered a job on a newspaper in Aberdeen, Washington, on the borders with Oregon, he felt conflicted.“I turned it down,” he says. “I told them I was going back to Ireland. But when I put the phone down I burst into tears.

“I’d prayed for guidance. I knew if I took the job I would definitely be out of the priesthood, and definitely going to marry a woman I’d met. I joined a friend who was doing Mass and told him I was going back to Ireland. He said, ‘you don’t seem very happy about it, do you?’

Another friend persuaded him to ring the paper the following day, to tell them he had changed his mind. He did so, and the job, and the woman, were his.

“I had the most wonderful five years on that job,” he says. “And I brought in my European know how, because I had been editing ‘Spotlight,’ for the Dominicans for years. I brought in real picture photography and transformed the thing.”

He then became the Assistant City Editor for a daily paper, until the call came asking him to run the school of journalism in Rathmines – which became the DIT School of Journalism. He did that for eighteen years.

“I knew I was a good communicator and I did know my stuff. But on the first day I ran out of what to say half way through. All these young people of 18 and 19 were looking up at me. I can see the faces of some of them still. I said, ‘OK. I’ll do interviews now. I’ll interview one of you and show you how to do it.’ I never looked back after that, and they were the loveliest young people. Many of them are still my friends.”

Rice now lives, happily, with his partner of twenty-five years, Catherine Thorne. The duo set up The Killaloe Hedge School of Writing, and, having retired from live teaching, are currently in the process of transforming their classes into a series of books. The first one of five, Yes You Can Write, is due out with Red Stag in September. The fly cover of I will Not Serve, lists four other books ‘in preparation.’ One of them, Corduroy Boy, contains references to Franz Reinisch.

“It’s about scrupulosity, something that ruined my teenage years. I’ve used the stories of people who went to these elite schools told me about being sexually molested, and have woven them into this boy’s experience. The boy is helped by a mature priest, and he mentions a friend called Franz Reinisch who was executed. It’s a sequel in some sense.”

The main message of I Will Not Serve, is that Conscience is the absolute arbiter.

“If you turn away, as so many people in Germany did, you will end up with something terrible. The only way is to protest, even if it hurts.  Take the Magdalene Laundries and sexual harassment of children. People knew about that and turned away. On two occasions I went for the jugular on that one. I didn’t turn away.

“And if you go against conscience, at whatever cost, you have lost your way. The most common use of conscience is when you see evil being done and your conscience tells you to protest. If you don’t, you are going along with it. Reinisch wasn’t silent and he paid the ultimate price for it.”

I Will Not Serve. Based on the true story of Franz Reinisch. Red Stag: €14.99.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 8th September, 2018.

© Sue Leonard. 2018


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