"A house divided against itself cannot stand," Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, quoting scripture. He was anticipating both the War Between the States and its aftermath, when the country would "become all one thing," whether slave-owning or free. Similarly, Syd Macartney's A Love Divided, which personalizes the years-long conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, tries and fails to come up with a way the two religions might live together. Based on the true story of Sean Cloney and Sheila Kelly, who married outside their respective faiths in 1949 and then watched as their lives were torn asunder, A Love Divided seems particularly relevant at a time when many of us are trying to imagine a reconciliation between Christianity and Islam. If Sean and Sheila's house couldn't stand, what hope is there for God and Allah?
In an early scene, Sean (Liam Cunningham) and Sheila (Orla Brady) get married not once, not twice, but thrice ' first at the registry office in London, then at Sheila's Protestant church, then at Sean's Catholic church in Fethard-on-Sea, a peaceful village in County Wexford. Idyllic years follow until it's time for the Cloneys' eldest daughter to begin school. Sheila had signed the "ne temere" pledge when she got married, her vow to raise the children as Catholics. But for reasons that the movie doesn't do a very good job of explaining, she suddenly changes her mind on the first day of school. And she can't believe that Sean, who's an easy-come, go-along kind of guy, doesn't stand behind her, siding instead with the local priest. The way she remembers it, she and Sean took a separate vow: They would make their own decisions on matters of faith.
What a Protestant idea! And what a price was paid for their misunderstanding. When Sheila runs off to Scotland's Orkney Islands with her two daughters, the ripple effects quickly grow into a wave, then a tsunami, and before you know it Sean and Sheila have become a cause cÃlÃbre. Fethard-on-Sea, which had always managed to harbor both Catholics and Protestants without descending into civil war, succumbed to sectarian violence. And the Catholic majority unleashed a McCarthyite reign of terror on the Protestant minority. Depending on your perspective, A Love Divided has either a happy or an unhappy ending. I only wish that Macartney and his scriptwriter, Stuart Hepburn, had probed deeper into what drove Sheila to do what she did, especially since her own family, not to mention her pastor, tried to talk her out of it.