‘They’ll drive you crazy. They’ll drive you insane.’
I was eight years old at the time. There was bad news. Canon O Gorman , the parish priest had died. He was highly regarded. It was he who undertook the replacement of the old church in Church Street, with a new church that stretched from Church Street right through to Strand Street, thereby opening up two new shortcuts. That was done before I was around. Monnie Barrett, a gentle old lady, who stood behind the bar in Joe May’s, told me about the old church. It was so small, that the girls kneeling at the Communion rail, used to tickle the altar boys’ toes. The altar boys were in their bare feet. Tickling was probably a mortal sin in those sepia days.
I don’t remember Canon O Gorman being alive, but I have a vivid recollection of him being dead. On balance though, the news was good. Because he was the manager of the National School, (The Nash. I have been told that Nash should be spelt with a G.) that premises closed as a mark of respect. Because he was the parish priest, an extra day was added. A successor was nominated, Father Patrick McAuliffe. Father McAuliffe died before he even reached Skerries. Two more days off! It was like winning the Irish Hospitals Sweepstake. We were on a roll. Bring ’em on.
My older brothers decided that we should go to Canon O Gorman’s wake. His what? His wake, you eejit. He was ‘reposing’ at the parochial house, the house now occupied by the Holy Faith Sisters. They confided to me that at wakes they give you whiskey and cigarettes. It’s an old Irish custom. Possibly the Wran Boys would turn up with an accordion. There was an outside chance of a brawl with shillelaghs and wigs on the green. It was too good to miss. I needed a drink and a smoke after all the excitement of parish priests dropping like flies all over the place.That was the refreshments catered for. Now for the wild, wild women.
He was laid out in his vestments, looking like a graven image on a tomb. His rosary beads were entwined around his fingers. He held a chalice, a chalice I believe, given to the parish in the 1770s, when the penal laws against Catholics were beginning to fade away. There is an awesome sense of continuity in that. There was an atmosphere of solemnity in the room. Some old women were saying the Rosary. We were included. I kept an eye on the door, wondering when there would be a break for drinks and a smoke. Did they ask us if we had a mouth on us at all? They did not. Were there any shennanigans? Divil a bit. We stayed for a few decades of the Rosary and departed quietly, overawed by the whole affair. He made a lasting impression. He was the first dead person I had ever met. I looked at my older brothers with a tinge of contempt after that, spoofers, a pair of frauds. It was the driest wake I had ever attended in all my eight years. Okay, I’ll admit it. It was the only one.
Canon O Gorman oversaw the building of a fine, if somewhat austere church, dedicated to Saint Patrick, a good Skerries man. He commissioned a sculpture from Albert Power, a leading sculptor of the day. See Albert’s Pikeman in Wexford. The Pikeman expresses a vital and rebellious spirit, a man prepared to receive cavalry. Saint Patrick, on our church, is more serene, but he caused a row nonetheless. Albert carved, at the saint’s feet, the ram caught in the bush and sacrificed by Abraham. Some said it was the deer that longeth for fountains of pure water. I don’t know why, but some parishioners, prominent benefactors of the church, took it to be Saint Patrick’s goat, notoriously eaten by the Skerries people, fifteen hundred years previously. A millennium and a half is but a moment in terms of an Irish grudge or an Irish jibe. Who took the soup in famine times, God help us? Who came over the Hoar Rock Hill in the wake of Cromwell’s army, ‘ playin’ penny whistles?’ There were delegations and complaints. Albert was obliged to come back and remove the goat. All was peace again, until The Boys’ Brigade spent a week or two camping in Skerries. Our separated brethren have no time for graven images. They whitened Saint Patrick’s beard with chalk and wrote ‘Santa Claus’ in the space where the goat/deer/ram should have been. We weren’t into the old ecumenism in the 1940s.
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. We lived in Church Street. Canon O Gorman enlisted my brother to keep guard over the new rose bushes in the church grounds. I’m not suggesting that my brother was an enemy of the Church, but it was good psychology all the same. My brother was a lively lad, well capable of riding his trike or kicking a football, through a flower bed. It was better to have him in the tent etc. etc. He had a strong sense of justice. So strong was his sense of justice that he used to send me out to play on the pavement, so that Ned Geary would hit me. I was like the tethered goat in a tiger hunt. He hated Ned Geary. He would emerge like an avenging fury to wreak a terrible vengeance on Ned Geary. He maintains that I distort the story by simplifying it. It was much more nuanced than that. I was too young to remember the facts, but there is nothing nuanced about a clout in the ear. The roses did well, by the way.
I went to early morning Mass in Milverton Chapel. This entailed a journey up Toker Hill. It entailed fasting. I usually fainted during the Mass and sometimes had to go to a later Mass in Skerries, because I was unconscious during the Consecration. My brothers were canon lawyers too. Technically I had not fulfilled my Sunday duty. Technically I had not been at Mass at all. I was outside on the step, with the world spinning around me and archangels dancing furiously on the head of a pin. I had gone to Mass, granted, but I had not been at Mass. I could hear the murmur of Mass and the little jingling bell, but damnation and hellfire were staring me in the face. The void was opening under my feet and demons were cackling below, in the bottomless pit. I heard the priest saying: ‘Your prayers are requested for the repose of the souls of His Holiness, Pope Pius the Twelfth and Mary Anne Brien.’ Sceptre and crown must tumble down and in the dust be equal made, with the poor crooked scythe and spade. Mary Anne Brien lived in a thatched cottage near the chapel. She cleaned the chapel and looked after the altar flowers, she and her Sister, Kate. Some male relative loved topiary. He had a row of white-thorn bushes, shaped like hens, cockerels, urns and globes. Mary Anne kept pigs. It was part of the ritual of a family walk to climb up on the whitewashed wall and have a ‘dekko’ at the pigs. Part of the pleasure of early Mass in Milverton, leaving aside the theological disputes, was free-wheeling down past Mary Anne’s cottage and whizzing under the railway bridge, to a breakfast of bacon and eggs, with Olhausens’ sausages and black and white pudding. Food for the soul. Of course, that meant breaking the fast and no Communion at the later Mass. The canon lawyers were very strict on that too. They had a hard line on the risks of swallowing toothpaste. If a saint had a silver plate in his skull, would that be a first or second class relic? That would be an ecumenical matter. Mary Anne made a great contribution to the special quality of Sunday morning, as indeed, did the pigs. You should have seen her sister, Kate, shimmying up to Communion. ( I made that up.)
There was a serious outbreak of ecumenism in the 1960s. Everyone reached out to everyone else. Centuries-old rifts could be healed by dialogue and parity of esteem. There was a big conference in Kilkenny. The Catholic bishop sat up on the platform. The Church of Ireland bishop sat down in the audience. A Jesuit explained that the word is not ‘Ecumenism’. Only muck-savages and heretics said ‘Ecumenism.’ The correct term is from the Greek, ‘Oekumenism.’ So there. It is a good strategy to wrong-foot those with whom you wish to ‘dialogue.” (That’s not a verb.) Before grappling them to your heart, it is no harm to remind them that they are wrong, but that you are prepared to forgive them. In this new spirit of love and reconciliation, a bus-load of ladies from the Shankill Road, came south to see what ‘they’ were really like in the Republic. They were on television. They paused at a roadside shrine in Monaghan. They looked at the graven image of the Virgin. ‘Put a few sticks of dynamite under that there,’ suggested one of the ladies. ‘That would be a start.’ The old oekumenism was gathering pace.
The belfry of the old church survived.It’s a limestone pinnacle beside a granite church. Milverton limestone, no doubt. It had a magnificent roof, like something you might see in Bavaria or Transylvania. If I were a bat, I would have liked to hang around the old belfry. Peter Halpin, the sacristan, let us ring the bell on occasions. It’s not as easy as you might think. You might find yourself being carried aloft on the rope. It’s all about timing. I tried it a year or two ago in Doneraile, during a festival. I haven’t improved. The bell went wild, spreading alarm and confusion all over the countryside. Peasants were hiding their gold in mattresses. Refugees were loading up their carts and setting off for the coast. Old men reached for pikes, long hidden in the thatch. An experienced campanologist stepped in and took charge of the beast. He calmed it with a few practised tugs on the rope. He counted the changes. All was harmony again. The pikes went back into the thatch.
As proof of how we have advanced, it is necessary to despise all that we were. The Church and Irish society have gone through massive convulsions. Sometimes we are like those writhing creatures in the Book of Kells, twisting back on ourselves and gnawing our own entrails. ‘Remorse’ translates also as ‘back-biting.’ Chairman Mao knew the importance of expunging the past. They have expunged him too. A prominent Irish writer wrote about Good Friday. He always had a family barbecue in the garden and a football match, in order to shock the silly Catholics, as they went past on their way to church. What larks, eh! I looked forward with great anticipation, to his follow-up piece about a similar celebration of enlightenment in Mecca, during the Hadj. Two million devout Hadjis would love a chance to stop by on their way, for a beer and a few pork ribs. Soccer is taking off too, in the Arabian peninsula. The World Cup in Qatar will be an ideal opportunity to let the Muslims see the error of their ways. Olhausens might be interested in sponsoring him. Watch this space for an update.
Fifty years after the opening of the church, a goat was put back under Saint Patrick’s statue. It is bronze, the end product of research and clay and the fascinating process of ‘lost wax.’ The inscription is from Peter in the house of Cornelius, referring to how his property and freedom were restored to him: Everything that was ours was restored to us, for the sake of God and of our invaluable friends.’ When the foundry men came to put up the plaque, they pulled their van up close to the wall. A grumpy old-Skerries man approached, complaining that the church was festooned like a dance-hall. (‘old-Skerries man’ is not the same as ‘old Skerries man.’ Nuances again.) We said nothing about the goat. He went away. It was appropriate that Albert Power’s nephew, Henry should be the person to unveil it. It was originally patinated in green, but some zealous person has cleaned off the patination, to make it shine like a new penny. The patination will grow back over the next few centuries. It may have taken fifteen hundred years to give back the goat, but it must be said that Skerries people pay their debts….eventually.
Margaret said to me: ‘You were only eight years old. Would you have drunk the whiskey, if it had been offered?’
A purely hypothetical question but…..it would have been churlish to refuse. It would have been a grave discourtesy to the memory of a decent man.