Copyright Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd
- GOLDEN PRIEST
Chapter One - The Mass Rock
EVEN on the hottest summer days in Brisbane my thoughts occasionally stray to the bracing air and icy streams atop a steep hill a few miles outside my home village of Broadford, County Limerick in the south of Ireland. On a sunny day, the chequer board fields stretch out across the nearby parish of Killeedy to the acres and acres of rich country that is the Golden Vale of my childhood.
The vista is spectacular, which was what saved the lives of the faithful who gathered on the side of that hill three centuries ago, during the penal days, to attend Mass, while keeping a good lookout for any approaching redcoats. No wonder we grew up with sayings like “golden priest, wooden chalice”, though in hindsight of course the privations of the time were nothing to those of Maximillian Kolbe and the priests of his ilk who have offered the Holy Sacrifice down through the centuries in far graver peril. What mattered then, now and always, of course, was the Mass. We understood that growing up, generations of our forbears understood it and those who fight against the erosion of its pivotal importance in today’s Church, when the most formidable opponents, incredibly, reside within our own ranks, understand it also.
On January 14th, 2005, two days after my 76th birthday and the year of my Golden Jubilee, I somewhat foolishly clamoured down the steep, slippery stairs leading from the side of the mountain road to see the Rock and re-read the plaque put there to “commemorate the memory of the priests and people who at the risk of their lives offered Holy Mass here.” In 1716, local historians tell us, a local priest Fr Tadhg (Timothy in Irish) O’Sullivan (my mother’s maiden name by coincidence) was captured here. Thankfully (probably due to the efforts over the years of a wonderful, dedicated Brisbane physiotherapist called Sue Lister) I was able to climb up again with no more harm done than stiff legs for a few days.
Decades before, my first Archbishop, Sir James Duhig, another native of Broadford, had clambered down to the same spot, joined by about 1000 local people. As his biographer, Father Tom Boland, recalled in his 1986 Aquinas lecture, Sir James revisited the Mass Rock “from which, at the age of eighty, he looked out over the ancient kingdom of Thomond and saw all his history and that of his people in the Mass of the hunted years. The height, the climb, the luminous vision were always both physical and symbolic. They were his and they were his people’s. He was a sign of their life.”
These days, alongside the road near the entrance to the Mass Rock is a celtic cross with the inscription “In commemoration of the visit of Pope John Paul II, September 29th to October 1st, 1979.” How Sir James, I thought this time, would have loved the world stage on which John Paul II played out his role as the successor of Saint Peter. As always, the mountain stream was trickling down the cliff face behind the rock and before driving off I took a sip to find it was as pure and refreshing as I remember it from long ago bicycle trips when I was a teenager.
Driving a mile or two down the road through the village of Ashford, where Sir James attended school as a boy before the family left for England when he was about 12, I stopped at a small cottage with a red door. This was where Sir James was born. In the 1980s, I took Tom Boland there when he was researching his magnificent work on Sir James, and as Tom recalled in his Aquinas lecture: “With Tim Norris, I clambered down the banks below Killila Cottage to the tiny stream in which James Duhig paddled as a boy…. In a child’s eye that bank was an Everest. The boy returned as an archbishop after seeing the great basilicas and he viewed again the modest tree by the cottage door, which he had thought then the size of a cathedral. We followed the lanes he walked to school, so confined to be the first rung on the ladder of fame….”
Driving on in January 2005, I passed the old home of Mr and Mrs Clancy. Mrs Clancy, the district midwife, brought many of us into the world as babies and her husband, who operated a horse-drawn hearse, took us out of it. Attired formally in a black suit with a white sash and a large black hat for his undertaking duties, Mr Clancy, I remember, sported a large black moustache, whereas a bottle of Jeays Fluid and a white apron were the tools of Mrs Clancy’s trade. Further along on my trip down memory lane, I stopped at my old Parish Church, where I served Mass as an altar boy during the war years. Our Lady of the Snows, built of limestone in 1844 is a beautiful, reverent village Church with a striking Calvary sculpture in its front yard. A few years ago it appeared, to my intense pride and that of Billie, my brother, on the Angelus broadcast every evening on Irish television at 6pm, accompanied by the sounds of a bell. It was as inspiring on dark winter evenings as it was on sunlit summer ones when 6pm meant three or four hours of daylight and twilight still to come.
The old national school building that I attended is next door to the church. It was in this school, now used as a hall, that I first heard of a place called Brisbane, Australia, during a lesson about “a school clock tells its story.” Looking up at the old classroom clock, our teacher spoke of the students who had sat in front of it for decades and spoke of the young James Duhig, a pupil in the 1870s shortly after it opened, and how he had gone on to become Archbishop of Brisbane. We also learned about the Australian animals and I can still recall the Irish word for the eucalyptus leaves eaten by koalas – “serachan”.
Thankfully, the large, clear Stations of the Cross in Our Lady of the Snows are still the same ones so many of us children knew well as we often followed the Way of the Cross. I’m not pretending that life was idyllic in the village in the 1930s and 40s but it was faith-filled. Paying a visit to the Blessed Sacrament before running across the street to the old quarry for romping around or to the ball alley for handball was the norm. We were also keen players of hurling. Yes, the faith was always there, strong and visible. We grew up living and breathing it.
Then there were the gatherings at the corner near the old castle to celebrate the feast of St John the Baptist on June 24th when a giant bonfire would be lit. I think of them every time I drive past that corner on return visits to Ireland. Nor could I forget the delicious pig’s heads roasted on All Hallows eve, and always, at Christmas, a grand goose with potato stuffing. To my sheer delight, Billie and Joan, his wife, served one up for my birthday on my visit home.
As children, the liturgical seasons of the Church were our seasons, too, and we lived them to the full, much as all Parish priests do everywhere. Perhaps this is why, as one of my long dead priest friends used to joke, we can “smell heresy” from a distance? Whatever effect it all had, this was the landscape and village community that shaped my beliefs. While I hope my knowledge and faith has deepened and broadened from those early days, its essence has not changed from what I absorbed from the young schoolteacher, Phil Jones, who prepared me so well for my first Confession and Communion. Subsequent studies for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College Carlow, and Propaganda Fide in Rome served to reinforce the basics we learned in childhood. Revealed truth, after all, is as compelling and binding in a village religion class as in a Pontifical University.
On my Golden Jubilee visit home I stopped, as always, to say a prayer at Phil’s grave, with its fine Irish inscription, in the Springfield graveyard, where my parents, my grandmother and also a little brother and sister who died as babies are buried. It’s a tranquil, peaceful country graveyard, not far from the Springfield Castle estate. Ah, the Castle, home of Lord Muskerry in my day, an upright Protestant gentleman who was a good man and ran an excellent estate from his deer park to the rhododendrons in the drive. Among other things, he taught me the value of a good, strong handshake. Some of my mother’s friends helped out at the Castle when they prepared for large parties, and regaled us with the lives of the Lord and Lady and their friends – Lord and Lady Inchiquinn, Dawn McGaw, the Knight of Glin, Captain Daly and Miss Pat. The dishes prepared in the Castle kitchen – the sponges, the meringues, the Queen of Pudding – would have suited Mrs Bridges’ in Upstairs Downstairs, a program I enjoyed immensely as I related to it so closely.
In January 2005, as always, I found the silence in the Springfield Graveyard to be almost palpable. In the frosty winter air I wandered along the rows praying silently for the many familiar names on the tombstones – it’s comforting to run into their descendents who often stroll up there to remember them and pray. Looking beyond the graveyard fence there’s often a horse or two, a few cows or even a deer to be seen. In the distance there’s Daly’s Hill, where in my youth Jack Mack farmed his land and I worked for him for the princely sum of 9 pounds from June to September over many summer holidays and was lucky to get such a good wage. I don’t know about other farmers, but Jack especially deplored swearing. In his book there was “no occasion, no occasion in God’s earthly world” for such language.
Jack was a gentleman and a character for whom many things in life were “six of one, half dozen of another.” On a rare day out to the picturesque seaside town of Ballybunion in County Kerry, Jack liked “to turn the car for home” before dark. Which was just as well because on one memorable occasion when his old truck had no headlights we found ourselves striking matches beside roadside signs to find the right roads. On another, his headlights would only work on full beam. The cursing from drivers of oncoming cars left Jack spluttering that there was “no occasion” for such language. Today’s coarse language on television and in theatres would appal him, as it frankly appals me.
Our limestone Church in Broadford was not the first in the district to bear the name Our Lady of the Snows. As the excellent Limerick Diocesan Heritage Project tells us, that was also the name of the original Parish Church in the nearby district of Killagholehane (pronounced kill-ock-holy-harn), a name derived from the Irish Cill Acha Liatháin, which means “the church of the field of O’Leehane”.
“According to legend,” the Heritage Project site tells us “one of the Uí Liathain (O’Leehane) women wanted to establish a church but did not know the best site for her church. She prayed to God for a sign that would help her decide on the location. After a snowstorm in the summer, only one field remained free from the white blanket of snow. This field was part of the Uí Liatháin’s land. The woman took this occurrence as an omen. In honour of this omen, it was decided to dedicate the church to Our Lady of the Snows.”
The earliest record of that Church is from 1201. Now in ruins, it is a place I try to visit on a fine day (bogging is a certainty on wet days) to visit the graves of the Grogan family buried near the ruins. James Grogan was my first headmaster, the man who set me on my way. A stern, thorough teacher, he took me aside one day: “There’s a scholarship exam in Drom (the nearby village of Dromcollogher) on Saturday week. If you go in for that you should get it.” With a half crown from my grandmother, Mary O’Sullivan, I entered and was fortunate enough to “get it”. In His providence, God must have realised that there was no other way I was going to make it to secondary school, and that with ten thumbs I was anything but an ideal candidate for the technical school.
So in the 1940s I entered the chilly but industrious school rooms of the extraordinary Josie Savage, Mrs Quinn and Miss Murphy, to embark on Latin, Irish, English (we did Chaucer, Shakespeare and many other classics), History and Mathematics (studied in Irish). The original school was in the Square in Dromcollogher, but later we moved to the salubrious surrounds of the old police barracks. Mrs Savage, married to the faithful John Joe, was a local legend – stern but kind, determined, dedicated, hard working and filling a pressing local need to provide secondary schooling where otherwise there would be none. And she knew how to chivvy us along. “You’ll be selling buttons and bows behind the counter in Galvins (a local shop)” was one of her milder chastisements, which also extended to “you’ll be breaking stones on the road.” So many of us owed her and her fellow teachers Miss Quinn and Miss Murphy, as well as the primary teachers like James Grogan and Phil Jones – so very much. And the precious friendships forged between the pupils in those far off days - between myself and families like the Walls, the Scullys, the Alywards, the Grogans and the Duggans, have withstood the test of six decades and 20,000 kms.