St Cyril and a Cottage near Lanesboro

My regular Sunday morning chore as a kid was to buy the week’s supply of eggs. After Mass I would set off on my bike, the string shopping bag hanging from the handlebars, a ten-shilling note in my pocket.

 

The farmer from whom I bought the eggs was called Charlie Rhattigan, and he lived about two miles outside the town of Lanesboro in Co Longford. He was a lone bachelor growing into old age, like so many of his generation in the nineteen fifties. The initial impression he created was of a gruff, dour, inhospitable man. But, as I got to know him, I realised that this appearance was utterly deceptive. Sometimes when I approached the door of his cottage, I heard his gales of laughter, and the radio blaring, with the unmistakable tones of Maureen Potter in her weekly comedy show. But when I entered, he clammed up.

 

Yes, he was a shy man, and it was to break a moment of awkwardness one day that he went down to his bedroom and came back with two books, one a small one, one a huge tome in a leather cover. He put them in front of me, opened the small one, and pointed out a photograph. ‘Have you ever seen that house?’

 

I looked carefully. It was a thatched cottage, and the caption underneath read, ‘The house in which Fr Joseph Mullooly was born.’ There were still plenty of thatched cottages all over the countryside and, to me, this looked like any one of them. I quickly conceded defeat. ‘Don’t think of being a detective when you grow up anyway,’ Charlie tutted at me. ‘Why?’ ‘Because you’re sitting in that house right now.’

 

I grabbed the book and held it closer for inspection. Of course, now that I knew, I could recognise the distinctive features, even though if was obviously a very old photograph. ‘Who was Fr Mullooly?’ I asked.

 

‘He was my great-great grand uncle, and he excavated a church in Rome. Do you want to borrow the books and you can read all about him?’ Charlie was uncomfortable in conversation, and lending me the books, that were clearly his treasure, extricated him. But I was delighted, and intrigued. It was my first acquaintance with the kind of fame that was recorded in books.

 

The big tome was written by Fr Joseph Mullooly himself, who was born in Charlie’s cottage in 1812, and set out as a young man to join the Dominican Order in Rome. His ability was recognised and he was promoted at an early age to the position of Prior at the monastery of St Clement. He was clearly single-minded and fearless, and crossed words, if not swords, with Garibaldi in defence of his monastery.

 

But Fr Mullooly’s great achievement was as a pioneer of archaeology in Rome. His studies led him to believe that his church of St Clement was built on top of the early Christian basilica of the same name. So he began excavating the debris of centuries that had necessitated the building of the medieval church on higher ground.

Lo and behold, he discovered the intact early Christian basilica underneath. Underneath that again he found remnants of a pre-Christian temple. His discovery was the wonder of Europe. His presentation of the excavated site made it one of the main tourist attractions of Rome, and drew visits from crowned heads as well as those following the grand tour. The Prior of St Clements was celebrated all over the western world.

 

A few years ago, on one of my visits to Bulgaria, some writer-friends brought me to the Rila Monastery, their holiest shrine. ‘I presume this is where St Cyril is buried,’ I queried, referring to their national saint, who, with his brother St Methodius, had given the Slav nations their alphabet, the so-called Cyrillic alphabet. ‘No,’ they said, ‘St Cyril is buried in Rome in a monastery called San Clemente.’ ‘San Clemente,’ I uttered in disbelief. ‘Do you mean an Irish monastery, St Clement’s?’ ‘That is right,’ they replied. ‘An Irish monk excavated it and discovered the tomb of St Cyril.’

 

When I related this to the Bulgarian Ambassador, his Excellency Emil Savov Yalnazov, and told him about Charlie Rhattigan’s cottage, he determined to visit it. I accompanied him on his visit to lay a wreath in the birthplace of Fr Mullooly as a thank you from the Bulgarian people. The cottage had succumbed to the fate of all thatched cottages and was now roofless, but was otherwise lovingly maintained by the current owner. And while the Ambassador spoke to the assembled guests of the significance to the Bulgarian people of having the grave of their patron saint restored to them, I was recalling Sunday afternoons and Charlie Rhatigan quietly wrapping eggs in torn-up pages of the Farmer’s Journal.

Ambassador of Bulgaria, Emil Savov Yalnazov, centre, with Jack Harte left, and current owner John Killian
Ambassador of Bulgaria, Emil Savov Yalnazov, centre, with Jack Harte left, and current owner John Killian in the cottage where Fr Mullooly was born
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A Pilgrimage to Hampstead

There is something about the pilgrimage, the sacred or ritual journey, that is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Muslims go to Mecca, Hindus to the Ganges, Roman Catholics to Lourdes or Fatima. I have never been to any of these places, never gone to Knock or done Lough Derg, but I have undertaken my own pilgrimages. I have done the stations at the Keeve, St Farnan’s shrine in Tireragh, Co Sligo. I have climbed Knocknarea, the mountain of the moon, with my stone carried from the base to be deposited on the cairn on the summit. And I have been to Hampstead.

Yes, Hampstead. Hampstead in the suburbs of London. That was the destination of a pilgrimage I made in the truest sense.

When I was a child I loved poetry. I loved the ring of it in the ear, the way it massaged the tongue when uttered voicelessly, the way it set in motion an ocean of waves and currents when it was given voice, its explosion of images when it was lobbed like a hand-grenade into the unsuspecting mind.

And I first encountered John Keats on the Leaving Certificate course. There was a selection of his poems to be studied, and, reading them for the first time, I was stunned, eventually besotted:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken.

His great odes were there, To Autumn, On a Grecian Urn, and To a Nightingale, as well as La Belle Dame Sans Merci and a string of sonnets.

But it was Ode to a Nightingale that captivated me, held me in thrall as Keats might have put it, with its sheer magnificence, its scope, its sweep of imagery, and above all the profound longing it articulated. Ah, yes, for an adolescent in the early sixties, The Nightingale had everything. My English teacher at the time was the worst imaginable. He didn’t teach, he merely allocated chunks of text to be learned by heart, his only teaching aid a heavy stick. But for me that was perfect. He never commented on the text, never reminded us of an impending examination. So I imbibed The Nightingale in its purity, unadulterated by anyone’s erudition.

On my first trip to England at the age of nineteen, I had a sense of purpose, a pilgrimage to undertake. I was going to visit the house in Hampstead where Keats wrote The Nightingale. But this was not to be a flying touristic visit, this was going to be more of a sacred journey.

I left it to the last day of my holiday. I set out, on foot, from the centre of London in the early morning. The day was long, I had my map, and there were many significant stations along the way. By the time I reached my destination in the early afternoon, I was breathless, partly from the exertion of the long walk, partly from the sense of expectation. And I wasn’t disappointed. The houses where Keats and Fanny Brawne stayed were still intact. But I wasn’t interested in the memorabilia or the exhibits in the glass cases. I just wanted to breathe the air in the place, listen to the wind ruffle the leaves of the trees that might have sheltered the sacred bird. And, having done that, my mission was complete, well the first part of it anyway.

There is a stanza in The Nightingale that always aroused the most profound thirst in me, ensured that my days as a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association were numbered, guaranteed that, as soon as I left school, I had to try and slake that thirst with alcohol:

O for a draught of vintage! That hath been

   Cooled a long age in the deep delvéd earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

   Dance and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth.

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

   Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim

   And purple stainéd mouth;

That I might drink and leave the world unseen,

   And with thee fade into the forest dim.

The return leg of the journey was also part of the pilgrimage. The final station on the way was the most famous Irish pub in London, the Crown in Cricklewood. Poetry has consequences. And wasn’t it in the tradition of the pilgrimage to include an inn as a staging post?

Catholic Ethos and the Right to Choose

Recently I had to seek medical aid. My problem was minor but required an operation and a spell in hospital. On my first appointment I was given a form to complete. I filled in all the usual details until I came to the Clause   Religion ……….  Here I wrote  Not Applicable.

 

When I handed the form to the receptionist, she checked it down, then said, ‘Sorry you haven’t filled this in’, pointing to Religion. I said I had, and that I thought it was a totally irrelevant question, as irrelevant as asking me what football team I support. ‘But the answer is mandatory,’ she said, ‘otherwise the computer will not accept the whole entry’, and she gave me the plaintive look that said, you are not going to make my job more difficult than it is, are you?

 

I have boundless admiration for the medical profession, for their expertise, but especially for the way they genuinely care for the parade of suffering humanity that passes through their corridors. So no I didn’t want to make her job any harder.

 

‘What do you suggest?’ I asked. ‘My religious, ethical, and philosophical stances can’t be summarised in one word.’

 

‘How about None?’

 

I laughed. ‘It would be totally inaccurate, but no more inaccurate than any other one-word answer. Will the computer accept that?’

 

‘Yes, it will.’

 

‘Grand. None it is then.’

 

On my second visit I was given a computer printout to check and sign. Everything was correct, except under  Religion where I was declared  Catholic. I struck it out, and brought it back to the receptionist.

 

‘This is wrong,’ I said, pointing to the offending word.

 

‘Oh, I am so sorry,’ she apologised. ‘You are not a Catholic.’

 

‘I didn’t say that, neither did I say I was. I cannot identify myself unconditionally with an institution that treats half the human race as second class, your half.’

 

She gave me a puzzled but plaintive look – you are not going to give me a hard time, are you?

 

‘I find the question bizarrely irrelevant, but I arranged with your colleague to enter None as my religion.’

 

She looked relieved as she typed the four-letter word.

 

On my admission to hospital I was again given a printout to check and sign. Reading down I found all the details present and correct until I came to Religion, which again identified me as Catholic. Further down there was a Clause  In case of an emergency   and the computer had inserted  Call a priest to administer Extreme Unction. I struck out all this, signed the printout, and brought it back to Reception.

 

Again I pointed out my objection to being asked about my religious beliefs, and asked if the final clause could be amended –  In case of an emergency – to – Call the doctor, fast.

 

All went well, and I couldn’t have been treated better had my name been Benedict, or had changed to Francis recently. But the evangelical computer had not finished with me yet. In the post-operative days I was given a phial to provide a urine sample. I duly did my duty. As I cast my eye over the tiny bottle, I saw that the label with the essential identifying details was printed. It had my name, PPS number, and in bold lettering Catholic.

 

What could I say? What use was made of that piece of information? Was Catholic piss different to Protestant piss? Did someone in the laboratory have to separate the bottles and give priority to Catholic piss? One of the mysteries of religion!

 

This proselytising computer should have been shipped to Rome. In no time it would have the population of the world converted to Catholics. I laughed about it for the week I was in hospital and told my visitors, who laughed too. It was the perfect tonic – I laughed so much I recovered my health in no time.

 

Then Savita Halappanavar died, and it didn’t seem funny any more.

 

 

 

 

 

Response: Homage to Levchev

When Valentin Krustev returned to Sofia, having visited my cottage in Killeenduff, Co Sligo, this summer, he was telling Lyubomir Levchev of his experiences. Lyubomir, with a mischievous laugh, asked him if the computers were still in the garden, referring to his poem ‘Last Wish’ – see post, ‘Levchev and I’. So I thought I would respond in his own quirky manner. The Bulgarian translation is Valentin’s

 

Keeper of the Shrine

 

My father always dumped

the used horseshoes

into the garden by the Forge.

Digging potatoes

I would find them

embedded in the soil

rusting and crusting

into decay.

Unlike the potatoes

they

had not germinated

had not sprouted

had not bloomed in time

into full-blown mares or stallions.

 

The garden continued

as the graveyard

of broken artefacts

the cast-offs

of my own occupation

an old Remington typewriter

printers that refused to divulge

the verses entrusted to them

and the three desk-top computers

redundant when I moved to laptop.

 

Versed in the lesson of the horseshoes

I expected

neither breath nor budge

from this lifeless lot

until the poet

came straggling down the road

you know the type

feet that have walked a thousand years

eyes that darted about

like the eyes of a child

and he began staring at the three computers

began talking to them

as if voice recognition

had already reached

my remote province.

 

I was not home at the time

did not witness the conversation

and depend like everyone

on the report of the village simpleton

who said the poet conjured the spirits

of the three computers

conversed with them

received a message from the highest power

a warning of the ultimate necessity.

 

If I could leave

I would follow this poet

ask him to exorcise my garden

but I am chained

I have to maintain guard

have to ensure

that conservationist or thief

does not rifle the computers for parts

since I have not learned yet

in which part the deity resides.

 

Now the people come in droves

to pay homage

to the new deities

tie tokens to the trees

memory sticks

usb cables

that sort of thing

and so many mouses

hanging from the branches

like hibernating bats

offerings to the electronic gods.

 

 

Джак Харт

 

Пазител на Светилището

 

Баща ми винаги изхвърляше

старите подкови

в градината ни до Ковачницата.

Копаейки картофи

ги намирах

заровени в земята

ръждясали корясали

разлагащи се

но ненапъпили

но непокълнали

но неразцъфнали

навреме

в съзрели за разплод кобили

или жребци.

 

Градината

сега е гробище

на негодни артефакти

вехтории

свързани с професията ми:

стара пишеща машина „Ремингтън”

принтери отказващи да огласят

поверените им стихове

и настолните компютри – три на брой

станали ненужни след като се обзаведох с лаптоп.

 

Усвоил урока от подковите

не очаквах

нито дъх ни трепет

от това мъртвило

докато не дойде поетът

крачейки отнесено по пътя

знаете поетите какви са

с нозе избродили хилядолетие

очите му се стрелкаха насам-натам

като очите на дете

вторачи се в компютрите

и взе да им говори

сякаш разпознаването на команди по гласа

беше вече стигнало

до моята затънтена провинция.

 

Аз не си бях вкъщи този ден

и не съм чул разговора

тъй че като всички трябва да се доверя

на разказа на селския глупак

който каза че поетът призовал духовете

на компютрите в градината

разговарял с тях

получил свише някакво послание

някакво предупреждение за последната необходимост.

 

Ако можех щях да тръгна

след поета и да го помоля

да прогони бесовете от градината ми

но съм прикован

трябва да стоя на стража

да внимавам някой сладкодумник

или пък крадец

да не окраде компютрите за части

тъй като не съм научил още

във коя част обитава божеството.

 

Хората сега прииждат на тълпи

за да почетат

новобожествата

връзват дарове за спомен по дърветата

флашки

ю-ес-би кабели

и тоя род неща

а от клоните

висят и много мишки

като прилепи спящи зимен сън

жертвоприношения за електронните кумири.

 

 

Превод от английски: Валентин Кръстев