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.