I gazed too long. She asked what I was thinking


Last week I met Páraic Breathnach in Galway, a big, sculpted figure whose eyes are dark and mysterious, like small lakes in Connemara.

We had scrambled eggs for breakfast and chatted about old Irish words such as spalla, which means a sharp stone. “In Connemara they have a phrase,” Breathnach said, “to throw the spalla, which means to make a cutting remark.”

I envy the erudition of native Irish speakers who love so deeply what they lost forever, when the Great Famine silenced one million tongues. And Breathnach’s dark eyes have a way of holding the listener close and tight, like ropes that strap a currach down in an unruly swell.

Years ago I used to visit a writer who lived by the sea and he would recite from Patrick Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary as if it were poetry.

“Scárdán,” he proclaimed one night, with the dictionary under his oxter, “is a squirt, or a splash. It could refer to cream being poured into a churn or the voiding of your bladder. And it could also suggest a hint of terror in the eyes.”

And terror was the word that came to mind when I saw the Bishop of Elphin Christopher Jones on the television in my hotel room that afternoon. He was in the Senate explaining his church’s view on abortion laws and it was like watching a man in a leaking boat surrounded by sharks. He certainly wasn’t enjoying himself. And I took no pleasure in seeing him stressed by such slippery fish.

A good listener

I once knew the bishop when he was a simple priest called Christy Jones. I was working with the social services, and Christy’s office was across the creaky corridor from mine, and there were usually a few Traveller women downstairs in the waiting room hoping to see him. Christy was a good listener and kind to everyone.

I was at a Traveller wedding one day, and the reception was in a community centre. The bride and groom stood in second-hand clothes at either ends of the hall. The bride tittered with her sisters behind their hands, and the groom drank bottles of stout with cousins who were choking in tight suits and small shirts and neckties fastened more fiercely than a rope on a country dog.

And then Christy coaxed the two principals to dance, and to begin the first faltering phrases of a conversation that would become their marriage.

I was observing it all like an undergraduate anthropology student and sneering when Christy came over to me and just said: “Don’t make judgments.”

But that’s a long time ago, and somewhere in between Christy Jones became the bishop of Elphin, and as he left the Senate last week he seemed to have grown tired and weary.

The quiet desolation of January

I watched him on the evening news, and then I went for a ramble around Galway city, beautiful even in the quiet desolation of January. The streets were empty and the footpaths dry, and everything reminded me of Death in Venice.

A lonesome young man with very long hair was playing a violin on Quay Street. I stood to listen as he played with a lightness and melancholy that reminded me of Mahler.

Later, in McDonagh’s, I had fish and chips, though it was almost 10 o’clock and the staff were already cleaning other tables. And back at the hotel the receptionist said her name was Magdalena. She was Polish and had been on duty all day. I may have been gazing at her too long because she asked what I was thinking about.

I was still thinking about the musician, the jaded bishop and the smouldering eyes of the beautiful Connemara man, but I didn’t tell her. I said, “I’m hoping to go to Poland very soon.”

She took it as a compliment, and smiled, and I felt grateful for the divine feminine shimmering in her eyes.

On the way home the following day I stopped in Ballinasloe to get a key cut in Harney’s. I left the broken key in the shop and went down the street to pass the time, and I found a garish Virgin Mary, frowning in a shop window, with Laurel and Hardy by her side.

I imagined the Madonna speaking to me. “Don’t leave me here with these clowns,” she seemed to say. But then the little icons of comic humanity also spoke.

“We’re human too,” I heard them say, though the virgin remained disgruntled, as if she didn’t yet realise that God is everywhere.

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