‘Running away from shadows’: The life path I nearly chose – before Australia beckoned

Philip Lynch recalls a late-night visit to the local priest in the ‘quiet place’ he once called home

 

Summer was over and warm days were already a rarity. The possibility of an Indian summer was being bandied about, but such wishful thinking always abounded at the end of August, if the previous few months had failed to live up to expectations.

It was the early 1980s, in the Irish midlands, and the weather was the last thing on my mind this evening as I made my way to the presbytery. A contractor had spent the best part of the day emptying our neighbour’s slurry pit; and this pervasive stench of his handiwork was everywhere. I had the road to myself.

By dusk, practically everyone would have retreated indoors to take their tea, to watch whatever on television, and to rest up for the next day. Wood pigeons were settling in for the night in the old ivy-coated sycamore near Heslin’s hayshed. A startled cock pheasant was scuttling off somewhere in the hazel copse that abutted our barley field. And further west, towards where the bog began, a dog that likely had been tethered too long, was howling in abject frustration.

When Fr Geraghty held up the host and the chalice at the Offertory, his arms would tremble, and the sleeves of his vestment would shake, uncontrollably

A few years earlier, Fr Geraghty, our curate, had arrived, without any fanfare. A severe-looking man, he had spent most of his life on the missions. With his impassive facial expression, he was difficult to read.

He lacked the warmth of his jovial predecessor Fr Troy. His persistent tremor suggested Parkinson’s, or some such degenerative disorder. When he held up the host and the chalice at the Offertory, his arms would tremble, and the sleeves of his vestment would shake, uncontrollably. He had no inclination for or interest in any sort of social life.

He was carrying out his priestly duties without any fuss, and he had little need for any cloying validation from anyone in the parish.

He seldom ventured out at night, unless it was for some unexpected urgent business. I was prepared to overlook his lack of charisma, his monotonous sermons, and his occasional misstep.

Like the Sunday when he had taken aim at what he had termed pagan England, and that country’s liberal attitude toward birth control. I was taken aback by his excoriation of our nearest neighbour. Four of my siblings would call London home at one stage in their lives. I had glanced around that morning for any reactions, for some murmured dissent, but there were only blank stares.

And yet here I was, as the light was fading, approaching the imposing wrought-iron silver-coated church gates, anxious for any crumbs.

The rapid-fire sentences of Mrs Murray, Fr Geraghty’s housekeeper, felt like an interrogation. I was well familiar with this vivid rural curiosity

When I eased open one of the wrought iron gates, I could see low light in the parlour. And sure enough, his red Fiat was parked near the door of the presbytery. Just as I was about to knock, the door was flung open by Mrs Murray, his housekeeper.

“Philip,” she said, breathlessly, “’tis yourself. Your mother, God bless her, said you might be of a mind to call down to us. And I hear you’re off to Cork. To the Fathers, your mother says. Next week, isn’t that so?”

Her rapid-fire sentences felt like an interrogation. I was well familiar with this vivid rural curiosity. I nodded, by way of an affirmation, unwilling to start up a conversation. I simply wanted to seek Fr Geraghty’s counsel.

Mrs Murray pressed on, oblivious or unperturbed by my reticence. “Sure, come in, now. Come in,” she urged, staring at me intently, as if to fully gain my measure. “Sure, you’re the dead spit of your father. You do have the same chin, so you do. Now, Fr Geraghty is in the parlour, so he is.”

Mrs Murray was a short, slight, temperamental woman, who was easily offended. As well as keeping the presbytery for Fr Geraghty, she saw to the altar flowers and made sure that everything was in order in the sacristy.

Some of the younger altar boys were scared of her. She was known to whip out a comb and brush the altar boys’ hair if she thought they looked too scruffy. Little escaped her notice.

It was said that when she was of a mind to, she could turn her hand to any dish, and that she had once worked in a fancy hotel up in Dublin. And sure enough, as I headed inside, a pleasant aroma of baking, likely an apple or rhubarb tart infused with cloves, was coming from the kitchen. It was a welcoming, homely smell, and I was wondering if she had set to baking knowing I was calling.

Fr Geraghty was sitting in a low armchair with narrow armrests, next to the empty fire grate. He looked uncomfortable and ill at ease in his black suit, roman collar and gleaming black leather shoes

I followed her into the modest-sized parlour that smelt of spent incense, which must have been coming from the thurible on a sideboard just inside the door. The smell reminded me of those benediction evenings in the crowded chapel at boarding school during Lent. Gloomy evenings when we tried valiantly to ignore our homesickness, with varying degrees of success.

A large framed print of what I now know is Jean-François Millet’s The Angelus was hanging on the wall above a sideboard. I had never seen it before, and I was struck by its power. The walls were painted mission brown and the floor was covered with thick faded red carpet. A large crucifix was affixed high on the wall over the mantelpiece. The room could almost have doubled as a sacristy.

Fr Geraghty was sitting in a low armchair with narrow armrests, next to the empty fire grate. He looked uncomfortable and ill at ease in his black suit, roman collar and gleaming black leather shoes. By this time of the evening, I thought, he would at least be wearing a cardigan and he would have replaced his shoes with slippers.

Even though it was a balmy September evening, the room was dank, almost chilly, and in addition to the incense smell there was the kind of smell typical of an old man who, albeit unbeknownst to himself, had let things slip. When he looked up and saw me, he set aside the pamphlet he was holding, and he gestured to the empty armchair directly opposite to where he was sitting. He took off his glasses and he rubbed at his eyelids with back of his forefingers in slow, deliberate movements, as if the very act of doing so was too painful for him.

We chatted about the poor summer, in stops and starts and fractured sentences as if we were unsure as to how to proceed. And just as our conversation looked like it was fizzling out altogether, Fr Geraghty said he had always found Filipinos to be kind-hearted and generous despite their poverty.

Fr Geraghty cut a forlorn figure sitting there in his armchair, and the last thing he needed was some pointed questions from someone as naive as myself

He thought they had been let down badly by their political leaders. At the end of his time there, he said, he had felt denuded, and sapped of his faith. He not been confident that things were any better for the people he had worked with, or that they would improve at all, and he did not think his years of ministry there had made much difference. Beyond that, he did not think there was much he could say about that unfortunate archipelago.

Throughout his monologue, he barely paused, as if he was uninterested in any questions I might have. It was almost as if he was thinking aloud and reliving his time there. And the memory of his experience was not resting easy with him. Denuded left little room for any ambiguity.

Did he think his whole life’s work had been futile? That was the question I wanted to ask. But he cut a forlorn figure sitting there in his armchair, and the last thing he needed was some pointed questions from someone as naive as myself.

Suddenly, the parlour door swung open, and Mrs Murray came in with a tray that had a pot of tea, a jug of milk, two china cups and saucers, and a small stack of Marie biscuits. At the sight of those ubiquitous bland biscuits, my heart sank. I realised I would remain none the wiser about the merits of her baking.

I watched as she deftly placed the tray on the coffee table. “There you are now, Father,” she said, as if she had produced something wonderful for us to behold.

Fr Geraghty didn’t say anything. He looked exhausted, so I leaned forward to pour the tea. When he reached out and took hold of the little jug and poured himself a modest measure of milk, his tremor was so pronounced the jug was hitting the rim of his cup, and some of the milk was spilling on to his saucer.

My mother looked up expectantly from darning one of the old man’s woollen work socks. Her day’s work was finally done, but she had stayed up waiting for me

Before he had even finished his tea he began yawning, and I realised I should get going soon. And when I stood up he nodded a little absentmindedly, and he remained silent as if he was lost in his thoughts, as if I had already left the room.

Outside, the slurry smelled even stronger than it had earlier. The wind had picked up. I walked on past Malones’ cottage, where there was still a light on in the back room. That would be old Malone, up late, doing his crosswords.

I was beginning to really doubt now. Had I really given my calling sufficient consideration? Was I chasing shadows? Or was I running away from shadows? What had I expected from Fr Geraghty? He looked such a lonely figure in his parlour, in his low armchair, with only Mrs Murray and her curiosity to keep him company.

And yet, I remembered, all through summer on the dairy farm in Leitrim I had been quietly confident, almost impatient for September to arrive.

It was pitch dark by the time I finally neared the gable of our house. Our collie didn’t stir from her bed in the bicycle shed as I entered the yard, and for this I was grateful. The outside light had been left on, and a dozen or so moths were circling and colliding into the exposed globe, but I still had to squint when I entered the harsh fluorescent-lit kitchen.

My mother looked up expectantly from darning one of the old man’s woollen work socks. The soda bread she had made earlier in the evening was on a cooling wire tray over near the wash basin. The stainless-steel bucketful of peeled potatoes she had prepared for tomorrow’s dinner was on a low stool near the kitchen dresser. Her day’s work was finally done, but she had stayed up waiting for me.

My mother and I would watch whatever was on, and we would stare at the screen until it was time to go to bed, and the house would fall silent again

“Well?” she asked, the eagerness unmistakable in her tone. “How did you get on?”

“Ah now, not so good,” I said, surprised at how pessimistic and deflated I was sounding.

“But, but, did he not have any useful advice, at all?” she pressed, suddenly anxious.

“No. Not really.” I replied. “Sure, that man has had a hard life,” I continued. “It’s a wonder he’s still even able to keep going.”

“And was herself there?” she asked, opting for safer ground.

“Oh, indeed she was,” I replied.

My mother sighed, set aside her darning, and she stood up, and she walked slowly over to the corner of the kitchen to the electric jug. It was late now, and the old man was down at Pat the Yankee’s, making a ceilidh. He wouldn’t be home until the early hours of the morning. In years to come they would fall out over a shared baler, but at that time they were still great friends, and they often went pheasant shooting on Sundays during the shooting season.

The sound of the boiling jug slowly became more insistent, louder even than the television. We would watch whatever was on, and we would stare at the screen until it was time to go to bed, and the house would fall silent again.

Outside the wind was strengthening, and the loose galvanised sheet on the bicycle shed had begun flapping again. “Your father should’ve fixed that blasted roof when I asked him to, weeks ago,” my mother said with sudden anger and exasperation.

I wasn’t worried about the roof. The old man would get around to fixing it when he was ready. I was thinking about the Angelus print and the dignified poise of that man and woman, peasants who were praying in their field of labour, with the church and its spire in the background. Theirs looked like an unambiguous faith, devoid of any doubt, and how I suddenly envied them.

I was also seeing our neighbour’s big meadow, smothered now in all that slurry, despite it being so late in the year. Indian summer or not, it wouldn’t be long now before the first frosts arrived to put a stop to any further growth. But by then I would be well gone from this quiet place.

I would be off on the long train ride south to Cork, with what I imagined was my calling still intact. I would be on my way to the order’s formation house. I wasn’t sure what I should expect to find there. But I was hoping that, at the very least, there would be some kind-hearted people. Surely that wouldn’t too much to expect. I would find out soon enough.

A scant three years later I would be heading for the ferry at Dún Laoghaire, on the first leg of my journey to Australia, any notions of a life in holy orders already fading fast in my mind. Perhaps that odd evening, at the end of summer, with an ailing Fr Geraghty was an ominous harbinger of what was to come.