The warm feeling that old friends bring

I wish I’d said: ‘Come on, Pat, let’s have a little dhrop of the crathur. Feck tomorrow’

The last time I saw Pat, “the priesht”, he blessed me outside the Quays pub in Galway.

It was November 2019, and I was staying in a hotel on the prom in Salthill while attending the Galway Clinic for treatment for my little health challenge. (Thank you BreastCheck for your vigilance.)

Pat was the reason, in many ways, that I had lived on a Co Mayo island for 16 years. After he was ordained in 1979 he was despatched off to the Clew Bay outpost of Clare Island for his apprenticeship as “the priesht”.

As he observed at my subsequent wedding to MB, an islander of the most committed kind, the reverend professors in Maynooth hadn't taught any courses on how to survive storm force winds or how to fix the damned electricity generator when it sounded like King Kong with dyspepsia.

Ah! yes, as a graduate of the same institution – albeit the more secular part of the campus – I can vouch for the fact that the minutiae of canon law and dogmatic theology do not prepare you for Roonagh Pier when the swell is howling like a banshee.

It was during one of these meteorologically challenging days in January 1980 that I made my maiden voyage to the island with our friend Mary Kelly to stay with "the priesht".

A baptism of fire, on every level.

Fortunately, Pat had the foresight to fill us with a ballast of hot whiskeys in a pub in Louisburgh before we set off in the pitch dark and howling winds in a tiny craft with a tiller on its stern. Ironically, it was Pat's new puppy Buddha's maiden voyage too. To this day, I am not sure who was yelping the most. All I remember is at some stage I found myself rolling around the tiny cabin while hugging a side of beef and being battered by tins of processed peas.

These memories of my early days on the island were invoked in recent months during a series of fireside talks I was invited to give to guests at Clare Island lighthouse – now a Blue Book guesthouse.

Forty years after I first visited this island, which changed the course of my life – brought me my three wonderful daughters, introduced me to the true meaning of community, craic and a little madness – my old friend Pat was part of my discourse once again. Frankly, some of the yarns are not for the police of political correctness or, indeed, conservative clericalism. He was from the same school of thought as our college friends, writer Michael Harding and the late poet and philosopher John O'Donohue.

It was well over a decade since I had last met Pat, when I ran into him that morning on Quay Street in 2019. We had continued to exchange Christmas cards each year: his were always homemade and infused with the spirit of famous Jesuit priest and anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan.

I was lost in thought, thinking about my first coffee of the day, when, as I passed Tigh Neachtain’s, I heard the familiar soft tone of his voice: “Áine... Áine Ryan.”

And next thing the familiar face appeared through a gaggle of Spanish students: ambling walk, battered briefcase, twinkling smile, cigarette hanging between his thumb and forefinger.

There was never a clerical uniform, unless absolutely necessary.

It was no wonder that the wide-eyed American tourists stopped in their tracks. After we had chatted for a while about mutual friends, the island, my little health challenge, the most definite need to meet up for an evening, we said our goodbyes. As I proceeded down the cobbled street in the warm feeling that old friends bring, I heard my name being shouted out again.

"Áine?" I turned. "Yes Pat." "Is it alright if I bless you?" "Em ... Bless me! Okay, sure."

There we were, his briefcase thrown on the street, his latest cigarette stubbed out, his glasses pushed up his nose and a poetic mumbo-jumbo of Latin – or so it seemed – being incanted over me.

I only wish now I’d said: “Come on, Pat, let’s go into a snug in Neachtains and have a little dhrop of the crathur. Feck tomorrow.”

RIP Pat O’Brien, November 25th, 2021.