A fearless and good priest's lonely last walk

Michael Harding: The cool rains of Roscommon, and the soft sleet showers over Kilronan mountain were a gentle embrace, compared to his earlier life in the heat of Africa

‘Father Tynan was a bit of a warrior himself as he battled with the darkness of midwinter, and the snows in Arigna’

‘Father Tynan was a bit of a warrior himself as he battled with the darkness of midwinter, and the snows in Arigna’

 

The good priest Father Tynan died in the winter of 2014. He talked a lot but he never boasted about the fact that he was a nephew of General Seán Mac Eoin, a hero of the War of Independence. And he was a bit of a warrior himself as he battled with the darkness of midwinter, and the snows in Arigna.

He came to my door one night in January many years ago. I had a black Labrador at the time, with short hair, who scratched so vigorously that I was often embarrassed whenever there were visitors in the house.

The priest walked in the gate with a small lamp attached to his woolly hat. The ditches were white with snow.

'I’m terribly sorry,' says I to the holy man, as if the dog was doing something obscene

I brought him in to the fire and he sat on the sofa and I didn’t realise the dog was underneath until the scratching began.

“I’m terribly sorry,” says I to the holy man, as if the dog was doing something obscene.

“I don’t know why he does that,” I said, “I bring him swimming to the lake every day. Surely he couldn’t have fleas at this time of year.”

“It’s probably the ears,” the priest suggested. “You need to get a few drops from the chemist for his ears.”

“How do you know that?” I wondered.

“I spent time in Africa,” he joked. Though how Africa related to my Labrador’s ears I didn’t quite understand.

I tried to make small talk as we sipped tea by the fire, and his woollen hat and black coat rested on the back of another armchair.

“That’s a great lamp you have there,” I observed, referring to the torch attached to the hat. “I suppose it’s a necessity in the dark.”

He loved walking at any time of the day or night, but he especially loved to walk into the wilderness; a habit which began in Africa

Walking around like a lost miner was not unusual for him, though he frightened the life out of me when I saw him for the first time, standing on the edge of a dark laneway. 

I’d often see him at night, with the torch wobbling on his head and a high-visibility jacket over his coat. He loved walking at any time of the day or night, but he especially loved to walk into the wilderness; a habit which began in Africa. 

That night he talked about a pathway he dreamed of developing for tourists. A pathway across Kilronan mountain, along some of the old roads where the miners used to walk on their way to work. 

The miners also wore torches on their heads going down the mines, and they carried lanterns to work on dark winter nights, and they spiked the path with markers so that if it snowed they would not get lost or fall into bog holes on their return. So perhaps the priest was only following their tracks.

“That’s a very wintery night to be out walking,” I observed.

“I’m not afraid of a good challenge,” he declared. “In fact, I once crossed the desert in a jeep, and was charged at by an elephant, surrounded by a pride of lions, and attacked by a deadly poisonous snake which I discovered under the driver’s seat. So the little hills of Arigna don’t hold any fear for me.”

And no doubt as he got older, the cool rains of Roscommon, and the soft sleet showers over Kilronan mountain were a gentle embrace, compared to the encounters of his earlier life in the heat of Africa.

“Don’t forget those drops from the chemist,” he said as he was leaving.

And with that he walked off into the snow and I watched the little light bobbing in the dark as he moved down the hill.

The snow was beginning to fall again like tufts of cotton. It was falling through the bushes and trees in the garden. Sliabh-an-Iarainn and Lough Allen had vanished.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to leave you home, Father?” I called after him. The little torch swivelled in the darkness as he turned to speak.

“Don’t worry,” he shouted back, “I can find my own way home.”

A fog of forgetting wrapped itself around him like a winter blizzard, and he was lost in a confusion as fierce and merciless as the biting frost

Years later the Miners Way was finally opened to the public and local people erected a little bridge across one of the rivers in remembrance of the priest.

Not that Father Tynan knew anything about it. He was already gone to his final rest. Although he didn’t find the leaving of life easy. A fog of forgetting wrapped itself around him like a winter blizzard, and he was lost in a confusion as fierce and merciless as the biting frost. And dementia became the final wilderness that he faced on his heroic and solitary journey home.

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