Not so much looking down as across..

Monday, September 6, 2010

Back to school in Clare

Five things I liked most about the 2010 Merriman School in Ennis


I had never been at a summer school of any description, ever. I did not know what to expect exactly in terms of content, company or context. I liked the title: Faith: Beyond Belief? It reflected my personal struggle this year to find intellectual meaning and spiritual clarity. 2010 has been a year prefaced by a thorough reading of the ‘The God delusion’ by Richard Dawkins and mellowed by the discovery of Quaker philosophy, worship and life. It been littered in between with Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama and daily Blogs. It has been a year of acceptance that after many happy years together that the Catholic Church and I would go our separate ways. The parting has been tinged with sadness and serenity, mellow joy mixed with melancholy. The parting has been on good terms. We still meet for family occasions. What divides us is dwarfed by what unites us, above all a connection with a spirituality and custom that stretches back two thousand years to Christ and a further two thousand years beyond that again.

2010 has also been a year of rediscovering long lost and even subliminal pleasures that were sacrificed to the militaristic spiritual life of the Legion of Christ and the joys and cares of a professional career and a middle age given to rearing a young family. I have been listening to the Irish language for the love of it. I have sat in our garden and enjoyed our flowers for the first time in 30 years. I have feasted on classical music on Lyric FM and BBC 3. I have plans to visit the monasteries of Ireland and to continue on my path along the Camino de Santiago. Against this colorful and confusing tapestry, a trip to Ennis seemed a logical leit motif.

Here are a few of my favorite things….

David and Mick Hanly
I remembered David from Morning Ireland – his distinctive gravelly voice keeping me company on my way along the Merrion Road into work in Dublin 2. I had not realized that David had scripted the iconic radio shows, the Kennedys of Castle Ross and the Glen Abbey Show and the much acclaimed Riordans. His brother Mick is an accomplished singer and songwriter. Mick reminded me of Christy Moore. This was their first time together performing on a single stage. I doubt and hope it will be their last! There was terrific chemistry and authenticity.

The brothers had grown up in Limerick in the fifties and sixties. For me, theirs was a Limerick far more human and multicolored than Frank McCourt’s monochromic and single dimensional Limerick of Angela’s Ashes. It was a Limerick of pathos and humour.
David lavished us with stories of behind the stage and screen and told us how he had failed to turn up not once but twice for appointments with Joan Fontaine, sister of Olivia de Havilland. He also recounted how gracious Ella Fitzgerald was in her granting an interview for the Glen Abbey Show and how she understandably she mistook his name for Glen (as in the Glen Abbey Show...).
I would certainly go to a show of theirs. I thought Mick was equally as good as the wonderful Christy Moore and perhaps more refreshing because of the lack of hype and exposure.

They went a half an hour over their allotted time and no one complained about being late for lunch.

Father Kevin Hegarty

Father Kevin gave a talk that was both prophetic and moving to a packed audience in the Glor Theatre. Father Kevin quipped how no one had ever become famous for being editor of Indecon, the official organ of the Irish Catholic Bishops, but he alone had become famous for being sacked from the job back in 1993. Ever since he has been a quiet thorn in the side of the hierarchy. He is the most difficult of all priests for the hierarchy to manage – he is theologically sound but independent on social and pastoral matters. By posting him to the most remote parish in Ireland – that of Erris in Co. Mayo - they may have hoped we would never hear from him. Like the prophets of old, his testimony will simply not go away.

He spoke for over an hour with honesty and integrity, with vulnerability and searing humanity. He spoke of a church where the hierarchy was simply unable to emotionally connect with the flock, of a structure that was perhaps beyond change or reform in the near future. He thought there would be change, but not perhaps in his lifetime. Father Kevin is only 50 or so.

He reminded me of the Prophets of the Old Testament – telling the awkward truths without concern for their own career or promotion. He was like a voice that cried in the wilderness. It took the women in the audience to ask the obvious questions we could not bring ourselves to ask – in a world where we try and avoid pain and discomfort, why does he plough on? Why does he not get married? Why does he stay with a church with so many faults? By way of response all he could honestly offer was the comment that he could not rule anything out in the future but for now he did not see a change in the direction of his life. He explained how he drew his strength and inspiration from the people he served. Not one person in the room could have doubted him.

The Irish Language

There were many opportunities to brush up on my schoolboy Irish. Nearly all of the announcements were in the two languages. Every morning at 10.00 there was the choice of a talk in Irish or English.

I only braved one talk. It was given by a friend who is also a Friend – Irene Ni Mhaille – on the topic of the future of the Irish Church in Ireland. Irene had worked as a missionary in Nigeria before leaving the Order and spending many years in Ireland teaching religion to an ever more secular youth. She felt a lot of the problems of the Church go right back to the Emperor Constantine and his decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire and thereby wed the Church forever to the political and financial upper classes. The Church of Christ’s time was of the meek and the poor, not the powerful and the privileged. I was thrilled to find I understood most of what she said.

To make the world even smaller, I discovered that Irene is a native Irish speaker from Rosmuc, the neighboring parish to Camus where I had spent three summers and one spring in the early sixties.

I love listening to native Irish speakers. I love the Irish language and its very particular thought pattern. The simple phrase I am hungry – in French – j’ai faim – in Spanish tengo hambre – compares with the Irish ‘ta ocras orm’ – there is hunger on me. It is this phrasing that makes irish so different and attractive and sounds a chord in our Celtic soul. Unfortunately many well meaning people are doing their best to speak a mongrel Irish and for example saying the equivalent of ‘ta me ocrasach- - literally I am hungry which destroys the natural syntax. I listen to Radio Na Gaeltachta and watch TG4 with pleasure when native Irish speakers are in full flow and speaking a language that has charm and rhythm. I have to turn off the radio or TV when some well meaning person from Dublin 4 who has assiduously studied Irish at a summer college jabbers on in a form of Irish/English mongrelize that murders both languages.

Some enthusiasts of Irish defend this mutilation of the language on the basis that half a loaf s better than no bread. Of course a half a loaf is better. But the comparison is misplaced. Is it better to listen to listen to Handel and Mozart just a ‘little out of key’ or to sit in silken? Give me silence every day.

I feel grateful to many in Gael Linn and Conrad Na Gaeilge who labored hard over many years to preserve Irish for me and others. It is because of their hard work I can still enjoy the distinctive sound and syntax. I think we should have a national rethink of our relationship with our language to preserve its beauty rather than oversee its vivisection.

To end on a positive note, it was wonderful to listen to the pleasant voice of the Chairman, Liam O Dochartaigh who spoke both languages with equal versatility and whose good humor was infectious. I was reminded of Oliver Goldsmith description of the village schoolmaster, ‘the more they looked, the more their wonder grew, how one small could carry all he knew’!

The Poets – Aine Ui Fhoghlu and Martin Coady

We took a well earned and necessary break from Philosophy and Religion every day at noon to listen to poetry. On Thursday we listened to the poetry of Aine Ui Fhoghlu. She made the excellent decision to read the translation in English first, which helped us to understand and appreciate the Irish texts. She was attractive and charming. I had not met many people from the tiny Gaeltacht of Rinn in Waterford, perhaps the most vulnerable of the Gaeltacht s. My favorite poem was a humorous story about the time she and school friends were taken to accident and emergency in a Donegal hospital to be asked for their ‘real names’. I suppose that at least it refers to a time when there was A and E around the country. After the session I thanked her and suggested she might seriously consider writing some poems in English so as to expose her work to a wider audience.

The following day at noon we were treated to poems read by Martin Coady. In some ways he had the advantage of being longer on the planet – Martin was in his late sixties I guess, while Aine still has a three at the start of her age, I reckon. With age comes wrinkles, but also comes deeper philosophy and better insights.

Martin is retired from teaching and has spent all his life happily in Carrick on Suir where he knows literally hundreds of town’s people, in some cases going back many generations. He feels that the fact that the town is built at the tidal point of the river gives it extra interest and importance. He spoke of the many afternoons spent on the river. As a young man he fished, but now that he has mellowed into old age, he and the fish ‘have come to an understanding’

One haunting poem told of how a mendicant friar who lived on the river was asked to locate a young girl who was lost for some days, rightly presumed drowned and how he found the little child in a bend in the river.

Martin’s most attractive piece perhaps dealt with a nun he had visited in Paris. As a very young woman she had followed the example of a half dozen girls from the town who over the years had taken the unusual and unexpected choice of joining a French order that ministered to women prisoners in Paris. These nuns lived in the prisons and shared the terrible conditions. These innocent nuns were much loved by the women prisoners. I cannot do justice to the story of the afternoon he spent in Paris with this aging nun, recognized and welcomed alike by the Parisian ladies of the night and the gendarmerie. Theirs were amazing lives spent in extraordinary conditions, far from home and family.

It both cases it was a real privilege to hear from the poets who had written the poems. If poems are meant to be heard rather than read, maybe we should add they should be read by their creators….

The town of Ennis in all its colors

Every evening at 5.00 pm we were treated to a tour of Ennis by Brian O Dalaigh who is a retired school teacher and an historian. Together with my cousin Norman who arrived on Friday at midday we joined Brian for two excellent tours of this interesting town. Our group must have numbered over fifty and constituted a traffic hazard as we made our way around town. We were spoiled by the lovely weather. Ennis comes from the word Inis in Irish meaning Island. The river Fergus weaves its way around the town which is steeped in history that goes back over 1,000 years and enjoys the combination of the religious and the profane. The Cathedral is well worth a visit and the Franciscan Friary is being refurbished. I just hope we don’t run out of money before its finished. We spotted De Valera’s state car down a lane, big and black and impressive in a way that even top of the range cars fail today.

Ennis is a pleasant town. It seems to have escaped the worst ravages of the Celtic Tiger on the way in and on the way out. Because I got lost on average once a day, I got to see much more of Ennis than I should have. I was happy to miss the ‘for sale’ signs that festoon so many of our towns and villages. There were no ghost estates of half built houses.

Like any town, it fills up the weekend with young people and the pubs become loud and busy. We found it heard to find a traditional pub with quiet corners and comfortable seats that did not have music blaring from it. On Friday evening we drove aimlessly out of town looking for a place where we might enjoy a quiet pint. All we could find was a lounge on an industrial estate on the outskirts of town taken straight from an American road movie. A three piece band played largely to themselves while sad men gazed into lonely pints and ladies of a certain age smoked in the awning outside and danced together to the tunes they liked. It was beyond Father Ted. Needless to say the following night we discovered another end of the town that would have been perfect, but unfortunately we were heading back at 10.30pm after the last talk of Saturday evening.

Post script

After thought provoking presentations by Gina Menzies, a lady theologian, and Ann James, a humanist, on Saturday evening we pointed the car home. We enjoyed the excellent road that links Ennis to Limerick and even more the tunnel under the Shannon that cuts 30 minutes off the journey. We stopped for 'afternoon tea' in Racket Hall just outside Nenagh around 1.00 a.m. in keeping with our alternative dining habits.


  1. Reading your blog, Padraic, was like a lovely oasis, a time out in modern life to engage with real values.
    It was lovely to read your cultural and spiritual journey and I enjoyed all aspects of it, and loved the 'Father Ted' description of your evening.
    I would say you feel really refreshed.

  2. Thanks Brigid. I think everyone should do a summer school once in their life! As you suggest I have come back refreshed and invigorated and determined to follow up many of the themes.

  3. oh wow...what an interesting experience... "destino paraiso" :-))

    I feel your pain about separating from the Catholic church. "MelancolĂ­a", simply melancholy. That's what I too feel.

    I like to hear that you are enjoying classical music... and that you are visiting monasteries. May you include the Gregorian chants in your journey :-)


  4. Thanks Doris, Gregorian Chant will always be a favourite! Part of the charm is that the Latin most of time occludes the exact meaning so I feel free to be creative! P