And what if excess of love
bewildered them till they died?
WB Yeats “Easter, 1916”
“I’ll sing you a song of a row in the town”
The boys are in fine form tonight, he thought, as he drained the last drops of his pint. The tap being dry, he was drinking English beer, instead of his usual Guiness. It was rancid as communion wine. He looked at his watch, time to be getting back; but the bar was warm, and the song took him back to his childhood,
“And they played the best game played in Erin go Bragh.”
Ah, go on, I’ve time for another, he thought, though he knew he’d regret the head in the morning. He rose from the table and made his way to the bar; a small round man, whose face was too flushed to be healthy, with skin too lined for someone not yet sixty. Every table was full, the standing customers were packed from the wooden walls to the dark brown bar. The room was a fog of cigarette smoke. It smelt of sweaty bodies, and the sourness of spilt beer.
“Same again?” said Tom, the barman.
“Just a half,” he said, fiddling for the right coins. He was getting old, three years since decimalisation and he still missed the feel of a crisp ten shilling note. He took the beer, and made his way back through the carousing crowd.
“God rest gallant Pearse and his comrades who died,
Tom Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, McBride” they sang with enthusiasm, several of them losing the tune. He smiled, his Daddy used to sing this to the three of them at bedtime: Sean, Thomas and Pat, all named for the heroes of 1916. Well that was a long time ago. Who’d have thought he’d end up here on the other side of the water? The singing died down and the pub buzzed with argument and laughter. He drank his beer, his mind wandering back to those days on the farm.
“Knockanure!” shouted someone, “Let’s have Knockanure”. He hummed along with the singers, though it wasn’t his favourite. The bar was as warm as his mother’s kitchen. He let his arms rest on the table, his eyes drooping slightly. It would be easy just to rest here, wrapped in the comfort of strangers in the pub, and not go home tonight. But his duty lay in ambush on the edge of the song: he couldn’t afford to stay much longer. As if answering his thoughts, the tune changed again,
“But the angelus bell o’er the Liffey’s swell
Rang out through the foggy dew”
If that wasn’t a sign he should go, he didn’t know what was. He sighed, gulped the remainder of his beer, adjusted his dog collar and pulled on his black overcoat: no longer Pat at the bar, but Father Pat Geary returning home. The April evening was cool, and there was a hint of jasmine in the air. It was a long walk, but he preferred it that way. In these dark times, when even his accent was suspect, it wouldn’t do to be seen drinking in a republican bar. He walked away from the warmth of the revellers, every
reluctant step taking him towards the unfinished sermon and the longest week of his year. Time was when Holy Week was everything to him. From the dramatic entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the darkness of Good Friday, to the resurrection of Easter, he was the chief actor, the inspiration for his people. Now the ritual was all that was left; words said by rote that he wasn’t quite sure he believed.
It was midnight when he arrived home. He let himself into the narrow hallway, nearly tripping over Father Andretti’s size thirteen boots. Damn him, only here a week, and the curate was already a nuisance. Father Geary’s head was beer-fogged and the temptation to leave the sermon overwhelming, so he took himself off to bed. As he lay down, his eyes were drawn to a bare hook on the white wall. In the days when prayer had meant something, there had been a crucifix on that hook. It had been put in a drawer long ago; now the priest went to sleep unblessed.
When he awoke, it was with a dry mouth and a thumping head. He padded barefoot along the cold grey lino to the bathroom. As he arrived, Father Andretti emerged with a breezy ,“Good morning, Father.” Father Geary grunted in response, a man could be too cheerful in the morning. The passage was narrow, and Father Andretti, large. They squeezed past each other, and the Italian went downstairs humming to himself.
Was there ever such an oaf as Father Andretti? Father Geary thought later, during Palm Sunday Mass. In the middle of Father Geary’s hypocritical sermon, he dropped a hymn book. When they rose at communion, he collided with an altar server. As the two priests came out of church, he nearly fell over the step. It was enough to drive a saint mad, and Father Geary was no saint at all. The performance brought much amusement to the congregation: Dr Hewitt’s comment was typical,
“Morning Father Geary. I see you and Father Andretti are modelling yourselves on Laurel and Hardy. Perhaps you should hire a choreographer to avoid further collisions.”
He guffawed at his own witticism, and Father Geary reddened. He was unequal to such jokes; after ten years he could never tell whether the laughter behind them was affectionate or cruel. Hewitt moved on, and was soon engaged in a long discussion with Father Andretti. Other people shook Father Geary’s hand, but his attention was drawn to the lively debate between Hewitt and the Italian. How was it that the parishioners were always more welcoming to his curates? Why were they never so easy and relaxed with him? Suddenly, he’d had enough and went inside to tidy up, his head ringing with Hewitt’s sneering laugh. They were all like that these snotty English, mocking him and acting as if he hid terrorists under the bed. What in Heaven’s name was he doing here? This was not what God called him for, all those years ago. This was not how he was supposed to live.
It was the day the mountain collapsed, that he heard the voice of God, or so he thought. Then again, he was young at the time, dreamy and quiet, and he thought a lot of daft things. He was living with his mother and brothers on the family farm. Their Daddy had just died, and Tom and Sean were helping Mammy farm the land. Pat Geary was still a schoolboy then, doing his evening chores, checking on the sheep in the far field. There’d been heavy rain at the weekend. People said afterwards that it loosened the trees further up the mountainside. The first he noticed was a slight rumble, like thunder. He looked up to see where it was coming from, and for a moment stood still, his mouth gaping. The whole hillside was sliding forwards: trees somersaulting over themselves, mud and rocks cascading down in a torrent. Then he realised his legs could move after all, and he had the presence of mind to throw himself over the stone wall. He cowered behind it as the boulders and earth rampaged past him. The roaring earth sprayed gravel and sharp stones that whipped his body.
In the height of the tumult, he thought he felt a hand on his shoulder and voice saying “Do not be afraid”. In the midst of his terror and despair he felt a calmness descend on him and he stopped trembling. When at last the landslide halted, he rose, choking with dust; blood streaking his eyes; his limbs were raw from the battering of the stones. The sheep he had been tending were buried under several feet of boulders and dirt: only one small lamb had escaped to his side of the wall. It was blackened with the earth, and one of its’ eyes was bleeding; it bleated piteously for the mother that would never return. Looking down the hill, he saw that the earth had beaten a path to the edge of the farmyard, destroying several fields on the way. The crops were all gone; the cows, like the sheep, were smothered by the rubble. He picked the bleating lamb up in his arms, and made his way down to the small, white farm house, now flecked in dirt and mud.
His mother and brothers had taken refuge in the cellar. They emerged as he arrived, pale and shaking. For a moment, none of them could speak, and then Mammy said,“Will you look at yourself, Patrick. How in heaven’s name did you get yourself so mucky just tending the sheep?”
At this, they fell upon each other laughing and crying all at once, as the lamb wriggled out of Pat’s arms and ran off to the barn. They knew what the moment meant, but they went inside to celebrate anyway,
“After all,” said Mammy, “We’re together safe, and that’s what counts.”
So they raised a glass to new life. Soon after his mother went to live with her sister, Sean and Tom were off to America, and Pat was free to enter the seminary. Convinced that God had saved him for a purpose, he saw himself out in the missions: a modern St Paul, bringing salvation to the world.
“And look where it got me,” Father Geary almost shook his fists at the cross, “ministering to a bunch of stuck up English people. I wanted to go to Africa, and serve people who really needed me. But, instead, I ended up here in this damned backwater. What good do I do here?”
The figure on the cross was silent, as always. Presently, the priest finished his tasks, locked the church and went next door to the presbytery. Father Andretti loomed at him from the lounge, “I am sorry, Father Geary, for being in your way today. I was born, as I think they say in this country, with two left feet.”
Father Geary looked at the younger man. The blue eyes usually bright with laughter, looked troubled; the mouth normally creased in a smile, was solemn. Even the dark curly hair seemed to have lost its buoyancy. He was ashamed of himself, didn’t Mammy always tell him to be kind to others, and they would be kind to you?
“Ah don’t mind me Father, I’m just getting old: too used to my own ways. “ He resolved to make more of an effort. After all, he couldn’t blame the other man for his disappointments. It was his cross – for him alone to bear.
As Holy Week progressed, through a conveyor belt of ceremonies – benediction, confession, daily mass – he was glad of this resolve. Father Andretti might be clumsy, but he had the strength of a pack horse and proved an able assistant. Even so, by the time Good Friday arrived, Father Geary was so exhausted that the simple task of putting on his vestments took his breath away. When he spoke the opening words of the Mass, they seemed to come from somewhere far away. The church was hot and stuffy, every seat was taken; the latecomers filled the side aisles and overflowed into the porch at the back. He forced himself to concentrate on the rhythms of the service, but his mouth was dry as dust, and the prayers seemed to have no meaning. By the time they arrived at the enactment of the Passion of Christ, he was shaking from head to toe. He held onto the lectern to read the part of Jesus, steadying his voice, till he reached the final words,
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” .
His voice cracked, he was conscious of the congregation looking at him from the end of a dark tunnel; a voice in his ear calling his name. He had the vague awareness of someone helping him off the altar into the sacristy, and helping him lie across two chairs. Somewhere in the distance, he could hear Father Andretti continuing with service. He drifted off. It was pleasant to lie there, peaceful even.
After a while, the dizziness passed. He was able to sit up and look about him. Dr Hewitt was sitting opposite, and now Mass had ended, Father Andretti was disrobing.
“I thought you were a bit peaky Father, let me have a look at you.”said the doctor, “Hmm. I don’t think there’s anything seriously wrong, but your blood pressure’s a little high and your heart rate too. You’ve probably been overdoing it a bit. You work far too hard you know. You must let Father Andretti lighten your load a bit. Have a bit of rest now, and book a time to see your GP will you?”
With that he bustled off, leaving Father Geary open mouthed, only too willing to be led off to bed.
When he woke at seven, he felt more refreshed. As he came down the stairs, he could smell fish frying in the kitchen. Father Andretti was at the stove.
“How are you feeling Father Geary? I thought you should eat.”
“Better, thank you. And this is too kind: more than I deserve.”
“ We have to take care of each other, we men of God. For who else is there? Now I am making you some fish in olive oil. Just like we make it in Tuscany, and in honour of our Lord. As you know, he liked a bit of fish.”
Father Geary laughed. Here was a man, after all, who might be worth getting to know. He began to talk freely, and soon they were discussing Irish history.
“Ah but they were men,” Father Geary said “Pearse, Clarke, Connolly, Macdermott and Plunket . Pearse, there was someone who understood the meaning of the cross. He sacrificed his blood for the love of his country, knowing it would only be understood long after his death. That’s a kind of man I could believe in. That’s the kind of man I wanted to be.”
“He was indeed, and they did a fine thing to free Ireland.” said Father Andretti. “But these modern day bombers, I am not so sure of them.”
“A terrible beauty is born”
“Yeats said it in a poem. I think he meant they were right to give their lives, but what it might lead to who knows?”
“Ah yes, I remember, ‘Easter, 1916’.”
They thought for a moment, and then Father Andretti said,“So what brought you to England? Did you not wish to stay among your own people?”
“I wanted to be a Missionary in Africa, but my superiors had other ideas. They thought me too proud and full of ego. Ah, but I was young then, so, perhaps I was. Anyway, they sent me here to learn my place; to know the will of God.”
“And do you? Know the will of God?”
“Well now, I can’t say I do. I live with these cold English, never allowed to be a missionary. All I do is say Mass and give the sacraments, and that with very little grace. And now there is so much change. The Vatican Council did away with everything I knew, and I am too old for new ways.“
“You know I think we dwell on authority sometimes too much in this Church of ours. I wonder what Jesus would make of us if he came back now. Would he be pleased with us, or would he run through our churches overturning tables do you think?”
Fr Geary laughed, “Perhaps he would be after pulling the Bishop’s palaces down now?”
“You should see inside the Vatican my friend. Still I think you’ve had some hard blows, Father Geary, the church has not been kind to you, and yet you remain here.”
“Yes but for what? What good am I?”
“Haven’t you said it yourself? You give people the sacraments, care for them when they are sick, pray with them when they are dying”
“But I have lost the habit of kindness. I shame myself.”
“You are too hard on yourself! I think you are a man who has lived an excess of love, though bewildered by the people around him. Yet, I see what you do in this parish – and I think, you have been a faithful servant.”
Father Geary fell silent at this, and then changed to a lighter subject. They talked late into the night. At bedtime, when Father Geary looked at the bare hook on the wall, it seemed to him that something was missing. He opened his sock drawer, and took out the crucifix. He marvelled at it for a moment, before placing it in its rightful place. He went to sleep light in heart and spirit.
It was with a strange elation that he prepared for the Easter Vigil Mass the next day. For the first time in years, he enjoyed dressing in the gold and white vestments. As the two priests lit the fire to start the familiar ceremony, Father Geary was possessed with an awe he had not felt for a long time. He held the Easter Candle in the flame and watched the spark light the wick. The altar servers lit their tapers and the fire was passed among the candles of the congregation. As they entered the dark church, Father Geary raised the Easter Candle high above his head. The two priests sang with confidence,
“Christ our light.”
Behind them small flames were doubling and tripling, illuminating the shadows. The smell of incense filled the air; smoke rose like steam from his mother’s kitchen.
The priests reached the altar and smiled at each other. An altar server switched on the church lights. Dark night was banished; Easter had begun.
Copyright c Virginia Moffatt 2008