Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Unforgettable Fire

 The Unforgettable Fire


A weird type of comparison exists between Parícutin, the volcano that began life outside a small Mexican village in 1943, and the story of our local St. Joseph’s Church going up in flames one April afternoon in 1977.  Each of them started as a harmless-looking curl of smoke rising almost from nowhere into the heavens. The home event caught the attention of our Church’s nearest neighbour Mrs. Tess Flaherty, proprietor of the Abbey Garage. Tess, as her many friends knew her by, became immediately suspicious. T’was an early afternoon of a Tuesday, a time when things would normally be quiet in the grounds around the Church and the nearby Convent of Mercy School. Recalling an event that ushered in such a radical change to many a lifestyle, I have decided to use the names of those few people who were prominent from the beginning and witnessed St. Joseph’s Church becoming a towering inferno. Most have since departed this world and gone to their eternal reward.

For me, that Tuesday morning was no different from any other in a newsagent’s shop selling newspapers, cigarettes, sweets, and miscellaneous items. Teresa, my wife, was helping out and taking part in the little outbursts of conversation common to any family shop in the morning, and, of course, never forgetting the weather prospects. The morning was bright with a fresh wind blowing that had potential in it. Periodic bursts of sunshine gave one the feeling that winter was nearing an end and spring was about to burst forth.

That great conversationalist and customer Michael (Mickey) Morris from Abbeytown, my local barber, had just dropped in to pick up his morning Irish Press and for some unknown reason began talking about a heavy shower of snow he remembered on a fair day morning in Boyle in early May. I thought the remark was a little bit out of place, not being related to any topic already being discussed, but that could be Mickey at his most interesting. In hindsight, I often wondered might it just have been a harbinger of something strange to follow!  

Mrs. Flaherty (Tess) came in a rush for her paper and enquired if Paddy Leonard, our Sacristan, had been in for his Irish Independent? Paddy was in and gone, I told her. She had noticed a large curl of smoke rising at the rear of the Church as she passed, and thought it rather strange - it looked more than a mound of twigs or a few cardboard boxes alight in some isolated corner. John Gallagher, the quiet and seasoned warrior from The Warren, said he too saw what looked like a “wisp” of smoke in the distance and had him wondering!

My wife Teresa drove to Paddy’s home at Tidy Terrace (our wonderful next-door neighbours at the time) to tell him the news. Paddy’s wife May brought her into the kitchen where he was sitting down to a bowl of soup. When she gave him the news all heaven broke loose. The soup was left untouched and she drove him immediately back to the Church to see what was unfolding.

Canon Mahon and his two curates, Fr. Jones and Fr. Breslin, were hurrying in and out the sacristy door to the high altar and side altars trying to save whatever they could. Foremost was the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle to the safety of The Presbytery. The fire, still in its very early stages, appeared to have its beginnings at the top end of the church near the high altar. The great timber beams underpinning the church roof were catching fire at high speed due to the strong wind, and a number of slates exploded reminding one (incongruously) of bangers going off on a Halloween night. The beautiful Rose Window above the high altar, depicting scenes from Christ’s life, was among the first to be badly hit. The Rose Window is quite often the centrepiece of any great Gothic Cathedral, so its demise would be almost as a disaster. Next was the organ on the gallery overlooking the high altar; a new organ installed in 1960 that had enriched many a Sunday Mass, wedding, funeral, and other Church celebrations. It was now in the frontline of the fire. If the late E.C. McGee, Boyle’s renowned organist for upwards on half a century, was there to see its demise it would have broken his heart. Like Paddy the Sacristan, he was a limb of the church. 

Next in the line of fire was the beautiful ornate pulpit made of pure marble, donated by a Major General Luke O’Connor (a one-time native of Boyle) sometime in the 1930s. It was circular in shape, a masterpiece adorned all around with religious emblems of saints, each one inset in his own niche. Thinking back to the number of preachers that mounted those steps to preach a sermon, I thought for a moment that if the same pulpit had had the technology of today to record the fiery sermons delivered by Jesuits, Redemptorists, and other Missionary Orders during an annual church mission, they might have been kept for future study or analysis. To forget the masterpieces of rhetoric from our own Dr. Seamus McLoughlin on a Men’s Sodality night would be a serious oversight. His were classics in their own right; loud perhaps, full of wit, subtle humour, a sprinkle of sarcasm, and his summing upended as “the ultimate analysis”. In those times there was little room for the free thinker or the personal opinion. It was a clear-cut message; listen and obey! The Second Vatican Council (1962) opened windows that had been closed and shuttered for 350 years, to give a new meaning to old church rules and change many of them.

The next jewel to bite the dust was the beautiful marble baptismal font at the bottom of the Church, also donated by the same military gentleman. As I looked long and hard at it blackened and broken, I couldn’t but ponder back to the morning my own fragile little cranium would have felt the chill of its icy water at Baptism. My Dad, on reliable authority, enjoys the record (or distinction if you like) of being the first child to be christened in the new St. Joseph’s opened in late-1883 (obviously not the same font). That same little nugget of history added an extra dimension for me, as I pondered on the myriad of events that had taken place in the same sacred surrounding over the previous hundred years.  

Straight across from the pulpit, the huge figure of Christ crucified on the cross hung pinned on one of the huge concrete pillars. The massive life-sized sculpture was also in several pieces; Christ had fallen a fourth time. Next to meet their fate were the Stations of the Cross. All of the 14 pictures on canvas, set in their huge frames and depicting Christ’s journey to Calvary, were buried in rubble. Not a single one was saved. Memories again flowed back of the Celebrant and altar boy (with lighted candle) walking The Way of the Cross each Friday evening during the seven weeks of Lent. All gone. Today in their place, there are 14 small elegant hand-carved figures in wood, each telling its story of The Passion. Being of the old school myself, I still have a preference for The Way of the Cross as portrayed on the great old giant canvasses. They certainly conveyed the story of The Passion in sharper detail and a degree more blood-spattered. They carried much more food for thought!

The residents from Abbeytown gathered in little groups looking on in silence as a vital aspect of their life went up in smoke. The local fire brigade was among the first on the spot, with several more arriving at intervals. Nuns from the Convent of Mercy School, along with members of staff, stood looking on - shocked and helpless. Imelda Hunt, the gentle soft-spoken teacher whom I knew personally from calling to our shop, stood on her own quietly shedding tears.

Reminiscing on all this, I would have missed much of what I saw but for Teresa rushing back home to tell me to go and see it all at first hand. Like the rest, I stood for a while frozen in time feeling helpless. Dr. Conway, our late bishop, had just arrived from Sligo and he too was standing transfixed and watching this grand old piece of Gothic Architecture going down in flames. A stubborn man, at the outset he went onto the high altar to see for himself and came out a few minutes later with a number of religious artifacts covered with a white cloth. He then went back a second time and preceded to do the same. His third effort failed when he was strongly persuaded to desist. People ebbed and flowed all afternoon like the tide; watching, praying, pondering on the tomorrow, and wondering perhaps where Mass might take place the next Sunday?

I knew the layout of the old Sacristy like the back of my hand. The interior consisted of a large double-decker press (containing Church records going back probably decades and much further), a wardrobe with the rail of vestments worn by the Celebrant when saying Mass, a writing desk with the day-to-day records of Church business and events, a wall safe with silver cruets and the tray and wine used when saying Mass plus a number of other items. All of these would be a priority for Paddy Leonard, particularly the history of St. Joseph’s Church going back a century. Two priceless Chalices were also saved from the inferno. As an altar boy, I was always fascinated by those two chalices, knowing they were used only on very special occasions. The Sharkey Chalice, unique in design, looked to be of pure silver. The McCormack chalice looked pure gold and was donated by a Miss McCormack, a native of Boyle who had emigrated to America in the early years of the 20th century.

Another noisy outsized feature of Church life was saved due to its location. The bell tower, being higher than the main roof and having little timber content, escaped the inferno. Miko Finneran, a local builder, ensured its safe removal from its old home high up in the old bell tower to a much lower and smaller tower close to the earth and on its own grounds.

Other accounts may yet be written of this unforgettable fire, its aftermath, and the superhuman effort made to ensure Mass and everyday church worship would continue as near to normal as possible. The local Church of Ireland and the Federal Church community generously offered help in every way possible. The gesture was deeply appreciated and showed a wonderful ecumenical spirit. Accommodation was also offered for Catholic ceremonies that might be imminent at the time. The new St. Joseph’s Church would rise from the ashes within three years of the burning. A new era dawned in 1980 with a church of ultramodern design, circular and dome-shaped. The pre-Second Vatican Council worshipper would find it difficult to find that quiet nook or dark corner, (invisible to the human eye, where one might have a confidential chat with The Creator Himself. Life, as we know, is forever changing and we simply have to change with it. There’s no going back!


One memory invokes another

I have witnessed five major fires in Boyle town during my considerably long lifetime.  The first, and by far the most tragic, occurred in a low two-storey house in lower Green Street in June 1950. I could see its back roof in flames from my bedroom window. Three lives were lost in that terrible fire - a mother, her little boy of four and the woman’s sister. It left an indelible memory on the community for several years afterwards.

The next fire took place on a September day in 1956. The great mansion that once was Rockingham House went up in flames and smouldered for a further three days. It was the end of the Rockingham dynasty that had been an integral part of the history of Boyle for 300 years.

The next was the old historic Roscommon Herald building on St. Patrick Street that went up in flames in April 1965. Mainly constructed of timber it died quickly and painlessly, giving up the ghost within a matter of hours. The fire began around 9am when printers and office staff were settling into a normal day’s work. The number of staff would be in the region of 30 or 40 people. It was nothing short of miraculous that no life was lost, but the grand old landmark building steeped in the political history of Boyle was completely destroyed.

The last one in my memory was Burke’s Supermarket on Main Street, which took place in 1982. The vast ground floor with its massive array of goods was consumed in flames within hours, extending to a large part of the upstairs area. Two retired sisters who lived in an apartment overhead had a near-death encounter. Manually carried to safety by members of the very alert staff below, they thankfully survived to live another day.

Christy Wynne             

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Assylinn: More than a Graveyard

Assylinn: More than a Graveyard 

For many Boyle people the name Assylinn rings of death and the final resting place of a loved one. For an older generation, however, it can trigger memories of a much different kind. Death, the great leveller, brings us all together there lying side-by-side under a headstone bearing a name, date of birth, death and a prayer or little quotation reflecting the person’s philosophy of life. 

Assylinn graveyard is as old as time itself. An historic place, it is mentioned in the annals written sixteen centuries ago by St. Patrick himself when he arrived on the shores of Hibernia with the good news of Christ and his gospel of hope. According to the same annals, St. Patrick is said to have had a little tumble with his horse and chariot when crossing the river ford at Eas-mac-nEirc, the ancient name for Assylinn. The setback is said to have resulted in our National Saint being slow to give old Boyle his unbridled blessing; the jury is still out on that one? The graveyard as we know it today goes back three centuries, having a few headstones recording deaths as far back as the early years of the eighteenth century. She spreads out across a vast sloping hill gazing on the river below, snugly hidden away from the madding crowd and the never-ending traffic. As the river meanders her way down from Lough Gara she builds up steam as she thunders by Bob Stewart’s old sawmill at Glebe, becoming a torrent as she crashes beneath the railway bridge in the shadow of the old graveyard! 

Eas-Mac-nEirc means ‘waterfall of the sons of Erc’. He hailed from the family of Mochanna-Mac-Erc, the first Abbot of the monastery founded there by St. Colmcille around 530 A.D.. That name lasted up to the 12th century when a Flaherty O’Flynn became Warden of the Oratory. He was followed by a kinsman Maolissa O’Flynn, who then became Prior. He died in the year 1223 A.D., so for the next 800 years it would be known as Assylinn or Flynn’s Waterfall. A single wall is all that now remains of the old oratory, half hidden in ivy and still standing. A reminder of a more noble age when Irish Monks carried the faith across central Europe and the known world. Its closest neighbour today happens to be the first ‘recorded’ resident of Assylinn, a James Johnston who died and was buried there in the year 1702 A.D.. The impressive headstone which incorporates a gate and surrounding railings would suggest he was a man of importance in his day, although no record survives to prove or disprove that theory! Many another poor soul lies buried roundabout without a name; little heaps of solid earth heavy with grass without a record to show who they were or whence they came? A line from ‘Greys Elegy’ might be appropriate: “Fame smiled not on their humble birth and Melancholy made them for her own”. Further down river, one comes to Tobar Padraig; not a holy well as such or a place of pilgrimage but a spot remembered and revisited by many an emigrant home after years on foreign soil. They love to visit the spot that was once part of their childhood; memories of the fun and the picnics at Patrick’s Well, catching ‘Cailleogs’ in Bo Peep jam jars in the river nearby, or swimming in the crystal clear waters of The Pound (river) as it feeds into Stewart’s Millrace. 

Assylinn was also a place of worship for the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland communities in the early 17th Century, with the little oratory used as a house of prayer and a small area of the graveyard is still used as a burial ground for some members of old established families of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Ireland communities. Towards the end of the 18th Century they built their new House of Prayer at the top of Green Street at Bellspark, which is used to the present day. Further down river stands the shell of old St. Patrick’s R.C. Church. The edifice, built in the year 1823, was used as a place of worship before, during and after The Great Famine of 1847. Later, a new church of Gothic design was built at Abbeytown and consecrated to St. Joseph in the year 1882. Old St. Patrick’s ceased to be a place of worship and fell into disrepair, but not for long. It became a music hall for concerts, dances, indoor amusements and was used as such for many years. It continued to operate until the year 1957 when it closed its doors we thought (again) for the last time. A new state of the art dancehall had been built on the Crescent and so began a new chapter in the life of Boyle. Old St Patrick’s refused to die, however, and became a factory manufacturing shop windows and fronts, metal shelving and fittings for offices and warehouses and libraries nationwide. Countless stories linger of the great events that took place within the old walls. If they could speak they’d have countless stories to tell of the great dances and ceilidhs that took place there, the musical events and the concerts staged by Miss Nancy O’Connor or E. C. McGee, the dramas and plays produced by Fr. Tiernan C.C. (the local curate), the annual Feis Ceoil, and the never to be forgotten annual winter indoor amusements that ran for a fortnight in December each year. That event was eagerly looked forward to by every man, woman and child in the parish since there was a form of entertainment or a game to suit everyone. To name a few of the renowned entertainers who graced the old stage, who could forget the hilarious Jimmy O’Dea and Harry O’Donovan of Gaiety Theatre fame, playing to a packed hall for three or four nights in a row, staying in Lynch’s Hotel on Main Street, not to mention walking the streets of Boyle during the daylight hours. Anew McMaster, the great Shakespearean actor, also graced the stage of the old Hall on a number of occasions. Last, but not least, was the memorable arrival of ‘Question Time’ with Joe Linnane of Radio Eireann fame. Six knowledgeable gentlemen offered themselves up for the fun and the craic and what a memorable night it was, the winner being Dominic Lydon the assistant Station Master. What a night of banter, humour and fun, with Boyle Town the centre of attraction for the nation on a Sunday night. Joe Linnane was the Gay Byrne of his day with his famous ‘Question Time’ show every Sunday night, which was as popular then as The Late Late Show today, and tuned into every household in the country that was lucky to own a ‘wireless. We’re talking about the year 1945/46. A fine slice of Boyle’s coloured history is surely embedded in the stonework of the grand old building.

To fail to mention the annual swimming gala at Assylinn would be to do it a disservice. This was one of the great events of the year, looked forward to for months in advance and what a day it was! A short distance below ‘the sounding cataract’, the river runs smooth and deep with a high rise bank on each side created by Mother Nature herself for such an occasion. The young contestants lined up at the river’s edge awaiting the bang of a starting gun to set them on their way across. Cheers and shouts rose from the crowds on the embankments as the contestants pushed themselves to the limit to win the eagerly sought-after medal of victory. Another keenly fought competition was the underwater swim across the full width of the river, with the crowd holding their breath as well. Could there be a budding Johnny Weissmuller among this bunch of young Boyle lads about to stretch their lungs to the limit? For a young ten-year-old brought along for the day this was a scene not to be forgotten, a moment of pause even for a seasoned observer; who or how many would fall by the way and surface for a life-saving intake of breath? Would there be a winner? ‘Walk the Greasy Pole’ brought explosions of laughter from the crowd as one contestant after another slithered from their slippery perch like skittles tumbling in an amusement hall. The diving competition was broken into age categories, each one keenly fought with an ultimate winner. Then came the Grand Finale, the highlight of the Gala! This involved the local ‘Stuntman’ who staged a rather unique type of high dive each year, followed by an exhibition of a swimmer who suffers a sudden stomach cramp and struggles bravely to survive it. The diving board stood twenty feet above the river level, with a ramp on which a bicycle could be wheeled forward...yes, a bicycle! As the daredevil pedalled (with some assistance) to the edge of the ramp, he stood up and balanced himself on the handlebars and plunged into the depths below. The hushed crowd sat in shock and awe awaiting his reappearance from the depths. The burst of applause that met him could have awakened the residents of Assylinn Graveyard. He then followed up with his own special take on the swimmer severely hit by a stomach cramp. Writhing in pain he gathered himself into a foetal position on his back struggling with a back stroke to guide himself painfully and slowly to the river bank accompanied by periodic moans and groans. The crowd lapped it up as the stuntman made it look so real from beginning to end. The gala was an integral part of the annual calendar of events, a topic of conversation that would be talked about over many a drink, part of the local history, a happy memory, a forgotten happiness. 

In rounding off Assylinn’s long and varied history it would be a serious oversight to neglect to mention the area once reverberated to the sound of industry; small perhaps, but real. The colourful Robert (Bob) Stewart, a member of the Stewart dynasty, ran a successful saw mill in the townland of Glebe on the upper stretch of the river; while Michael Dwyer Snr. and his two sons, Mark and Michael, ran their saw mill a short distance below the railway bridge. Both operated very successfully into the early 1950s, supplying native timber to the local building trade, the freelance carpenter or joiner. 

Frank O’Mahoney, the very popular Cork man who made his home in Boyle in the early 1970s, ran a very successful iron foundry business within the walls of an old Georgian building (beside the graveyard) that was once occupied by the O’Connors (a highly respected family in the locality). Besides Frank’s skills in wrought iron, he also manufactured gates and different kinds of accessories for the agricultural business. Frank was also a specialist in moulding pieces of iron into fine delicate works of art, which he would have on display during the Boyle Arts Festival each year. Boyle’s adopted son also had a deep love of music and produced a musical show every year in the local hall for almost three decades, until his retirement a few years ago; a unique contribution to the town of Boyle. The ancient O’Connor residence where Frank’s skills were brought to fruition still operates under new management, an abiding symbol of an historic past. 

Further on one comes to the power plant founded by another member of the Stewart dynasty, John Stewart Ltd., in the 1870’s. The family supplied electricity to Boyle town and its precincts for the best part of a hundred years, producing D.C. direct current, and was among the first in Ireland to generate electricity on a commercial scale.  It is a proud feather in her cap that Boyle can boast being one of the first towns in Ireland to have an electricity supply. In 1965, the E.S.B. (the national network) bought over the plant as a result of a much greater demand for electricity and a need for alternating current (A.C.). Another member of the same family, Joseph Stewart Ltd., ran a highly successful flour mill from the late 19th century until very recently. Today it has turned its attention to oil distribution, with a fleet of oil tankers forever on the move. A much-anticipated addition to the local economy by this highly entrepreneurial family is at present in the pipeline (we’re informed) and at an advanced stage of planning. Hopefully it will soon come to fruition (i.e. a whiskey distillery) for Boyle town. We await it ‘with baited breath’.

The final little pearl in Assylinn’s crown is the variety of fish that inhabit its waters. Pike, perch, trout and eel swim there in abundance. All one requires is a fishing rod, the humble worm, a Blue or Brown Devon minnow, a wet or dry fly and a sprinkle of patience (a vital part of the sport). A very special stretch of water beyond Bob Stewart’s old sawmill, known as ‘The Cut’, has forever been known as the real testing ground for a true fly fisherman. Here is the spot where the fly fisherman’s casting skills are put to the ultimate test against the wily trout, to challenge a maze of cross currents ‘where rapids collide and converge’, ‘where stone is dark under froth’ and the trout breaks the surface for a fleeting moment to snatch a luscious Golden Olive, Brown Sedge or August Dun fly. All come together, the wily trout, the keen eye of the angler, the downturn of the wrist, the fly sitting where X might mark the spot on a war map; a challenge between two daring adversaries! 

So ends the story of Assylinn, a place that begins and ends with memories, in every sense of the word; an ocean of dreams, a balm for the soul, a hidden paradise.

Christy Wynne


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Way We Were

Whenever I hear the old gospel song of the Plantation Workers of Southern Alabama – ‘That Old Time Religion’ – I think of our religious ways of the 1940s and ‘50s and the intensity that accompanied it. 

Karl Marx is reputed to have said that religion is the ‘opium of the people’. Certainly, the community of the ‘40s and ‘50s, in which I grew up, lived and practised their religion voraciously. I was an altar boy back then serving the 11.30a.m. mass on a Sunday morning and relishing the little feel of importance that went with it; again there were Sundays I enjoyed the game of handball in the local Ball Alley or meandered my way to Lough Key, Doon Shore for a swim. Life is a kaleidoscope of memories of schooldays, holidays, birthdays, Holy Communion days, Confirmation days, wedding days, good days, bad days, sick days; all part of life’s cycle from boyhood to manhood to old age. Today’s generation would have a mountain to climb if they were to live the religious intensity I remember of “order and obey” in all things! They’d likely fall at the first fence; draconian might be a better word! There was an innocence that imagined evil lurked in dark corners, that life’s pleasures could be an occasion of sin, that temptation lay waiting to pounce at your weakest moment. Books and films were censored and mortal sin hung like the sword of Damocles above your head ready to bring you down in a moment of weakness. Stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy that preached self-control, was part of your daily curriculum and Satan was renounced at every opportunity with all his works and pomps. The day was a war between good and evil.

The present generation lives in an alternative universe, a hyper-liberal society where precious little is left to the imagination; everything and anything goes! The psychologist’s couch is the modern-day confession box, the snort of cocaine is the Highway to Heaven and the shot of Valium offers a soft landing after a ‘high’. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make up the new ‘World Book of Fairytales’ replacing many of the grand old reliables like Our Boys, Ireland’s Own, comics and magazines for boys and girls, a wide variety of Detective, Western and Romance novels to suit all ages; all for the more heady toxic stuff of today. That being said, and to paraphrase an old school companion John Keats, “When old age shall this generation waste and we stand in the midst of other woes than ours”. And having failed to learn the lessons of history, old draconian ways might slip back to haunt a new generation with penances reminiscent of a bygone age. To wax humorous for a few moments, imagine a neighbour having to dress in sackcloth and ashes and sit outside his local Church or Market place for a month for spreading lies and fake news about a prime enemy, or television’s ‘Nature Boy’ spending a month (in solitude) on Lough Derg as an antidote to the abundance of female flesh he wallowed in on Love Island, or a man to spend all of Lent on top of Croagh Patrick for stealing his neighbour’s wife. The old Canonical penances doled out in the early Church certainly knew how to bring the serial sinner back into line; no three Hail Marys then, or a decade of the Rosary for a penance! Life was never going to be a bed of roses or a Garden of Eden.

With the existence of God smiled upon by many of today’s intellectuals and bearded philosophers, surely it must dent the ego when they see flocks of highly intelligent people enter a church or a sacred place in search of a bit of meaning to life and death. The Creator in recent times has been replaced by something called ‘The Big Bang’ (i.e. a gigantic ball of wind that originated from nothing and seems to be travelling nowhere (has no destination) and has all of us humans stuck here on earth whether we like it or not). It’s like a scene out of ‘Game for a laugh’. So with Mother Earth hijacked between a combination of half-wits and power-crazed misfits who see themselves as ‘Masters of the Universe’ is it any wonder we’re on the verge of the ‘Sixth Extinction’, or looking down the barrel of a gun at this latest phenomenon – the Coronavirus. If you feel you’ve heard enough, kindly switch off now!  


                          The Religious Calendar of the 1940s and 1950s

The Church Calendar was a mixture of ritual and ceremony. In chronological order, there was Christmas, Lent, Easter, the Parish Mission, the Forty Hours Adoration, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Corpus Christi Procession, Feast days and Holidays of Obligation, the Nine (First) Fridays, November (month of the Holy Souls), the Sodality Meeting (i.e. Confession\Saturday, Mass\Sunday once a month and all year round), Station Mass in the country home during Lent and Advent. Mass, the epi-centre for all religious practice, was offered daily throughout the year including three Masses on a Sunday. In the midst of all this religious intensity there were the many joyful occasions like family christenings, First Holy Communion Days, Confirmation Days, Wedding Days, Ordinations Days, Station Mass in the home, and many other joyous occasions to celebrate along the way. Of deep and powerful significance always has been the consolation and strength the Church offers at times of sickness and death.


The Gregorian Mass: A Personal Memory

(Priest)  Introibo ad Altare Dei

(Altar Boy)  Ad Deum qui laetificat iuvum tutum  meum

Translation: I will go unto the altar of God, to God who giveth joy to my youth.

The above were the first lines of the old Latin Mass served by the altar boy. Today, when one sees the angelic little altar girl dressed in her cream-coloured robe on the high altar, it begs the question as to why it should have taken a further 40 years before she was permitted to grace the altar of God! My Grandmother was a teacher in the old Convent School in her early days and taught many an altar boy (including a cousin) the Latin of the Mass. This cousin was so determined to become a priest he’d insist on saying Mass for her in her kitchen. Using a chair as an altar, a towel for a backdrop, a white cloth spread on the seat and a cup and saucer for a chalice and paten, he’d go through it without a hitch. Blasphemy, Blasphemy; all at the grand old age of seven! “Happy the days when we shone in our angel infancy”; he reached his goal, was ordained a priest, and died at the ripe old age of 90 not so many years ago. 

Before the Second Vatican Council (1962/65) the liturgy of the Mass was entirely through the medium of Latin. Many changes would come as a result, one of the most important being that Mass could now be said in English or the vernacular. The Celebrant faced the congregation and delivered his sermon from the altar instead of the lofty heights of a pulpit. Another very important change was the mass-goer being allowed to eat food up to an hour before receiving Holy Communion. Prior to that one had to abstain from the previous midnight.

Leading the Celebrant and four more altar boys to the altar in front of a thousand people on a Sunday morning carried its own little challenge; you had to be fully alert and know your Latin off by heart like a school poem. Paddy, the Sacristan, was strict and scrupulously fair. If you passed the test to his satisfaction, you became part of the ‘Church in action’ and were given your robes of office; a white surplice and black soutane. You had to buy your own slippers which must be dark in colour. To keep you on your toes he would sometimes say with a little smile ‘you know the Celebrant can’t say Mass without you, that’s how important you are!’ Promotion in the ranks came slowly (like all good jobs) but the day eventually came to pass when you led a small bunch of beginners onto the altar of God. You had reached the pinnacle of success, you were the leader of the bunch!

The candles in their great cylindrical tubes, five each side of the tabernacle, were lit by means of a long slender pole with a tiny flame flickering on the end that blinked and laughed back at you; a tricky little operation that could sometimes come a cropper and call for outside help! Oh, the embarrassment of it all in front of a thousand people, many of whom (you imagined) must know you! The 11.30a.m. Mass on Sunday was a Missa Cantata, a sung Mass that began with the Celebrant walking down the centre aisle sprinkling the overflow congregation with holy water as the choir sang the ‘Asperges me’ (i.e. Cleanse me). Some Sundays when Mass was finished a lady might come to the side altar requesting to be churched. You stood with a lighted candle as the Celebrant read a list of prayers and blessed the said lady; the ceremony was over in five minutes. Looking back on those unquestioning times you presumed the lady might be ill or about to go to hospital; to be churched carried no other connotations!

Christmas was one of the great high points of the Church year with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and an extra early one Christmas Morning (7.30 a.m.) to cater for the increased number of the faithful home for Christmas; then there were the usual three Masses as on any Sunday which brought the total to five on a Christmas Day. Setting up the Christmas Crib was a high point of the hubris and excitement of Christmas with Paddy the Sacristan acting as a kind of Snow White and calling on (approx.) seven altar boys to assist him in the operation. Enthusiasm could run high leading sometimes to a confusion not unlike what we’re told happened at the building of the ancient Tower of Babel (i.e. members of the Holy Family took quite a while to find their exact positions in the crib, not to mention the Shepherds with their family of animal friends).

Some seven weeks later the holy season of Lent had arrived. That meant one thing only: Fast, Abstinence, Rosary/ Benediction in the evening, Stations of the Cross on a Friday, the nine day Novena leading up to St. Patrick’s Day and finally the Holy Week ceremonies commemorating Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. The Stations of the Cross on a Friday evening were a mini-marathon with a verse of the hymn ‘Stabat Mater’ sung at each Station followed by the prayer “We adore thee Oh Christ and praise thee, because by thy Holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world”, followed again with more prayers. This was repeated at each of the fourteen Stations ending with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the pungent smell of burning incense burrowing its way into every nostril, nook and cranny of the old Gothic Building.

Not very long afterwards came the Forty Hours Adoration, a ceremony that extended over a period of three days. Two altar boys would kneel for an hour at a time, praying (a little) and keeping close watch on the finger-sized candles lit and inset in the candlebras all round the altar. As they burned away, the task of the altar boy was to replace them with new ones. Members of the laity came and went during daylight hours to pray till closing time at 9 p.m..  Nuns from the nearby Convent usually came in pairs to fulfil an hour of adoration. Looking down the years, remembering the solemn silence and air of sanctity all round, brought back a memorable line from a poem by that wonderful poet William Wordsworth that could have been written for such an occasion: “The Holy Time is quiet as a Nun, breathless with adoration”.

With memories of Lent still fresh in the caverns of the mind our Parish Priest delivered his own tidings of great joy, the annual Church Mission was coming fast down the track. Held (usually) over the first two weeks of May, the Mission was a renewal of penance for the already battle hardened faithful not to mention extra working hours for the faithful altar boy.  There was Mass at 7.30 a.m. to facilitate the early morning worker and a later one at 8.30 a.m. for the faithful in general. That was followed in the evening by Rosary, Benediction and a high-powered relevant sermon. The first week was for the women of the Parish and the second week for the men, with children of school-going age enjoying a little mission of their own over the final four mornings of the women’s mission. Their little mission consisted of Mass at 10 a.m. with a chat, a short question and answer session, and a few funny stories to hold their attention. The altar boy now at the heart of the action was in top gear, finding himself in the shadow of Doctors of the Church, Jesuits or members of another Religious Order. The proverbial ‘Poor Scholar of the Forties’ had scant room for mistakes!

During Lent and Advent, the Station Mass was traditionally held in a country home. This was a very special occasion for the family with neighbours coming together to pray and celebrate. As an altar boy, I served at many of them and would travel with the Curate on duty on the morning.

By way of a short anecdote, to find yourself in the company of the late Rev. Dr. Seamus McLoughlin as he drove his Ford Prefect ‘DI 3701’ to the particular rural home was an unforgettable experience. The Rev. Seamus never exceeded 15 mph in town or country to ensure he could get a full view of the scenery and all of God’s creatures great and small. On such a journey little would have escaped him! He was reputed to have a photographic mind and an ability to scan a book in minutes (so to speak) rather than hours. An avid reader, he was a member of the three local libraries. A brilliant orator of his day he was known throughout the Diocese and the country, and in constant demand as a speaker at religious conferences and important events. A leading critic and an authority on the evils of International Communism and National Socialism, he was often quoted in newspapers and on national radio. When in full flight delivering his Sunday morning homily, the Rev. Seamus could have surpassed a De Valera or a Michael Collins arguing for or against The Treaty. Sparks rose from the pulpit and a packed congregation listened (in a mood of shock and awe) as they clung to his every word. His sermons were phenomenal, with the rhetoric a mixture of wit, humour and a little douse of sarcasm if required. As a Confessor and founder of the local men’s sodality, he attracted large crowds to his confessional (contrary to adverse opinion) where he put in exceptionally long hours on sodality nights hearing penitents sometimes till 10 p.m. and later. For a man who outwardly projected the stern inflexible image, he was of a completely different disposition in the confessional with some of his more ardent admirers comparing him even to the great Cure of Ars; no sin was too grave, no story was too long for him to give ear to, nor were his penances ever draconian according to the ‘Whistleblowers’ of the day, and they were readily available. When the Rev. Seamus died on December 22nd, 1960, the vast gathering at his Funeral Mass told its own story. The overflow congregation included the nation’s President and his Aide-De-Camp (seated in the Church Sanctuary), some members of Government, Bishops from several dioceses roundabout, and a headcount of a hundred priests. A towering figure of his time, he still remained the country curate who had hailed from humble beginnings from the rural countryside of Ballyfarnon.

Back to the country Station, the Curate and his young assistant were given a hearty welcome by the host family. He began by hearing Confessions in a private room with Mass said immediately afterwards. Breakfast followed and what a memorable occasion that was for a young ‘townee’ lad to have his breakfast in a country home with the added delight of the morning off school. The host family had their best china on display, while breakfast boasted pure home produce; soda cake, scones, country butter, fresh milk, boiled, scrambled, poached egg, apple tart, a variety of sandwiches and a special treat Boxty. An air of welcome filled the home on those mornings, together with a kind of feeling that God was partying there as well. The memory of the Station Mass whether the Plains of Boyle, Brishlagh, Deerpark or Doon, would remain with you for the rest of your days; a chapter in the story of your life.                   

The Corpus Christi Procession that was held in the month of June attracted a thousand and more of the faithful. The enormous gathering was made up of annual First Holy Communicants, Children of Mary, Legion of Mary, members of the Men’s and Women’s Sodality, and a gathering of the faithful. Members of St. Vincent De Paul carried the canopy above the Priest bearing the Blessed Sacrament and a contingent of young fresh-faced members of the local F.C.A. acted as bodyguards. The huge procession wound its way through the streets of the town reciting the Rosary along the way. First Holy Communion girls with little ornate baskets of flowers scattered the petals in the way of the Blessed Sacrament in an act of homage while the Church Choir sang the regular hymns of the time.

To serve at a Requiem Mass (usually 11.30 a.m. on a weekday) had a little bonus built-in for the altar boy; he had the morning off school, lucky boy! Mass for the deceased person by its very nature was a mournful occasion with tears shed by the family and friends. Towards the end of Mass, the Celebrant with three more Priests stood around the coffin as the Cantor sang the deeply solemn and very mournful dirge ‘Dies Ira’, a hymn that rose like a cry to Heaven in memory of the deceased.

A period of respite in Church ritual seemed to occur over the autumn months. Then almost unnoticed All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd respectively, had arrived. All Souls Day saw the Priest saying three Masses consecutively. These were shortened somewhat by the long gospel and prayers denouncing the devil being read-only at the end of the third or last Mass, while Holy Communion was distributed only during the first Mass.

Returning to more worldly trappings, there was the odd occasion when a senior altar boy might be called upon to open the Church if the Sacristan happened to fall sick suddenly or was unavailable. The great key to the house of God hung on a hook on a hall rack in the Presbytery. You unlocked the Sacristy door, proceeded to switch on the lights, walked the length of the interior to the West Wing door (the only door opened on weekdays) to be met by the ‘Magnificent Seven’. I see them to this day, and remember their names, standing silently outside at 8 a.m with Mass at 8.30 a.m. Apology again for a little anecdote ‘for the sake of posterity’ and a further insight into local history!  Pat Walsh, the big man with a broad hat and a broader smile, was in his 80s and had been a daily Mass goer all his life. During the Arctic weather of the Great Blizzard of 1947, Pat struggled his way to Mass each morning dressed in what one could only describe as a Himalayan style dress with matching footwear, that included two massive bawneen socks like shin guards pulled up almost to his knees. As a young lad, I wondered why Pat didn’t wear wellingtons like everyone else? The ingenious mode of footwear seemingly was his chosen way to navigate across the vast carpet of snow in front of him. Pathways had been cleared to a degree but the same pathways didn’t travel all the way to the door of the West Wing! Pat had to get to Mass, and being one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ he’d be standing outside awaiting a young St. Peter to open up! The faces are embedded in the memory as clear today as in 1947, standing like the seven signatories of The Proclamation. Before he died a few years later, the Parish Priest of the day took the unique step of saying Mass for Pat in his own home in Bridge Street for the final days of his earthly life. A man I feel privileged to have known, he lived the quiet simple life with a smile and a friendly word for everyone. He’s surely one of the many unnamed saints that ramble the highways of Heaven!

Back to reality, you rang the bell for Mass at 8.15 a.m.. The great rope dangling from the Belfry a hundred feet above dropped into a tiny dimly-lit porch at the bottom of the women’s aisle. To ring the great bell could be a tricky business (especially if you didn’t know the ropes!). If you failed to pull and release almost simultaneously you could find yourself five foot off the ground trusting to a soft landing. A few of us did learn the hard way!               

Come retirement around the grand old age of 12, you would have built up a little cache of happy and in some cases funny memories; a few unforgettable ones! A once in a lifetime event occurred on a quiet weekday morning during Mass. The Celebrant that morning had recently returned from hospital having had a serious brain operation. After Holy Communion he sat for the usual few moments of reflection and failed to return. Three or four minutes passed with no movement from the Celebrant! The occasional cough or clearing of a throat rose from the small congregation but to no avail. The Celebrant was in a deep slumber, or was he? More agonising minutes passed but still no movement. An air of panic was setting in. Could our Celebrant have suffered a stroke? Who’d make a decisive move? Then Paddy the Sacristan came to the rescue, having realised Mass was running quite a bit over time. He came onto the altar and approached the Celebrant, still in slumberland, and touched him gently on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Mass came to a speedy conclusion with a profound apology and an embarrassing little smile from the Celebrant. All was well. The scene brought to mind the popular school poem by W. B. Yeats, ‘The Ballad of Fr. Gilligan asleep upon his chair’. Those same mornings a deeply religious lady went around the Stations of the Cross four or maybe five times, pausing for a few moments in contemplation at each one. She had her mission accomplished in maybe ten minutes. Remembering the Stations of the Cross on a Friday evening in Lent, that might take an hour to complete with prayers and a verse of a hymn at each Station, left one pondering if the same lady could reap an equal harvest of grace with her own personal version? The Parable of the labourers in the vineyard come to mind when one recalls those employed at the ninth hour were paid the same amount as those who worked longer hours and endured the heat of the day. Strange the ways of the Lord!

The final act of the day would be to assist the Sacristan to close the Church at 9.30 p.m., and to prepare the vestments to be worn next morning by the Celebrant. The colour was indicative of the Saint or Martyr to be remembered in the Mass, and the great Missal was left open and ready on its tripod at the correct page. One by one Paddy switched out the lights and just before the moment of complete darkness (except for the sanctuary lamp), he would call out as he had done a thousand times before: “Everybody out”. One cold winter’s night a voice rose from out of the darkness: “Not yet, I’m here”. A sound of high heeled shoes could be heard clip clopping up the old flaggered women’s aisle. A young lady emerged into view, somewhat out of breath and in a mild state of shock. “You could have been locked in for the night,” Paddy said with a friendly smile! Regaining her breath she replied, equally with a smile: “I could think of far worse places to be locked up” and continued her way out by way of the Sacristy door. The great key was left sitting on its hook in the Presbytery hall for another night. God alone would decide who’d be the next mover!




In light of the terrible scandals regarding the physical and sexual abuse of young boys and girls inflicted by different religious institutions over time, I can only speak for myself when I say that being an altar boy was one of the happiest experiences of my life. For this reason, my story is just one more happy memory of growing up in Boyle, ‘the town I love so well’. I have written on every aspect of life as I remember it from my earliest days of the 1940’s up to the present-day, and the above story has been as rich in memories for me as anyone gone before. I would have dearly wished the same could be repeated by every young boy or girl growing up then. They are supposed to be among the happiest and best days of a young person’s life and serve as a bulwark for the tougher times that might lie ahead in later life; unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way.  

                                                       Haec olim meminisse iuvabit.


Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Coronavirus

‘All changed, changed utterly’ (W.B. Yeats)           

Walking the centre of my hometown of Boyle on St. Patrick's Day 2020, brought to mind the above famous quote from the poem Easter 1916; the message conveyed was more than appropriate. Shops closed, an overwhelming silence, no human in sight, streets like a morgue; Boyle was a dead man lying in repose.

Can anyone remember a St. Patrick's Day without Mass, a parade, music, banter, laughter? I have never known one like it in my memory and it stretches a long way to The Blizzard of 1947 and further. To think that a virus a thousand times more fragile than a rib of a human hair (we're told) can bring our powerful hi-tech world to a halt boggles the mind and humbles the spirit. The Masters of the Universe (no need to name them) look like a drowning man fighting for breath as they struggle to handle this mysterious little bug, that emerged one afternoon on the far side of the globe, that has our sophisticated world frightened out of its wits. Military might, nuclear power, embargos would have little effect on this new little creature. It obviously recognises no boundaries!

The great economies of the world are in a state of trauma not knowing what's around the corner; they could be the next bushfires of the world similar to what we have seen in Australia and the Amazon rainforests last year.  Twitter or Instagram would have little influence on the matter; they're lost for words!

My above little observations may ring a trifle satirical, with echoes of Gulliver's Travels or Alice in Wonderland, but seeing is believing. And it is there for all to see.

Today, with oceans of time on our hands to ponder and to think, it makes one wonder what strange anomaly of nature produced this deadly little virus in the first place. Apparently one afternoon last December, Mother Nature sneezed in a corner of a market place on the far side of the globe triggering a chain reaction that has reverberated around the world. Our beautiful open-air environment has suddenly become a dangerous place to inhabit. We are advised to stay at home (indoors). We must not socialise, and, if we do, keep a healthy distance. We must not shake hands or extend a hug of friendship; all changed, changed utterly, a (terrible) new way of life is born. A timeless and unique balancing act between Mother Nature and ‘Homo Sapiens’ was about to change. Coronavirus had arrived on earth.

Do we humans really value anything until it’s lost or taken from us? Freedom, the pleasure of company, a jog in the park, a walk by the lakeshore, a walk barefoot on the sands of an ebbed sea, the miracle of sunrise and sunset, relaxing in your own back garden! All these freedoms (taken for granted) are today being rationed out to us like foodstuff was during the war years (which I remember as a child); all because of Coronavirus. Without being facetious, could this whole scenario be an indicator of sorts to our present-day 'Masters of the Universe' to stop destroying all that's good and beautiful in nature? Wealth and power appear to be their one and only aim in life!

To conclude my little thesis, I truly believe Mother Nature is a reflection of God in action; no more, no less. If we appreciate Nature, her goodness, her beauty, her wildness, her hedges, and her ditches, we appreciate God. Perhaps a humble little prayer to our Creator to bring this lockdown of humanity and its accompanying nightmare to a conclusion wouldn't go astray!
Christy Wynne 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Christmas Dinner That (Nearly) Never Was…

The Christmas Dinner That (Nearly) Never Was…

It was early 1965 and I had just invested in my first car, a five-year-old black Ford Prefect, DI 6858. It declared its age proudly, sometimes letting out a groan or a rattle. On Christmas morning 1965, my mother, two aunts and myself (the navigator) prepared for our annual visit to Longford, to another member of the family, for the Christmas get together. This was an annual event, a renewal of family bonds, an update on all things small and great.

We took off about noon (after the 11.30 a.m. Mass) in good weather conditions; no snow, no frost, no flooded roads to contend with. As we swung into Abbey Terrace the ‘Old Faithful’ started to splutter and chug a little, slowly grinding to a halt at Abbey Terrace Bridge. Shock and dismay hung heavy in the air; could our Christmas visit to Longford be about to end before it began? 

My knowledge of the workings of a car was extremely limited to say the least, a few basics and that was it. ‘Thinking things that never were and asking why not’…I remembered a friendly little man named Paddy Conroy who lived a short distance away at No. 8, Lower Marian Road. Paddy was the master mechanic in Taylor’s Motor Works (now Corrib), a very popular man respected by all who knew him. With the adrenaline running high I plucked up the courage (it was Christmas Morning after all) and decided to call to his house and hope for the best.

After a gentle, well-nuanced, knock his good wife Mary answered the door. I wished her and the family a very happy Christmas and then with an intake of breath gave her the bad news of my predicament. “Come in Christy, he’s sitting here in the kitchen. You can explain it all to himself,” 
Mary said. 

Things moved quickly from there. Paddy promptly collected his magic kit (the tools of the trade) and led the way. In the midst of all the hype and the hope I couldn’t help but think of a local Medical Doctor of the time, hurrying to give relief to a sick patient somewhere, or perhaps help bring a baby into the world. Paddy was the Doctor that morning and time was of the essence.
He raised the bonnet. Open heart surgery, hopefully not; too much choke, perhaps? Check the plugs! Minutes passed, the bonnet still open, Paddy eliminated a few more possible problems and said: “Try her now Christy…again…again”. At the third time of asking, the engine kicked into action. The sense of relief was so palpable ‘it couldn’t be described’. The Miracle Worker (not quite Anne Bancroft) gave a little smile of satisfaction and simply said: “Keep going and don’t stop till you get to Longford. See you sometime in Boyle!”
Paddy, God rest him, will forever remain in our memory for his wonderful deed of kindness that morning and for making Christmas one of the best we’ve ever had.

Christy Wynne

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Street Entertainer

The Street Entertainer
As a young lad growing up in Boyle in the 1940s and 50s the arrival in town of the street singer or showman could halt the shopper in his tracks and bring traffic to a halt. It was a treat of sorts when one of these colourful characters dropped in to display his hidden talents or skills to the local community. There was the Ballad Singer, the Whistler, the Preacher, the Strong Man, the Blade Man, the Bargain King, the Huckster, the Three-Card-Trick man, the Man-with-no-Name and others; all part of an old world order and tradition long gone and forgotten.

The first on my prize list would have to be our own ‘singing bird’ and town crier Ned Kelly, who like the perennial wet weather never left us till the Good Lord called him as heaven’s town crier. Ned and his bell were inseparable as he walked the streets of Boyle proclaiming the news of great events about to happen such as a political rally, Duffy’s Circus, McMahon’s Carnival, the Agricultural Show, a football match in the Abbey Park and much more. Ned was also good for a song, and particularly if he felt a thirst coming on. “Thirst can be a terrible thing,” Ned would say “if it’s not quenched”; and he knew that his many friends in Boyle would never allow their town crier to die of thirst. His repertoire amounted to two popular songs of the time, ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer Do’ and ‘A Bunch of Violets’. The voice of any ballad singer can vary in quality and tone and Ned was no exception, at times suffering the ignominy of a drop in pitch or losing key. But that never stopped his many admirers following on with their customary generosity. To the people of Boyle, Ned wasn’t just a town crier; he was the bearer of good news.

Another entertainer who paid seasonal visits to Boyle showed off his style of funnelling his voice to the audience by cupping his hand to his mouth to enhance or strengthen the melody. It was strange to watch, a little funny even, but must have paid dividends as he kept coming back offering more of the same!  Again, there was a strolling player who whistled his way through town with a unique style of whistling or warbling, an early but amateur version of the great Roger Whittaker who graced the world stage decades later with his wonderful rich voice and whistling expertise. This man, with his little canine friend tagging along behind him, reminded me of a 78 record I played regularly as a child at home (on ‘His Masters Voice’). The name of the record was ‘The Whistler and his Dog’ and the reverse side was ‘The Warblers Serenade’, two favourites of mine I’d play again and again. Oh, childhood memories!

Next to take the stage was The Preacher Man or Evangelist who brought the Good News to the very heart of the market place. The Rev. Gentleman stood on a chair to connect better with his congregation and with a great booming voice spoke about God, Heaven and Redemption. The man had little need of a megaphone to make himself heard; his voice filled every nook and cranny of the Crescent like a latter day Billy Graham, the great American Evangelist. Then came the super salesman who set up shop in the shadow of the Market Yard. As kids we nicknamed him ‘Billy Bassett’ of the Liquorice Allsorts fame due to the variety of bric-a-brac he brought with him. One item that captured the young imagination was a pack of Macs/Smile blades that showed on one side of the wrap a guy with a fierce angry look and a dirty grisly beard and on the other side the same guy sporting a beautifully clean face and a charismatic Macs/Smile. The packet of five blades cost the enormous price of a shilling, which in those times could get a young lad into the Abbey Cinema on a Sunday for the Matinee. More happy memories! Among the myriad of items this guy had for sale was a powerful superglue that could stick anything together. Even the fingers on your hand could be in danger. The strange substance had first to be heated over a flame before use and boy could it stick things! This bargain king would give an exhibition of its hidden strength by smashing cups, dinner plates and other items on the ground and sticking them together again. The mysterious substance needed the wearing of gloves when using it and carried a notice to ‘keep out of the hands of children’. History, they say, keeps repeating itself!

There is a particular rambling tradesman I choose to remember as Ozymandias ‘the traveller from an antique land’. He hit town pushing a type of rickshaw fitted with a great circular sharpening stone that looked capable enough to sharpen the sword of Damocles or the French guillotine. The little man, I thought, had a kind of oriental look about him but spoke perfect English and had no problem relating with his customers. He parked his strange machine on wheels (not by accident) in the very shadow of the Shambles Yard which was a daily hive of activity. As news spread that the blade man was in town the customers came running: hoteliers, grocers, butchers, barbers, housewives; all taking their place in a queue with their respective ‘tools of the trade’ to have them restored to their former greatness. At the end of what seemed a massive day’s trading, Ozymandias took to the highways again. The extraordinary little man must literally have clocked up thousands of miles in his lifetime, he and his strange contraption on wheels having made their appearance in town after town in County’s Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo over the years. 

A unique character again who paid a regular visit to town was a man named ‘Dan the Street Singer’. Dan graced the town dressed in an old shower-proof coat, a battered hat and a belt tied around his waist; all for effect. He could easily have been imitating the lifestyle of the famous Irish writer Padraig O’Connaire, the man who rambled the roads of the West of Ireland writing short stories about life there. ‘Dan the Street Singer’ however had a deep love for the Irish ballad rather than stories, so he was happy to cycle through town after town during the summer singing Irish songs, ‘the songs our fathers sang’. Some may regard the man’s obsession as a form of eccentricity, and if it was then what a wonderful way to share one’s love of music and it worked for Dan with his fine tenor voice reminiscent of a Brendan O’Dowda or a Frank Paterson. An added attraction of his was the quaint little holdall on wheels he had linked up to his bicycle fitted with an acoustic system, and no doubt food and wine to sustain him on his journey through the highways and the byways of the west.

Of all the strolling players and entertainers I recall from childhood, my personal favourite has to be a man who made his entrance to Boyle Town cracking a large whip; boy could he crack that whip! The bad guys that lashed poor Clint Eastwood almost to death in one of his famous western films of the 1970s wouldn’t be in the same class. His noisy arrival could be heard way in the distance long before he was seen in the flesh. From the four corners of the town the young (myself included) came running to the Crescent to see this extraordinary character; ‘The Man with no Name’ we called him.  Seasoned shoppers were known to leave goods behind them in the rush to see this guy and even the dogs on the street raced for cover from the terrifying sound of the whip. The great open space that is the Crescent, with its stately Courthouse and elegant Clock Tower (better known as the Town’s Clock), was the setting for this class operator. For the people of Boyle, the Crescent was the epicentre for all great events like political rallies, carnivals, outdoor entertainments and celebrations of different kinds. It was Boyle’s answer to The Forum in ancient Rome. Imagine the Courthouse as the great centre of power with its impressive array of steps leading up to it and the spacious area in front where the mighty Caesar might sit on his lofty throne to pay homage to his warring generals returning from the wars in Gaul or North Africa; or maybe rub shoulders with the great legal eagles of the day as they made their way to The Senate House, or be seen in the company of the most distinguished eagle of them all Cicero as he strode Toga clad to his Chambers. This was the Crescent in Boyle.

The Man with no Name, having arrived at his place of destiny, stripped to the waist to show off his great brawny arms and muscular chest. He then unfolded a table on which he spread a range of steel implements, the man’s stock in trade. First to hand was a heavy steel poker that he bent in two, almost in slow motion, and with gritted teeth gradually restored to its original shape. This was only a sweetener or a beginning of what was to follow. He followed on by bending not one but several six-inch nails to prove he was genuine. Next he hammered several nails into a length of timber and with clenched teeth and a fiendish expression extracted them one by one. The gathered crowd saw and believed. A glass of water and a short pause followed as he got himself ready for his next act which was even more fascinating. He announced to the crowd that he was going to swallow a length of chain he had spread in front of him. Before commencing he called for a volunteer from the crowd to come forward and grip his bared stomach or solar plexus so the volunteer could actually feel the links of the chain in the pit of his stomach. Having extracted the chain he next pulled a sword from its sheath or scabbard and slowly and cautiously swallowed it out of sight, all eighteen inches of it. Shock appeared on every face in the crowd. The next act was something new again and would require the assistance of a young boy. One promptly stepped forward as cool as you like (how I admired the lad’s courage) in front of the large crowd. A bicycle was wheeled into the arena and the boy was put sitting on the saddle of it and told to hold on tight. The strong man then lifted boy and bicycle above his head balancing both on his chin for a number of minutes having taken away both his hands. The applause afterwards could have made soundwaves among the deceased of Assylinn graveyard. Then followed the final act, the Crème De La Crème; the one that would not easily be forgotten. The act involved the use of a large flat rock heavier and thicker than a flagstone (placed there in advance).

Once again a volunteer was invited from the crowd. The ‘Man with no Name’ let it be known that this volunteer would have to be a brave man, a man of courage, a man who would not cower or pull back at the last moment! After a lengthy pause a man stepped forward. The ‘Man with no Name’ prostrated himself on the ground on his back with the volunteer placing the large rock on his naked chest. He then lifted a sledge hammer above his head and brought it down full force on the flagstone which broke into several pieces. Silence and disbelief showed on the face of the crowd as they wondered and waited to see if the man would rise again!  Seconds passed, silence hung heavy in the air accompanied by numerous intakes of deep breath. Then suddenly, the ‘Man with no Name’ moved, stood up, dusted himself down and smiled at the crowd. The show had come to a happy ending.

Christy Wynne

Monday, October 23, 2017

My Own Place

One morning recently I woke to the sound of a dog barking. Strange I thought to myself, I nearly always wake up to the sound of a heavy truck or lorry rumbling along the street below. I looked out my bedroom window, the same one (I might add) that I looked out as a child 70 years before to catch the first glimpses of the great snow blizzard that hit Boyle on the February 23rd 1947. The street was as usual devoid of a human being except for the never-ending flow of tankers, delivery trucks, juggernauts, land rovers careering through with little or no reason to stop; the street had become a right-of-way to the west, to the midlands and the south. It was a far cry from the street I grew up in; people stopping for a chat, children laughing, dogs barking, the sound of shop doors opening and closing. Charles Lambe, the famous essayist describing a similar scene from his own time, talked about “the sweet security of a street”. If he were to come back today he might form a different opinion! Having got over the commotion of the barking dog I returned to my comfort zone but was unable to get back to sleep. Instead I went on an exciting cruise down memory lane recalling life as I remembered it in Main Street, the home place well over a half century ago.

It was a bustling busy street back then, full of small shops offering a friendly and personal service to all who came through the doors. Many of the same shops have since closed, some have changed hands, others have passed on the baton to a new generation. The closed ones had now a cold lifeless look about them, their windows devoid of goods; empty spaces, graves without a cross! The collapse of the economy a decade earlier had wreaked havoc on the town and many like it around the country. The deadly virus spread like a cancer killing everything in its path, but it wasn’t the whole story. In preparing for this great boom now dead, a raft of new parking regulations and street by-laws were brought in to facilitate the never-ending flow of heavy traffic through Main Street and the town centre. These great new pillars of the economy steamrolled their way through a town that was never designed for such traffic, making it literally impossible for any business to survive. A nail the size of a crowbar was being hammered daily into the backs of the traders. The never-ending stream of dead matter took priority over people and traders alike. Caught in a catch-22 situation, the shops closed by the dozen, never to open again; it was a case of death by a thousand cuts. The same story repeated itself in many towns around the country but little sympathy was ever shown by Governments or local authorities. The state was in the process of reaping a Pyrrhic victory.

Doing an autopsy, my thoughts moved slowly from house to house whence I had a long deep look. The street had at one time been the main driveway or gateway to the King House at one end. The facades of the shops and houses had been designed to face towards the driveway rather than the river running parallel behind it. Towns of more recent vintage with a river running through have the facades of the buildings face on to them, enhanced further by boulevards of trees, shrubs and pathways. Such considerations weren’t in the offing when the Main Street was being planned. The King family had become the new landlords of Moylurg, the ancient name of the area in the early 1700s. Their country residence was in Rockingham, which today is Lough Key Forest Park. That magnificent Georgian Mansion was destroyed in a fire in 1957 and the shell that stood for a further fifteen years was regrettably levelled before An Taisce had time to stop its demolition. The King townhouse on Main Street was in time converted into a Military Barracks and became the home of the Connaught Rangers before, during, and for a time, after the First World War. Later again it housed the 19th Infantry Battalion of the national army during the years of the Second World War, and later a platoon of the F.C.A. continued to have quarters in it until very recently. Bord-na-Mona, another semi-state body, used several of the rooms as offices in the late-40s and 50s, creating a good number of jobs in the process. The great open square used by the soldiers for drill and parading also served as a handball alley which in time became a little bonanza and a playground for the new kids on the block. Around the same time a peculiar twist of history helped restore the prestige of the old building for a short period. A drainage scheme carried out on the shores of nearby Lough Gara caused the levels of the lake to drop considerably, revealing several lakeside dwellings called Crannogs. These wattled huts had been the habitat of our ancient ancestors thousands of years ago. The findings also included shells of old boats, cooking utensils, tools for tilling land and numerous other artifacts. A temporary museum was set up in rooms of the building to store the vast array of items found. Dr. Raftery, then keeper of antiquities at the National Museum, became a frequent figure around the town, smoking his pipe and perusing the landscape. He also gave a series of talks on the archaeology of the area to packed audiences in the great groundfloor hall of the building. The project at the time was regarded as being of such national significance that three extra Gardai were drafted in specifically for the duration of the work. The same three Gardai integrated themselves so well into the community, becoming members of the local GAA, golf and snooker clubs, they were given the distinguished title of ‘The Three Crannogs’ and are remembered by many to this day.

When the Barracks was finally vacated, a syndicate of local businessmen bought it and used the grounds to store large quantities of coal, turf and briquettes for resale and also as a storage depot for dance marquees. The new owners were a breed of young entrepeneurs who saw the potential for renting out marquees for open air dances, agricultural shows and various other kinds of social occasions. Dancing at the crossroads under canvas had become the new craze in the 1950s and continued for decades until the disco hall and the singing lounge brought in a complete new form of entertainment and pleasure. The attraction of the marquee reached a peak when the season of Lent was over and the long spell of abstinance had come to an end. The sight of circus-like tents raising their heads in fields outside every village and town was something to behold, they were the harbingers of the good times ‘a coming’.

With my memories of the King House now drained I turned my attention to my own place Main Street, where I first saw the light of day. There she stood in all her fullness. For a moment I thought of Fra Pandolf the artist praising his masterpiece ‘My Last Duchess’ to a friend. “There she stands,” he said. “I call that piece a wonder now. Will’t please you sit and look at her?”. Newsagents, grocers, drapers, butchers, hairdressers, electrical shops, bicycle shops, hardware shops, a music shop, a sports shop, a pharmacy, a one time R.I.C. Barracks now a restaurant, licensed premises, a merchant tailor, a hotel, a legal practice, an office of the Bank of Ireland and National Bank, two shops with the added attraction of a petrol pump outside; the one next door to the home place a vintage model that required manual operating (i.e. two large bottle-like containers overhead had first to be pumped full of petrol and released back slowly into the car tank; an interesting piece of technology to the eyes of a young street urchin hoping to be asked to give a hand in the operation). What finer variety of shops could a street offer, not to mention the rare and varied selection of sound, music and sometimes fury rising from within and without. There were the voices of happy children playing on the street, dogs barking, loud men laughing, the music shop playing the best of Delia Murphy, Three lovely Lassies from Bannion, The Sally Gardens, The Spinning Wheel, Dan O’Hara, the clarion sound of the bell in the hotel lobby ringing out time for meals, the thud of the butcher’s cleaver carving up a half side of beef. Saturday, the market day, was the big business day of the week. Donkeys and carts laden with our feathered friends lined up along Military Road, better known perhaps as the Fowl Market. Chickens are thoroughly examined and breasts felt with a view to Sunday’s lunch. A buzz of business fills the market place. A customer showing an interest in buying two birds sets off a bout of bargaining reminiscent of buying the turkey at Christmas. The local expert on birds, a man who never misses a market, is tentatively approached to give his valued opinion. His word is sacrosanct, a deal is done, Sunday lunch is guaranteed. Around the corner a donkey (and cart) parked outside a large grocery store has finally run out of patience and neighs its deep displeasure, and sadness almost, at being ignored and forgotten about for hours. The owner appears out of nowhere, produces the magic bag of hay from the back of the cart and spreads it on the ground; all is forgiven, the donkey now happy sounds off and retreats back into himself. The brief spell of silence is shattered minutes later when the local town criers, two mongrel dogs that live opposite one another, start a high-powered barking match in the middle of the street; it goes on and on till one of them eventually runs out of steam. Not quite outside the door of the National Bank, an elegant-looking Victorian-style lady dressed all in black and somewhat eccentric stands grumbling and mumbling about her lost savings; she faces the front of the building demanding her money back now. She stands in the same spot three mornings a week (on my way to school) staking her claim, and for anyone willing to give her an ear she reads out the Bank’s Capital Assets writ large in letters of gold on one of the windows, £7,500,000. On the other side of the street, at the hall door of a long-established premises, a sedate old man reputed to be verging on centenarian status stands Moses-like with a beard stretching down to his breastbone. Local history believes he was an Elder or Bishop of the Plymouth Brethren, a religious sect that once had a place of worship in the town in the late-18th and early-19th century. To the young denizens of the street he is their Noah (from a film), the bearded holy man at the helm of the of The Ark navigating the mountainous waters of The Deluge.

Further on again, a long established trader stands at his door dresswed in his brown shop coat. The  man whose day begins and ends with a cigarette can be heard coughing and choking in what could be his last breath on this earth. Every sinner in the street knows the origin of the sound and the direction it’s coming from. They’ve been listening to it for donkey’s years but no one mentions a word of condemnation; judge not and you shall not be judged. Lady King Harman, severely afflicted by rheumatoid-arthritis, leaves the Beauty Salon complete with hair perm and accompanied by her lady-in-waiting. Outside, her chaffeur stands in readiness dressed in navy blue uniform and high leather boots at the door of the wine-coloured Bentley for Her Ladyship to enter; shades of the grand old ‘Upstairs Downstairs’era. Drawing ever closer to ground zero (the home place), a vision of my neighbour looms large in front of me. The man was one of the great pianists of his day, the Joe (Mr. Piano) Henderson of his time; a person who could beat out the great postwar tunes of the 1950’s. A celebration is taking place in the upstairs sitting room and friends are sitting round having drinks sweetened up with ginger ale or soda water. The occasions are Christmas, Easter and other celebratory times of the year. Other impromptu sessions occur that are even more enjoyable than the organised ones and may last till midnight and beyond; what memories, what a wonderful world!

A lady, a music teacher by profession, living in a flat a few doors away brought the word curry into the little world of Main Street. Born in India, where her father was a British army major during the First World War, the said lady had family connections with Boyle. After her father died in India she came on a holiday, fell in love with the place and never left it. Her oriental cooking became famous in the street and was talked about almost like an eighth wonder of the world. The pungent smell of chicken curry or vindaloo halted people in their tracks as they tried in vain to discover the source and the name of the strange exotic aroma permeating the street round about. A touch of eastern promise and oriental cuisine had come to the home place years before an Indian or oriental restaurant was heard of in Ireland.

A new neighbour has just opened up a strange type of grocery store in the street which boasts being among the first of its kind in the west of Ireland (1960); it’s called a supermarket and it’s doing a roaring trade. A ground-breaking concept, the place is held in awe by all who enter. How a business can survive that has neither a counter nor an assistant (so to speak) simply boggles the mind. It beggars belief, shelves upon shelves of items to pick and choose from and pay at the door on your way out. Old habits die hard, the pass book, the weekly credit, the personal touch, the Christmas Box. Do these grand old trappings of a way of life that has endured for generations go out the window in the name of some alien form of business still wet behind the ears! When God was a child the shops stayed open all hours; the owner could almost choose his own time to open and close. Closing time was usually 8 p.m. on weekdays, 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Wednesday (the half day). Sunday, the day of rest, was sacrosanct except for the sinning Newsagent. The barber around the corner held the record for long, stand alone, outrageous hours; he could be found working up till the midnight hour, cut-throat in hand unloading a mountainy man of a week’s growth of beard. His was the last stop saloon. Trade unions were a nasty word in those times, probably a throwback to the great Dublin Lockout. The name was rarely brought into conversation, shunned like the subject of politics or religion in a bar.

At the junction of Main Street, Bridge Street, Patrick Street and Green Street stands the majestic old building of the Northern Bank. Standing in the shelter of the hall door of this impressive building, one has a birds-eye view of  anything and everything happening on three of the four named streets. The shelter surrounding the closed entrance door served as a kind of lookout post for as long as anyone can remember, a place where a restless soul might linger to consider the fragility of life or for the man not quite ready to go home ‘yet’. After leaving the pub or the cinema, a small group would gather around the historic door for a rehash of what had gone on earlier. The pipe would be lit up, cigarettes smoked and the occasional loud laugh told its own story, a good yarn had just been spun. Then came the pauses of deep silence as the group huddled together like ghosts in the shadows using each other as protection from the elements. The spot became the all-seeing eye of Boyle, the local centre of the universe, a kind of early version of CCTV. Other memories to enrapture the mind are the bright lights of the ‘open all hours’ little shops in the long winter evenings, a husband and wife team working together behind the counter with a smile for everyone. They were the halfway houses where a customer hung on late for a chat and a smoke, and could end up sitting at the fire in the kitchen at the back of the shop. It was a familiar culture that died with the demise of the small shop; they were John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade; they were the ‘Lachrymae Rerum’.

As I reach the bottom of my Pandora’s Box, I see the faces of two colourful personalities peering up at me who were born on Main Street. They are Jasper Tully, M.P. at Westminster and founder member of the Roscommon Herald, and Maureen O’Sullivan, the famous Hollywood Actress who acted as Jane – Tarzan’s (Johnny Weissmuller) partner in many a jungle film. They have earned their niche in the street’s little Pantheon of characters. Boyle town has been through the wars; battered, bruised and scarred, but still standing; a born survivor. Within her lies an unconquering hope that will see her overcome every obstacle no matter how great. Lord Tennyson said it once in a few words:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.