GOING BACK: Memory and Reward


Three Galway Hookers sailing. Saturday morning leisure. They were working boats in my Aran childhood, a fleet of them carrying turf to the island, unloading it by hand, casting it onto the pier. Well into adulthood the pier was my playground; hours watching. These black Hookers with their brown sails are now the bearers of memory, treasures of the past. I am drover driven down forty-eight years of memory

A train passes on its way to Dublin, train of thought moving towards the approaching future, thinking of leaving again. Two more sleeps. No idea when a return will be possible in these uncertain coronavirus times. As long as the two-week quarantine remains in place it will be difficult to come home again before next August. But you never know. Back in my Tanzania days we got home only every two years and the luxury of phones hadn’t arrived. We didn’t hear each other’s voices, didn’t see each other’s faces. We wrote letters! And what a joy that was in its time.

Passing trains, seabirds rising in formation, terns skimming across the Ballyloughan shore and south towards the Hills of Clare. I love this place!

The Dayspsring calendar for today quotes Psalm 16 – the prayer of my life as a priest – “you have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” He will do this as He has done!

Dusty Springfield is in my head, “I think I’m going back to the things I learned so well in my youth.!” Leaving home at seventeen. Moment of departure, point of arrival. I don’t remember being lonely. Silent with a new happiness inside me. The delight of beginning a completely new life that was as innocent as a baby born - fresh, open, acceptance. A place of new belonging and a life that had as yet no hurt in it, no failure. I was an open book with a heart prepared to be inscribed upon, having no idea of the ecstasy or the agony to come.

Goodbye is sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes a tumult of emotion. It’s hard on everyone in different ways but I think it’s hardest on Katie and Laura because they have no control over when we meet again and time is longer for them, distance greater. They say goodbye by cooking dinner for me. Gorgeous. Fabulous. Just like themselves. And then they hug, cling to me for a long time.

It’s not as if I’m going back to the ends of the earth but separation by sea makes a difference. You can’t just get into your car and drive home. I take a deep breath, swallowing back my feelings, keeping them at bay, abiding in the present.

There is a deep well of gratitude inside me for all that has been over the past few weeks. Quarantine, sunshine and good neighbours. Family, relations and friends visited. Forgiveness arrived at. Precious time spent with my Pallottine community. And my heart overflows with love for God and my soul sings ‘Adoramus Te Domine’ from Taize.

There is a lesson learned. One that’s been learned time and again over the years. It happened one of those lazy mornings when you get up whenever you like, don’t get dressed for half the day and spend a long time eating breakfast. I was watching ‘Tipping Point’ on television, loving how enthusiastic Ben Sheppard is for the final contestant, wanting her to win the £10,000. I also want her to win it because I’m thinking it’s all about the £10,000. She doesn’t win it and Ben is expressing his sorrow but she turns to him with a lovely smile and without a hint of disappointment she says, “Just being able to play the game is my reward!”

Of course, she’s absolutely right and I find myself saying, “just being able to serve the Lord is my reward!” That’s enough. But I get caught in other things – like succeeding, being recognized, being wanted and a whole load of other expectations that stir in me, expectations that lead to frustration and discontent when they are left unfulfilled. So, I am drawn to ponder what is the reward of my life.

In the context of my holidays the reward is clearly in the people who surround me and make my time precious. All those I mentioned above and two little boys for whom I am a new reality. Rian at his baptism not reacting badly to the water as we were expecting. That brief eternal moment after the water was poured when he gazed up at me in quiet content, our eyes meeting. This is the reward! And Cole whom I met before but who, at a year and a bit, doesn’t know me. He came to my house one day and with the freedom and speed of a little child, took off up the stairs. I followed him right into my bedroom where he walked straight up to my cluttered bedside locker and piece by piece, he picked up every object, looked at it and threw it onto the floor! Back downstairs he looked with interest at the brown bread and butter that I was eating, so I gave him some which he ate with relish, shoving it all back into his mouth and then proceed to place his butter covered hands on my knees! And I think to myself with pleasure, this is the reward!

I’m back now and it takes a few days to adjust but several chance encounters with parishioners out on my walks do my heart good. “Welcome home”, is the greeting from some. I am home! And there’s nothing like ministry to plunge one deep into self-forgetfulness, the mystery of human life – an utterly heart-breaking sorrow and the witness of inspiring faith; anointing the dying; the gratitude of strangers who feel welcome; a beautiful baptism; the sheer love of weekend Mass in all its facets, in all the beautiful faces from the youngest to the oldest. Just being here is my reward! “This” I say to God, “is my Cana. You have kept the best wine until now!”


  1. You paint great pictures, images in your descriptions. I find it easy to be present as the child throws everything on the ground or rubs butter on your legs. The gift you have is that I smile internally and it raises my spirits. The is great wisdom in children, great Spiritual messages and attitudes. My reward is often in my gratitude and serenity, in the brief interactions with my fellow travellers. Keep her lite.

  2. What a marvelous message you give us blessed to receive in these days of confusion ... God bless.