WAR ON THE ORDINARY PEOPLE: Days in December




“This is the war on the ordinary people”, the man shouts and shouts again on the crowded train. We’re squeezed in like sardines. Standing. There’s chaos at the station. Delays and cancellations. Yet, most of us remain silent in the face of it and some try to stop the man shouting his protest against this form of war on the people. I’m happy to have gotten in to the train at all but I wonder if it is our silence, our quiet resignation that allows government to become so detached from what is happening in ordinary lives. Although, it’s only a week since people had the opportunity to protest by means of the ballot box and they chose not to protest at all. Maybe they are too tired.

At Dublin airport the wind howled through the departure door, rain swept down across the tarmac. We were left standing on the stairs for quite a while after having presented out boarding passes. A young official asked, “would anyone like to skip the queue?” Two of us accepted the invitation to go down in the lift. The woman said, “I never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

There’s something odd about going away from home this close to Christmas. We should be travelling in the opposite direction and I wonder how many of my fellow travellers might be feeling lonely, though it’s not like it was 30 or more years ago when travel was more difficult, more expensive and communications were more challenging. Thankfully, in this instance, I’m not among the lonely. I’ll be home again soon.

On board I’m in E27 having been randomly allocated this middle seat because I chose not to pay £4 for the privilege of selecting a more suitable one. It was just as well because the aisle seat remained empty. A stewardess came down, stood by our row and asked would anyone agree to sit at the emergency exit. “Yes!” I said, so I got to have a row all to myself with plenty of room to stretch my legs. Serendipity!

Serendipity followed me. The morning after I arrived in Dublin, I phoned to enquire about my friend Ita who has been ill. Her daughter told me that she was now in the Hospice in Blackrock. My intention was to visit her in January but I asked if I could do so now, that morning. Yes! And Ita, surprised, said when she saw me, “this is a miracle!” She was very calm, peaceful and said she had no worries. Only praise for her family. We prayed. I kissed her goodbye and told her I love her, something I say now to friends departing this world.

The morning after the wedding in Monaghan three of us headed back to Galway for Katie’s ballet concert in the Town Hall. Ah, what it does to me when she appears on stage! My heart swells with tearful pride and she is so intent, focused.  

Monday was the funeral of our dear Pallottine Father Ned O’Brien, aged 87, whom I have known for 47 years. His was a noble and timely dying. He was ready, waiting. And his funeral Mass was a beautiful gathering of family and Pallottines, some of the music being provided by Ned’s grandnephews, one of whom played the banjo for him the day he died.

When I sent word to my family that Ned had died, my sister replied, "Priest, Prophet and King", referring to a theme that was dear to Ned's heart which she heard him preach about at an Associates retreat in Esker back in the 1990's. The titles refer to Jesus and they are applied to a child with the anointing of sacred Chrism in the ceremony of Baptism. "As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life." Ned spoke this message with great enthusiasm, insisting loudly to his hearers, "YOU are priests, prophets and kings!" This concept of sharing in the person and ministry of Christ was at the core of his Pallottine life.

In 1972 Ned was staying at the Pallottine College, having broken his leg in a car crash. He and our Rector, Pat Dwyer, were good friends. Ned always had a love for students. He hung around us under the awning outside the back door where we lingered before going in to sacred study as the cathedral clock struck four. He gave us advice on many subjects, including how we should pray the Breviary in common. It should have life and tempo in it, not dragged out. In later years during a period when I was sick, he told me I could simply pray Psalms that I remember rather than struggling through the full daily obligation of the Breviary, this from a man who was scrupulously faithful to those same obligations. His love for students continued right up to the end of his life and, though never officially a formator in our communities, he formed many by his learning and wisdom.

We were to be together again in Dundrum from the mid 90's for about 12 years, with a break between 2002 and 2005 when I was back in Thurles as Rector. A few things stand out in my memory, apart from his love of music - his passion for dogs, souped-up cars, and the two of us melting Cracker Barrell cheese on toast in the grill of the Provincial House. Cooking for the community was something he enjoyed doing spontaneously on the occasional evening. The George Foreman in the kitchen is a constant reminder of him.

A couple of years ago on my way home from England I borrowed his Twingo which he was no longer able to drive and I felt like a boy racer roaring down the M6 until the little machine broke down somewhere near Ballinasloe and I had to wait in the bitter cold for a tow truck to come. But I was still very pleased and so was Ned.

The last time I saw him was the end of August before I returned to England and this was perhaps the loveliest moment of our two lives together. He asked me to bless him and I did what I did with Noel O’Connor a few months earlier. We held hands, huddled in together because he was completely doubled over and prayed and blessed each other. It was as physically close as we could get and only once before did, we get so close was when he hugged me as he cried on hearing of my sister Maura’s death. Family mattered to him - his own above all but mine too and many others.

After the funeral it was straight back to Galway where the family had arranged a tea party gathering for me as a way of celebrating Christmas together. Initially there was talk of cooking a Christmas dinner but I appealed for something simple because I find large meals oppressive and I keep thinking of the homeless people I see here in Hastings who have very little to eat. Besides, cooking a dinner would have meant half of the family spending the whole time working to get it on the table. As it turned out this was one of the loveliest gatherings we’ve had, enhanced by the presence of the younger members of the family – one in the womb, another seven months born. Katie and Laura presented me with my first ever Christmas jumper which I wore to school on my first day back here. It gave great delight to the children who swarmed about screaming my name, clinging to me like bees as soon as I entered the playground. What joy is this!


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