The Tin Whistle Player

The rain dripped from the brim of his well-worn hat. The pockets of his long tattered coat bulged with his rations for that day. He shuffled from foot to foot in a futile effort to keep the cold at bay. His grubby fingers crushed a Woodbine cigarette as they moved effortlessly over the notes of his battered tin whistle. His well-worn features and the stubble on his face bore witness to a man who had endured hardship and pain along life’s path. His intense stare penetrated the gaze of all who made eye contact with him: a silent plea for small change that would see him through another day.

He called himself a traveling musician. Nobody knew his name or hometown. He was uncomfortable with small talk and unwilling to engage in conversation. His reluctant audience wished his vow of silence extended to his tin whistle! The noise that masqueraded as music penetrated the ear drums of those nearest to him.  Their squirming features clearly showed a lack of appreciation for the musical talent of this tall stranger. The few coins in his shoebox were the measure of his competence!

A short time later peace was restored. With a toothless grin he thanked those who were nearest to him. He gathered his meagre belongings in silence and slowly made his way through the arched gates. As he departed a nearby merchant handed him a bag of fresh fruit and bid him season’s greetings. Somewhat embarrassed, he lifted his hat in acknowledgement and melted into the crowd, happy to remain an anonymous visitor to Limerick’s Christmas market.

Glenco Stag

The temperatures were sub zero on Buchaille Etive Mor, in the valley of Glenco. The wind chill penetrated my layers of clothing and my fingers froze on the cold chrome of my camera.

I had seen this majestic stag on various occasions over a number of days and for me he encapsulated the beauty and the harshness of this rugged landscape.

Wildlife photography requires patience, long protracted stay’s in cold damp hides deprived of food and comfort, quite often without success. Masters of this form of photography are repeatedly disappointed but never dejected. Determined, they return day after day until finally they snare the hard won reward of the classic image they have etched in their minds eye.

I’d like to say that such determination led to my photograph of the Glenco Stag but that would be flexing the realms of truth to an absurd fiction.

My photographer friends and I sat at a blazing fire, in the comfort of armchair’s in The Kings Inn lounge overlooking Buchaell Mor, that cold winters day. We had indeed seen this stag, from a distance, some days earlier as we photographed the beauty of this Scottish Landscape.

The snowstorm came suddenly in the early afternoon and we retreated to the sanctuary of the Hotel. The Stag got closer and sought shelter from the storm. I grabbed my gear and braved the elements in an attempt to capture an image of this majestic animal. My friends watched and laughed at me through a Bay Window as they sipped their pints and I stumbled through the deep snow. I ventured a hundred yards or so from the hotel, The Stag continued towards me, more threatened by the storm then my presence.

The snow fell, the wind howled and the chill quickly got to my very bones.
The Stag got closer and closer. I fired off a number of shots before he bolted from my viewfinder.

I made a quick retreat to the warm Hotel fire as my friends doubled over with laughter at my antics and declared me ‘ certifiable mad’ for putting my nose outside the door.

They had their ‘Pints and Laugh’ but I got my shot.

In a nearby valley, on a bleak Scottish Mountain, a young hiker froze to death, taking shelter in a mountain bothy, that very winters night.

The Monks of Mount Melleray Abbey

The ringing of the Church Bells broke the silence of the night as I listened to the soft pitter-patter of rain against the window.

The whistling of the wind and the rustling from the trees were pre dawn indicators of the inclement weather outside my sanctuary. I looked at my watch – my blurry eyes registered the time at 4 am.

The Bells chimed once more for a final call to prayer. This was an ungodly hour for most people to rise but it was the start of just another day for these men of God. The chanting of the Monks echoed through the corridors of the monastery. Their feeble voices betrayed their diminishing numbers and advancing years. These pious men had sacrificed their lives for a greater goal and were cloistered from the world. To the observer, their faith appeared to be  un-tarnished by church scandal and indicators were that their souls were un-sullied by Man’s greed. I watched, transfixed, as their daily ritual of prayer commenced.

Life in Mount Melleray differs little from the traditions established by the first Cistercian monks who arrived in Co Waterford in 1855. These monks embrace the discipline of monastic life and dedicate their daily lives to “seeking God through prayer.” Their day is segmented into time for worship as the sounds of hymns, psalms and scripture punctuate the silence of the monastery. Oblivious to the complications and stress of ‘normal’ life, these elderly men have abandoned everything to offer intercession for the world and help rekindle the memory of God.They have left their individual lives at the gate to to their monastery and have forsaken all things mammon in search of a more spiritual existence.

Fr Celestine encapsulated all I envisaged in my pre conceived idea of a cloistered monk. His eyes were clear and his face betrayed little of his 90 years on this earth. He is a thin frail man, who walks supported by a stick and his full beard, framed by his black and white cassock, adds drama to his image. In 1941, when war raged throughout a turbulent Europe, many idealistic young men responded to a call to arms and met their fate on battlefields of France. That same year, eighteen year old, Norman O Leary, from Blackrock, Co Cork, responding to his faith, answered a call from God and sought the tranquility of Monastic life. He entered the Cistercian Monastery in Mount Melleray, Co Waterford. Upon his ordination he was given the name Celestine and for 72 years he has devoted himself to a life of prayer. His religious philosophy is as simple as his life. Seeking reassurance about my own faith, he responded to my questions about religion. He looked me in the eye and with a gentle smile said,” God is Love, that’s all you need to know, nothing more – nothing less”. He told me that his life was fulfilled and said he would change nothing if he had the opportunity all over again. As I was leaving his company he posed a question that stopped me dead in my tracks. Who’s the present Taoiseach he asked? I replied with a laugh and walked away thinking deeply about the attractions and  benefits of monastic life.

Fr.Celestine had one wish, to visit the nearby Grotto at Cappoquin, which he had helped build many years ago. I asked the Abbott, a friend of mine, to grant this gentle priest permission to leave the monastery. I promised I’d make sure the 90-year-old wouldn’t do a ‘runner’ on my watch. The monk greeted the news of his pending visit to the Grotto with the excitement of a child at Christmas. He suggested that we should go early the following morning to ‘avoid the crowds’. He slept little that night. The following day he told me he was feeling troubled and unwell. The thought of leaving his sanctuary had brought on a panic attack overnight. After a lot of reassurance, we departed on our ten-minute journey and to his surprise we were the only visitors.

Fr Celestine embraced the atmosphere of the Grotto with the love of a father greeting his long departed son. He was at one with his surroundings and the silent energy and faith projected by this frail priest was palpable.  Two hours quickly passed and he was ready to go home. As he climbed the steep path towards the car he paused, looked back at the Shrine once more and his eyes glazed over as he said a final silent prayer, mindful perhaps, that he might never see his beloved Grotto again. Once home, he went immediately to the Church and give thanks to God for fulfilling his desire.

At 93 years of age Fr Boneventure is the oldest monk in the community. A small man, with a sharp eye and quick intellect, he originally came from Co Meath. I was told that as a seventeen year old boy he paid a visit to Mount Melleray with the family of his girlfriend. The conflict between his love of God and that for his girlfriend was answered during his short visit. He joined the monastery but the two were to remain friends for life. Upon his ordination he chose the name Boneventure. Around the same time his girlfriend decided to join a convent and also chose the name Boneventure, when she took her final vows. Two parallel lives, a pious Monk and a devoted nun, brother and sister in Christ. One cloistered in an enclosed community devoting his day to prayer and the other travelling extensively spreading her knowledge and beliefs as a teacher and a nun. Both sharing their love in a deep-rooted faith and a supreme God. Both united for life in a special friendship that has lasted more then seventy years, a friendship that will remain steadfast until their parting breath.

Such men live behind the impressive Monastery perched in the rolling landscape of County Waterford. Given the changing world, I questioned the future and very relevance of this secluded community. The Abbott frowned with the strain of a man faced with finding answers to an such an imponderable dilemma. And he placed his faith in God.

On the day of my departure I rose at 4.30 am and watched the sunrise on the monastery. The first rays of dawn cut through the early morning  mist and the golden hues painted the ancient bell tower with their glow. My subconscious replayed the chants now embedded in my brain as I listened to the sounds of the wakening dawn.

I recalled hymns and prayers which were symbolic of my youthful  religious comforts and I thought of the life devotion my parents had to a Church that subsequently betrayed their trust. My week long stay in Mount Melleray was at an end. In a country which has grown cynical of religious and traditional values, I had made a short return to the simplicity and values of my upbringing and I felt enriched by the experience.

My thoughts were interrupted by the chiming of the Bell. It was the early call to prayer. I visualised the silent shuffle of the elderly men as they made their way to Church. I returned to the Monastery to observe the small community of Cistersian Monks devote another day of prayer for the redemption of sinners. Steadfast in their belief, they chanted their hymns and recited ancient Psalms, and I envied the Monks their deep-rooted faith. I questioned my own religious convictions and yearned for solace in my faith.

After breakfast I bade farewell to my new found friends.

I promised that I would return,sans camera, to further explore and develop my personal spiritual needs. As I drove from the Monastery I felt a sharp uncomfortable pain in my back. A short time later I was diagnosed with very rare blood cancer but that’s another story.

Upon hearing of my illness the Abbott, Fr Augustine, reassured me that he believed I had an abundance of faith and he told me that I could outsource my praying requirements to his Monks in County Waterford. Now, from a hospital bed, I get some  solace from that thought and I visualise the monks as they intercede on my behalf. I recall, with gratitude, the tranquil week I spent in the presence of those gentle and humble men. Now, at the most vulnerable period of my life, I have asked myself the question I put to Fr Celistine some months ago. If I was given the opportunity, what changes would I make to  my life. I thank God that my response would be the same as his. Not a thing!

After all “ God is Love – no more no less” and I have been fortunate to experience an abundance of love in my life.

My quest for my religious convictions will continue and I hope the Monks prayers, coupled with my feeble efforts, help me find an enlightened answer before the good Lord finally calls me.

Pa McCarthy

The young Traveller stood at the corner, legs crossed, trying to look nonchalant. He had sleek black hair, wore pin-stripped trousers and had an open neck shirt under a mock leather jacket. His collar was turned up, Elvis style; very much the lad about town.  His casual manner appeared to make him all the more attractive to a group of girls standing nearby.  He quickly became the focus of their attention and he loved every minute of it. He flirted with the girls and filtered out each one until eventually he snared a mini skirted teenager who caught his fancy. A short time later they walked hand in hand, while the rejected girls stood in an animated huddle, unimpressed with their friend for abandoning them for this trendy adolescent. He had his life before him and all was well with his world that summer’s day.

It was New Year’s Eve 1993. Pa McCarthy had grown up in an untroubled environment, along the Canal Bank, a quiet and restful place where the Guinness barges used to dock in years gone by. Many found it an escape from the city, and a haven for those with trouble on their mind. Fifteen years had passed since that day in the marketplace when he strutted his stuff.  The boy had become a man who possessed anger and rage and he went seeking trouble that night with revenge in his heart. There was a violent exchange, the flash of a blade, the scream of pain; a frantic rush to hospital and Pa’s life was no more.  His brothers bore witness to that senseless killing. His family sat around the campfire, mourning his loss the night he was buried. Two faceless men emerged from the shadows with murder on their minds. The blast of a shotgun and the crack from a handgun broke the stillness of the night and another brother lay dead, with many more wounded. Two young children escaped uninjured from the mayhem. Gardai rushed to the location with flashing lights and blaring sirens. Before them was a scene of bloody chaos, an attempted family massacre, silent witnesses, a tarnished city, an outraged public and a very unhappy New Year.

It was the start of Limerick’s gangland feud.

The Animal Lover

The boy sat nestled in a doorway with his animals around him. His broken boots indicated that money was scarce. The tears flowed freely down the young lad’s face,  his sobs were deep, and he was inconsolable as he stared into space. Much to his horror and to his father’s delight, the two turkeys that sat beside him had just been sold. The lad refused to accept the obvious fate of the festive birds and ignored the frustrated pleas from his older brother to ‘stop whining’. He embraced his two shaggy dogs with obvious protection, fearful perhaps that they might also be for sale.

Seconds later, the birds were gone. The burly farmer had little time for his son’s sentimentality. He strode purposefully to the nearby building, recognised by all as the turkey slaughterhouse. Birds squealed, feathers flew and necks were quickly snapped.

This service was a condition of the sale to a local bargain hunter.  The execution cost a silver shilling for each turkey and a discount was applied if the skin was torn during plucking. The feathered wings were returned as they were highly prized for household cleaning.

The speed and swift efficiency caught the young lad by surprise. He stared at his lifeless, featherless friends in disbelief. His father was oblivious to the pain etched on his young son’s face. The exchange of notes, a spit on the hand to seal the deal, a short animated discussion about the weather and the transaction was completed. The farmer had a spring to his step when his customer left. The day had started well with the sale of the turkeys but there were vegetables and eggs to be sold before this day’s work was done.

In the background the young boy refused to respond to his father’s delight. He cuddled his dogs closer to his face. His matted, mousy-coloured hair blended with the shaggy coats of his canine friends. His eyes were obscured from view and he sobbed quietly.

Old Moll

Time stood still for Mary White. A dark lonely boreen led to the Spartan farmhouse that was her home for close on one hundred years. Her unmarried brother had died some time previously and she lived alone. A paraffin lamp lit the darkness and the open fire was constantly ablaze. The wind buffeted the house and deprived her of any creature comfort. She braced herself against the elements to visit her outside toilet; a basin of water would suffice if she needed a wash. She stubbornly resisted change. In her seventieth year she had electricity installed and even then, she limited its use. A single bulb hung from the cracked ceiling, yellowed by the smoke, from her only source of comfort.  No mod con would ever make its way into her home. This was how she lived and she knew no different.

She was a quiet woman and a creature of habit. She had no family or friends and kept her distance from her few neighbours, but they were there for her when she needed them.  Every Friday, Pat O Neill drove her to collect her pension from the Post Office. Once collected, she indulged herself in her only source of pleasure: a pint of Guinness followed by a glass of whiskey. She left her home every day to make the five-mile journey into Limerick. The crossroads at Clondrinagh was not an official stop for the bus from Shannon but the drivers bent the rules for their elderly passenger. She thanked them with a nod and sat silently in her seat.

The Saturday Market was her favourite place-a place of childhood memories and the only link to her past. Within those gates she was a different person and every week she wore a stylish hat. Her tall thin frame weaved its way through the stalls and she discovered her voice when it came to negotiating a bargain. She had a keen eye and knew quality when she saw it. Many a farmer crossed her at his peril and she would only buy from those who earned her trust. Those who knew her best would call her Moll. She once told me that her mother was born just after the Milk Market opened in 1857, a short few years after the Great Famine killed one million people in Ireland.

Nearly a century had passed since a young farmer and his wife heard the first joyful cry of their baby girl. Her passing went unnoticed that bleak winter’s day. A frantic search for a grave, an empty church, a funeral mass without tears and a few neighbours to shoulder her coffin. Her simple life was over: no stone to mark her resting place and no family to grieve. Now a photograph of her hangs above the hustle and bustle of the refurbished Limerick Milk market, a tribute to a hard lived life and a single reminder of Moll’s presence on this earth.