Leaving Ardglass, p.1William King
THE LILLIPUT PRESS DUBLIN
‘TIME TO RING THE BELL,’ I remind the sacristan as I settle the green chasuble over my shoulders.
In the mirror beside the vesting bench, I can see him grip his walking stick and shuffle to the back door of the church; his shadow stretches out over the ancient flagstones. ‘For whom the bell tolls, Monsignor.’
For whom the bell tolls: the same routine every morning. He brushes along the gravel path, and a gloomy succession of strokes invades the vestry. Roused from his sleep, a neighbour’s collie barks in anger.
The sacristan’s arthritic hip is a legacy of his days digging trenches in London. ‘You wouldn’t treat an animal like that. Out in all weather,’ he said to me once when I visited his house soon after I arrived here in Kildoon under a cloud. He was rummaging for biscuits, even though I had assured him that a cup of tea would be fine.
While he spoke, I was in a time warp: every street corner and café in Kilburn and Camden Town I had come to know so well forty years before came alive. He was shining a torch too on a summer in London which had changed me, on a chapter of my story which I had wrapped up and hidden away in some dark cupboard.
‘Any chance you’d help me around the church. Nothing heavy, just to put out the chalice, the cruets and so on,’ I had asked him.
‘Glad to, Monsignor.’
To be honest, I could have managed these chores myself, but I needed company. Around here, apart from meeting a few old people who come to the morning Mass, I might not see another soul for the rest of the day. And yet, after all I’ve been through in the past couple of years, I have found peace. Peace or refuge – I’m not sure which.
Just off the motorway for the North, where the traffic begins to pick up after leaving Drogheda, Kildoon has two pubs, a Londis and a service station: here lorry drivers stop for breakfast rolls, or burgers and greasy chips on their way to Belfast. Against the advice of the planners, the service station owner gained access to the main road. The locals claim that brown envelopes had been slipped to councillors. Since the new housing estate has been completed, a bottle bank has appeared where the old creamery used to be. The two pubs are jam-packed on a Saturday night and are at full pitch when the sacristan and I are locking the church. Later, the thunder of Range Rovers, Cherokees and Pathfinders wakes me and the neighbour’s dog when customers are on their noisy way home long after closing time.
Now, through the open door leading to the church, I hear the stragglers arrive: the two old ladies who run a haberdashery and who will whisper to each other until I appear in the sanctuary. Close by one of the radiators, Kevin the bell-ringer, a one-time seminarian, will be working through his faded novena leaflets. The day before his ordination, he took off accross the football pitch at the back of the seminary, spent twenty years in England and then returned to the village where his mother runs the post office. ‘Mammies are great, aren’t they, Monsignor?’ he informs me one day when I am buying stamps.
‘They are. Great.’
When the sacristan returns, we bow to the crucifix, and enter the sanctuary where the usual half a dozen or so are scattered thinly about the church, one or two continuing to say their rosary during Mass.
Although they must know that I was once Bishop Boylan’s right-hand man and a candidate to succeed him or be given another diocese, they never raise the subject when I visit their homes, nor how Boylan’s successor, Bishop Nugent and I had been at loggerheads. They would have picked up the diocesan rumours also – I am still sore at being turned down for a mitre. My argument with Nugent was nothing more than sour grapes, some of the priests had said, and the best decision I took was to bow out gracefully, and not cause a division in the diocese.
When we cut logs with the chainsaw at the back of the house, the sacristan confines himself to describing his daughter’s children in Margate, and how he and his wife can’t wait for their next visit. Learning that my brother is M.J. Galvin, and that I, as a student, had worked in north London, he resurrects a patchwork of memories: dances in Holloway Road and Cricklewood; fights in the Crown; the drenching they got in the back of open lorries at six in the morning, heading out to Guildford or Reading in the driving wind and rain. ‘No one will ever know except us what it was like when we slaved behind the mixer,’ he says while he holds back a branch, and I sink the screaming chainsaw into a log and send up a shower of amber chippings. ‘’Twas savage,’ he adds as the log drops on a bed of sawdust and I shut down the throttle; the neighbour’s dog goes silent. ‘Our own were the worst,’ and then he rushes in with a sweetener, ‘although your brother, by all accounts, was fair.’
He grimaces as he stretches his back, and looks away towards the main road where articulated trucks and jeeps are rumbling past a hoarding that shows a laughing couple tripping along by a blue sea’s edge. The caption says that the Costa del Sol is the place to buy your own villa at a knockdown price.
‘We were neither fish nor flesh. Branded as letting down this ould country by going across to John Bull. Sure we’d have starved to death if we’d stayed.’ He flings another log on the pile. ‘And not wanted there because we were the drunken Irish.’
In the evening, when my housekeeper has left and I settle down to the newspaper and Lyric FM, a hoard of memories begins to stir. I put aside the paper and take a sip from my doctor’s advice: ‘A glass of milk at night, Monsignor. Good for an ulcer. Try not to be worrying; what happened is beyond your control. Look, take one of these tablets, if you feel anxious; they’re not strong but they’ll calm you, and try to stay off the hard stuff.’ She smiles when she hands me the prescription for tranquillisers.
The field in front of the presbytery reaches down to a disused railway line; beyond the line, boys, with ‘Keane’ and ‘Ronaldo’ on their backs, chase a ball around the soccer pitch, filling the air with their cries. But the sacristan’s words keep tugging at my elbow, drawing me back to London – pointing out men in turned-down wellingtons and hobnailed boots. The paddy wagon is screeching to a halt on the glistening cobbled streets outside M.J.’ s pub, The Highway. A queue is forming in front of Willesden Post Office; I see them, as clearly as ‘Keane’ and ‘Ronaldo’, clutching five-pound notes for money orders to send home.
I switch off the radio. Write it. ‘No one would believe what we went through in those days, especially with all this wealth. Not even if you swore on the Bible!’ The sacristan’s words circle my brain, looking for a landing. Maybe they would believe, if I tell the full story as I remember it.
Although I no longer take the occasional Valium, I still have scars from my fight with Nugent about the way he pilloried innocent priests. I need some project to lift my gloom. Earlier one of my golfing foursome had rung to tell me the latest gossip – they thrive on gossip. We were ordained together, and, apart from my three years in Rome doing a doctorate, we have been meeting almost weekly for the past forty years: golf on a Thursday and then the week after Easter we spend in one of M.J.’s villas outside Má
My golfing confrère tells me that another priest who had been accused of molesting a child has been cleared by the Director of Public Prosecutions. ‘But the harm is done, Tommy. Nugent visited the parish and announced at all the Masses that he was withdrawing him from the ministry. You can’t clear your name after that. But sure what did the Church ever care about us?’
I go to the Jameson bottle at the weekend, yet I know full well where that leads. Working for two bishops over thirty years, I have seen priests – and indeed bishops – who had gone too far out and would stare at me with defeated eyes or turn away when I tried to talk to them about their drinking. Easy for my doctor, however, to issue prescriptions. She doesn’t have to live in an old Georgian house surrounded by stone walls, a field away from the nearest neighbour.
I BEGIN CLOSE TO THE END. In my room in All Saints Seminary, one Sunday morning last September, I am mulling over a way to defend a priest whom Nugent wants expelled from the diocese. While on a parish holiday to Italy, the priest had been caught in bed with a married woman; her husband is claiming that the priest has ruined his marriage, and is talking about suing the diocese. ‘Do your best for me,’ the priest pleads. ‘I’m no saint, I know, but I was hitting the bottle then. Big time, Tom.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ I say.
The phone interrupts my trawl through his file.
‘Monsignor Galvin,’ the operator says, ‘a call for you from London.’
‘Thanks, Eamon.’ I can hear M.J. clearing his throat. ‘Are you busy, Tommy? I want a word.’
Through the window I can see Nugent below me pacing around by the fountain at the centre of the cloister. With him are the two other priests who, with me, form his kitchen cabinet: Father Henry Plunkett and the lanky cut of Father Vinny Lynch, known since his student days as Dr Hackenbush from the way he boasted about the three generations of doctors in his family. ‘Here cometh Dr Hackenbush,’ said a college wag one day while students were idling by the tennis courts.
‘Did you see the papers?’ M.J.’ s voice sounds more gravelly with the passing years.
‘I’m called to appear at the Heaslip Tribunal.’
‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘The Revenue are claiming I had an offshore account. Sure I left all that to Seery. I didn’t know half the time where my money was going. That’s what I was paying that bastard for. They’ve nothing on me.’
‘No, absolutely not.’ Soothing words come easily after years of listening to cries for understanding.
‘I’ll be over in Dublin for a few days. We might meet for a bite.’
‘Brownes on Thursday, one-ish.’
My day for golf, but I say, ‘Right. See you there.’
I watch Nugent ambling back towards the college. He was once regarded as the most handsome-looking man in the diocese, with prospects of a diplomatic career at the Vatican. When he was a student at Maynooth College, girls from the village used to attend the public Mass just to gape at him. Now he wears a hangdog look – the visible effect of his fights with what he considers to be a world out of kilter. Plunkett’s head is tilted in a listening pose, and Lynch is throwing a tennis ball for Caesar, the bishop’s Alsatian.
True to form, M.J. gets off the phone as soon as he’s got what he wanted. He makes a passing reference to the Church’s difficulties. ‘You’ve a lot on your plate. I see another unfortunate on TV last night.’
‘Hard times, M.J., but we’ll pull through.’
‘I hope so. Thursday then.’
I put down the phone and glance at the empty cloister. Once, when the seminary was full, this time on a Sunday was special. A few of us who taught theology sorted out our lecture notes for the following week and then met before lunch for a gin and tonic.
Since the last student was ordained two years ago, my work consists of attending the bishops’ meetings in Maynooth, advising Nugent on moral issues and hearing priests’ grievances in the front parlour of the bishop’s house. And unless they ask specifically to see Nugent, I listen to their confusion about a world that is banging the front door in their faces.
Ever since the seminary closed eight years ago, we have Sunday lunch in the bishop’s house. Standing defiantly on top of a hill, and across the main driveway to All Saints, this granite miniature of a Roman palazzo had been built towards the end of the nineteenth century. Sometimes visiting bishops or cardinals from Italy or Germany, or theologians on the lookout for a mitre, join us for the meal; this Sunday we are on our own.
After Nugent has blessed the food in Latin, his valet, standing at the sideboard, lifts the lid off the soup tureen, releasing a cloud of steam.
‘Tom,’ Nugent says as he removes his napkin from its silver ring, ‘you didn’t manage a walk. Lovely out today, thank God. Indian Summer.’
‘I’ll take a stroll by the river later.’
The media becomes the object of his rage once again. ‘That wretch on the television distorted my words,’ Nugent is saying in reference to an interview he has given. Behind him on the wall is the broad figure of the smiling Pope and himself in a double handshake.
‘She doorstepped you that day you were flying to Rome.’ Vinny Lynch fusses around the table filling wine glasses. ‘I can’t for the life of me understand what has got into these people who are bent on destroying our Church.’
‘Power,’ says Plunkett, ‘that’s what they want. And they’re ashamed of being Catholic.’
I too make agreeable sounds. Like supporting actors in a long-running play, each of us knows when to speak our lines. Lynch fidgets with his knife and fork; Plunkett parrots the bishop’s dissatisfaction about young people not going to Mass and drinking to excess – too much money and no discipline.
When his anger has spent itself, Nugent revisits the good old days when he had been a professor at the national seminary and six hundred students filled the chapel every Sunday for morning Mass.
After a couple of glasses of Chardonnay, I am able to flow with the tide, and nod like Plunkett as if hearing all this for the first time. The bishop’s valet serves our coffee and we relax in the delicious aftertaste of good food and wine. Then small talk until I excuse myself: I have to work on files and take that walk by the river. They understand.
And each of us follows the time-worn habit for Sunday. The bishop will go for his siesta, a Roman custom since his student days at the Collegio Irlandese. Vinny Lynch will walk Caesar, and then visit his maiden aunt for tea and scones. Plunkett will disappear to the house he got at a cut-price from an old woman he used to visit with Communion every Friday.
In my room I search through the Sunday newspapers until I come across the piece on the Heaslip Tribunal, and, right at the centre, photos of my brother M.J.: one taken nearly twenty years ago at Fairyhouse Racecourse; beside him, Donaghy, the government minister, who has also been called to give evidence. In a panel at one side, a journalist had resurrected a piece about a farm near Naas when M.J. was accused of bribing Donaghy, through his bagman, Seery, to have the land rezoned. That case fell through for want of evidence. The headline spells it out: ‘Multi-millionaire has questions to answer.’
I read the opening paragraph:
One of Ireland’s most successful builders will appear at the Heaslip Tribunal during the coming week. Mr M.J. Galvin, who left his native Kerry in 1952 for London, is a self-made man, and has been carrying out major building contracts both here and in Britain: one such contract was an extension to Heathrow Airport. Mr Galvin has been summoned to give evidence about one of his companies, Ardglass Trust, and its connection with a Cayman Islands bank account.
At the bottom of the page are more pictures of M.J.’s house in Terenure and of housing estates he had built around Dublin and
I put down the newspaper and stare through the window. Instead of the empty cloister, another theatre spreads out before me. Laughing crowds are romping outside Quex Road Church in north London during Sunday Mass; hands are clutching shillings and half-crowns, and reaching out above the milling crowd towards the stalls that sell the Donegal Democrat, the Connacht Tribune and other provincial papers. I see M.J.’s roguish smile and shock of wavy hair, girls in flared summer frocks and mother-of-pearl necklaces. The music of Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband is streaming through the open doors of the Galtymore Ballroom.
M.J. SENDS A CHEQUE the year I do my Leaving Certificate – Barclays Bank in copperplate print – with a note attached: ‘Travel like the swanks – get a flight from Shannon.’ In the boarding school, also paid for by copperplate Barclay, I keep the cheque in my locker, beneath a 45 record: Ray Peterson’s ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’. My future is secure: I would go on to study engineering at the university and then join M.J. in the firm. He had been in London for nine years and already was employing over a hundred men, and had bought a pub on Kilburn High Road.
When the neighbours in Ardglass see our new house going up, they satisfy their jealousy by spreading the rumour that when M.J. is clearing away bombed-out buildings, he helps himself to safes and jewellery. ‘Far away from boarding schools and two-storey houses the Galvins were reared. Only the crows nesting in the thatch.’ My father is still trying to get the feel of the new house and never uses the toilet, preferring instead to chuck his coat over his back and hunker near a hedge behind the cowhouse. ‘Go by boat, Tomásheen,’ he tells me, ‘you’ll see what’s happening to this oul country of ours with all this emigration.’
The morning I leave, we have to squeeze our way to the ticket office at the railway station.
‘Make sure you don’t lose Hanna’s address, Peg,’ a woman says to a girl of about sixteen or seventeen who is crying openly.
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