Two new chapters from my book ‘The Island’

As promised another two chapters from my book ‘The Island’

The Island

Chapter  10

The Coming of Quigley

When I woke in the morning, ready to meet Quigley on the first boat in, I noticed that Patrick was not in his bed and a moment of panic set in. Then going out into the haggard I saw him there feeding our supply of carrots to the donkey.

And if a donkey could smile this donkey was smiling, his large lips drawn in over his big teeth as in a glorious grin; most of the materials for our evening stew in his fat belly.

“Come on Patrick”, I said, “and stop feeding our dinner to the donkey. Come with me to the boat to met our friend Jim Quigley, when he arrives I’ll put up a little bed for you in the kitchen”.

“Sure Daddy, I’d enjoy that, but I have to feed the calf and the goat yet!”.

“Leave that til later”, said, “and we’ll go fishing with Quigley after breakfast, it looks like a nice day”.

He hopped into the van, the mention of fishing lighting up his face; he had never fished before and certainly not in the sea.

“Can we feed the seals with the fish we catch”, he said. I said yes, and this raised a new prospect of sport in his mind.

When I saw the pale stooped figure of Jim come off the boat, I thought you too could do with a good stint in the fresh air of the island, free for a while from the endless round of comforting as best you could diseased bodies and minds. He’d go back to it, it was his calling and he was never one to please himself, but with a renewed body and soul from his stay here.

We shook hands and he looked at me sternly. On the way to the house he began to interrogate me, out of concern.

“How are you old friend? We were really worried about you. Are you sure you are doing right, wasting all your degrees and your medical skill in this back of beyond. Remember the healing you had as a doctor was a valuable thing too; all the time spent studying was for the good of others too. And to waste it all. Was that a good choice, are you sure you are all right”, he looked at me searchingly, evidently the reports about me in the grand metropolis had not been kind; I had gone bonkers and thrown everything away, gone native in the worst possible way.

“I was never better, believe me, Jim old friend. Look at me, do I look bonkers or do I look healthy for the first time in my life? Jim, I’ll tell you this which I never told to any souls before, because I know as a wise man you’ll understand. I always made the wrong choices before now; I should never have specialized in that awful dicing game, but they told me it was well paid and easy to find a job in it; I went with the surface logic not what my heart told me”.

At this I paused by an old gate seemingly looking at the view with Jim, letting Patrick run on ahead for I didn’t want him to hear what I had to say.

“Again with Siobhan, Jim, it was the gloss and the sex, not the real deep love I craved. And I would have liked a proper wedding in church, not that empty living together thing, but it was fashionable and she would have nothing else. And when patrick came I stayed with the partnership, though my heart was no longer in it. This is the first real sensible, deep decision I’ve made, that came from the heart and not the head or what others told me I should do. And I’m not abandoning my medical expertise completely; when the storms cut off the island many come to me for to heal their aches and pains; I’m still a physician and I keep a good supply of medicines and bandages and splints and such like here on the island for the benefit of my neighbors. Indeed, without me the people here would have no medical recourse at all for much of the winter. So I kill two birds with one stone here, metaphorically I mean; I hope you understand for I do care what you think, you are my friend and spiritual mentor”.

“Well what you say puts my mind very much at ease”, he said, “I’m glad you’re happy and doing what you want for the first time; its what we should all do for its obviously what put us on the earth to do, what our heart tells us, for that’s where God is too; wasn’t that what St.Ignatius said was the essence of spirituality, listening to what our deep feelings tell us”.

After this we fell quiet the rest of the way. He was delighted when I showed him the house and the fields and the cave; it reassured him that I wasn’t living in squalor, an neglected unsociable recluse and some, like Siobhan, had hinted I was.

After a lunch of fish and chips, the best smoked haddock with carrots and white sauce, and potatoes grown on the island by Paddy, we repaired to the lower shore, as I promised Patrick, to launch our little boat and set out to fish. I had been filled in on the currents, and where the boat could go and where it could not go, so we rowed to a little leeward lake, where we would be safe and sheltered, and took out the large sea-fishing rods, and some sandworm bait we had prepared the night before.

Patrick soon became overjoyed for that day we caught five mackerel and three pollock and a large crab that somehow got entangled in the lines; he hated, however, the killing of the fish and the disentangling of the hooks from their mouths as I did. When we got back we prepared a nice fish pie with the catch, cooking them with creamed potatoes, what was left of the carrots, and some pie crust that Nora had made for me the day before. With water from the well and tea and Nora’s homemade bread it was a feast indeed, with Patrick eating everything up, a thing I never saw him do in Dublin. The exercise and the excitement had made him ravenous, and tired afterwards, his head lolling on his shoulders. So I tucked hin into the bunk bed I had set up in the kitchen and we retired to my room to look at the manuscripts.

Jim was rearing to get at them for I had roused his curiosity with tales of their finding and the disappointment of the mob at the lack of real treasure, as they saw it. First I wanted him to help me translate a difficult poem, that I had been struggling with that may have identified the hermit’s first impulse to go apart and serve God from a complete heart:

Go deimhin i mo anam doimhin,

Rachaid me cuig an oilean,

I seirbhis mo Chriost caithfidh me

Siul anois go dti and oilean,

Mar ta mo chroi ar seachran anseo,

I measc an domhain fola-dearg

Agus an Eoraip anam craite le na marbh,

Gan brie no creidimh

Ins an croi istigh ag lorg”.

I offered a simple translation of the opening lines to Jim for his perusal:

Deep in my heart I have to go to the island

To serve my Christ, I have to voyage now to the island

For my heart isn’t here, amid the red death of the world.

“That’s a pretty accurate translation in some ways, you’ve got the gist and it sounds well”, Jim said, “you havent lost your touch. Let me see, maybe a better and more detailed translation would be, taking in the rest of the poem, the fuller later version of it, and putting the whole thing in its context, and giving it equivalent English rhythms and rimes”:

Determined to seek deep heart rest,

I go to an isle where life is blessed,

To seek and serve the gentle Christ,

In gracious solitude and godly silence

For my heart within is wholly crushed,

By our Europe’s orgy of gory violence

Its foul mud foxholes of poisonous gas

Where guiltless men to mad pagan idols

Are each dark day bloodily sacrificed,

To pray it to peace in a crucified Christ,

I sail to an isle where all’s not yet lost.

“Its easy to see what he was talking about”, I said, “and the reason for the pessimistic tone, the first world war. We were still part of that conflict at the time, many of our people died in its mud, and certainly afterwards it led to a period of spiritual soul-searching as to where the world was going.

We in Ireland of course broke away and established a neutral Republic which lasted through the second world war. We learned the lesson from our own bloody civil war. Elsewhere they carried on longer, in that spiritual alienation and heart madness that Eliot and the poets of the Thirties talked about. The latter searched for something better than that “modern” way of endless imperialistic and secular ideological war. I suppose the Mannach was a pacifist really and a true man of peace in Christ. He saw the island as still holding to those values”.

“A good reading I think”, Jim said, “you have whetted my appetite for the further completion of this seminal poem. Lets look at the beginning of the diary to see if this bears that out”.

He opened the small diary manuscript, and began to translate roughly from the first page which was headed June 3rd 1917. It began with a short little poem:

Finian MacAlready writes these monastic scrolls,

After the vespers had been entoned in the chapel

And the other monks had retired to their cells.

“Today I read about the war in Europe and the waves of men going over the top into the face of the machine guns and the sea of blood that ensued in the name of power and world conquest, and the use of poison gas, God help us; and we call ourselves civilized. It made me sick, thank God in our island at least we are away from it all, though we have our own little war going on against similar imperialistic oppressors, bloodier than it should be too. Is the whole world gone mad and bathed in blood (“dearg le fuil” was the phrase he used). I must get away and write and pray it all back to sanity and peace. I will go to the island, as I always desired, the island of Sharken na Mainistere out at sea. Even if I have to live in a cave there, I’ll atone for the sins of uncivilized humankind, like th”e monks did on Scelig Mhichil long long ago, ar dheis De go raibh a anama usuala go deo”.

“Yes”, Jim said, “the war seems to be what drove him to his great and heroic sacrifice. I think we have here a great and wonderful saint and poet; its sad that his work has lain hidden for so long. We have could have learned a lot from it, given all the imperialistic wars and genocides that have ensued since, from the second world war to Vietnam and Korea, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, God help us all. He was trying to pray it back to sanity, out of superstate secular totalitarianism”.

At this there was a sound on the stairs, it was Patrick rubbing his eyes, his long fair hair tousled from sleep and falling over his face.

“Go back to sleep Paid dear”, I said, the sleep of the innocent island, I thought. I went over to him and kissed him and led him back to his bunk bed. “Sorry we disturbed you, we must have been talking louder than we realized”. I tucked him in:

“Won’t you tell me a story Daddy”, he said, “you told me no story tonight and you always told me wonderful stories before”.

“Well”, I said, “I will tell you a story, about a boy who lived on an island like this in Kerry, in the south of Ireland. Irish people were at war all the time then, fighting each other for land and money. He decide to become a monk when he grew up so as to turn people away from fighting. and to Christ and goodness and peace. And he did too and built a boat to sail to other countries to preach the same message of love and peace.”

“What’s a monk, how did he live, was the island like this one, was the boat like the one we fished in today; I’d like to have a boat too and sail everywhere”, he said.

“One question at a time”, I said, he was at the questioning age,

“A monk is one who devotes his life to God and prayer and peace. he lived I suppose like we do here, off the land and fish and seagull’s eggs and things like that. His boat was much bigger than our one and had sails, to use the wind to carry him faster along. Some say he sailed to America far across the sea. For he describes mountains of glass. Those were the icebergs up in the north and sheep as big as cattle, those were the polar bears”.

“I saw about the polar bears once on TV”, he said, “and the Eskimos who live in igloos; did he see them?”.

“I don’t know! Maybe! Brendan himself lived in little house made of stone, with other monks, and he died there a happy man. After all his travels he was glad to come back to his little island of peace with God and himself”.

“I’m glad I came to the island to be with you Daddy, its such fun living here”, Patrick said.

I lifted him up and kissed him again and he reached up his arms and gave me a great hug as if he would never let me go; he had been starved of affection by his money-worshiping mother and the cold hoity toity set she socialized with; most had nannies for their babies; changing nappies was too sordid for their manicured hands. Looking at him there, as innocent as a seal on the beach, I wished in my heart that all the world was like that boy and lived on an island of peace and innocent love. But what was to ensue was to teach me how difficult it was to fully get way from the creeping corruption of the world. Even the Mannach had had to come to terms with that fact.

Chapter 11

Shadows Across the Island

After that Jim and I decided to call it a night, it had been an eventful day, and we had all the time in the world to decipher the Mannach’s writing on this island retreat. But time would tell us that the world would follow us here too and crucify us as they followed and crucified the Mannach by all accounts. The more I read his story the more I realized how much he was made to put up with by the world and church leaders also, even his own abbot who forbade him to say mass at one stage and ordered him back to the monastery on the mainland, though it broke his heart and the abbot seeing as much let him return to his beloved hermitage at last. Shadows were to fall across our island too and we hadn’t long to wait.

Yet the following morning was all sweetness and light. We got up at about nine and fed the animals. Patrick and the donkey had become real buddies, and though the goat was a bit belligerent, threatening to puck him every so often, the yearling also became his friend. After our chores we had a nourishing breakfast, starting with porridge, strangely he didn’t seem to mind such food here on the island, he used to hate it at home, such a cantankerous child in terms of food he was then.

We also had a boiled egg and some of Nora’s brown soda bread, toasted, and heaped with melted goat’s cheese, butter and gooseberry jam; Nora had a fine collection of gooseberry plants and she fed them well so that they were loaded down with fruit each autumn. We were in the best of spirits and Patrick was planning to go down to the shore with Cormac and feed some of seals with some of the leftover fish we had caught yesterday, we had no deep freeze. He thought of these glorious creatures also  as potential buddies, for their large liquid eyes gazed at him like a lover, and their insistent grunts and screeches were to him like the greatest symphony on earth.

I remained at home to continue our translations, but a a shadow soon fell on all that in terms of a letter that was delivered about midday; the post always came with Paddy’s first voyage back from the mainland, and was then delivered by Nora to the people on the eastern island.

The letter was from some descendent of the Mannach, claiming some rights to any profits from published books, but more seriously claiming ownership of the whole series of notebooks and manuscripts, which would probably mean that they would never see the light of day. For these ancestors of the Mannach were sponsored be a secularist group intent on total separation of church and state, and suppressing of any material that might have a religious import.

With this letter gloom descended on our little house and our translations faltered, what was the point if we could never have them published, although we would probably have had a struggle getting them published anyway, for their was a bit of a closed cartel there too. But there was always the possibility of self-publication which was increasingly becoming the norm now; with computers and excellent cheap color printers we figured we could get them into print ourselves, and mail them to all the likely book shops and libraries; this was one of the great freedom of today; the freedom from the prejudices of editors, critics and publishing gurus; like the Internet itself which made knowledge freely available to all, not the snobbish property of universities and other instruments of learning. But all our plans, even for self-publication, was on hold until the issue of the work’s ownership was resolved.

“To hell with them”, Jim said, his hackles rising, “we can get them translated for our own benefit anyway; lets continue and in the meantime you might see a solicitor in Galway to see if this letter’s claims have any real basis in law. Come on, Donie!”, he said, “buck up!, we’ll get past this blip, don’t worry, carry on regardless I say, and to hell with the bigots”.

They say troubles never come singly, and another letter arrived the next day saying that the Museum in Dublin was reconsidering the ownership of the manuscripts; some one had got to them too. And of course if the state took them over, it was also unlikely that they would be published, given the present government’s secularist policy. I went across to the mainland and on to the city that very day and instructed my lawyer in Galway to dispute any claims from relatives or state, in a court of law if necessary.

Hearing of all this, how the serpent in the garden was rearing his ugly head, Nora was incensed and quoted a devout friend of her’s who said that she could see the day when people would be killed in Ireland again for the faith. Regardless of all these views, we pressed on with the translations, if just for the sheer literary and spiritual joy they brought to us growing fans of the Mannach’s work, for apparently he too had experienced opposition.

Indeed one of the immediate tasks I set myself was to visit the monastery on the mainland to which he had been attached, to get a fuller view of his biographical details. I had contacted the present abbot, who presided over a much reduced flock of older monks, to see if he could fill us in on the hermit’s early life and vicissitudes. He received us in the famous monastery of Clarendon Abbey, on the way to the city, and over a light but tasty lunch, such as the monks were partaking themselves, we asked if he had any information about the life of our hermit poet.

“Yes”, he said, “I have been looking up the books of the house’s history; these have to be filled in regularly by the abbot and some in our archives do go back as far a the Mannach’s time.  Apparently, the abbot of the time was far from happy about his retirement to the island. The monks had a school here, mainly for the boys of rich parents, and the Mannach said this was against the rule, that our work was one of prayer and help of the poor. Even the local bishop got in on the dispute.

Finian had been saying mass in his little cave for the locals and this was taking revenue from the resident priest, so they wrote to the abbot, saying that he should be recalled, for in any case the life of a solitary monk was against the community spirit of the order. Though the bishop had no juristiction over the monastery, the abbot has the independent power similar to that of a bishop in his own monastery, we were conscious of not stepping on the coat tails of the local prelate, so the abbot did ask Finian to return to his monastery under his vow of obedience”.

He showed us and old ledger, giving an account of the affair, and I read and jotted down some of the details:

House History, June 1917.

Brother Finian has been requested to return to the monastery and to the obedience of his abbot. Though expressing his view that this was a regrettable decision, nevertheless in lieu of his vow of obedience he returned on the first of July. Seeing, however, how unhappy he was, I decided that when the controversy had died down I would allow him to return to his hermitage, subject to regular supervision and visitation and spiritual direction on my part, and on condition that his mass was wholly a private one, with only two attendants allowed as servers. I hope this will resolve the issue and insure that we can supply his needs in terms of food and clothing; and I have instructed a builder to install a proper fireplace for heating and proper door in the outside entrance to ensure his reasonable comfort. Also he is to return to the monastery for all major feasts such as Christmas and Easter when we will be able to assess his mental, physical and spiritual health. In consultation with the council of the brothers we decided this was the minimum that would required of him, for we were still responsible for his welfare, and the spiritual welfare of the people he might be guiding. This also seemed to satisfy the bishop.

It seemed a reasonable enough settlement, and compassionate and considerate in its own way and explained how the hermit was able to live in the cave, without major injury to his health for over thirty years. Its obvious that the local people looked after him with food and regular visits too. Indeed, the owner of the land, an ancestor of the Feigherties, was a special friend and left him unmolested on the property that he had appropriated. A problem did arise, however, when this old man died, and the new owner ordered him out; said they wanted the property for their cattle for the winter, greed again reared its ugly head. But the people rallied round and raised some money so that the Feigherties could erect a proper series of outhouses for their cattle, the outhouses I now have, and be compensated for their loss of that patch of land. So like ourselves the Mannach’s stay on the island had its own threats and shadows that at times disturbed the peace that he had longed for, for his work of prayer and written prophecy.

For the one thing the Mannach really was, was a humane pacifist which came from his deep Christianity and his daily communion in prayer with the living gentle God, so far above yet so close to us all, as he would put it, and especially hurt by our horrible wars. I was entering into his spirit, identifying him as my perfect alter ego, and I was a better and a wiser man as a result, as all were who came into contact with him during his short life here on earth. Yet innocent and holy as he was clouds of envy closed in on him every so often, to long hand of the evil one reaching our to crush his spirit, to destroy his work, to negate his redeeming prayers.

Clouds were also gathering over our own island now, some of which would turn out to be very serious indeed, and threaten my relations with my generous neighbors, and especially my relations with Grainne, who had become my queen, like the western Grainne of old, the great queen of the Gael.

More coming soon…..

Fr Con Buckley

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