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The Reverend Peter Flannery

The Reverend Peter Flannery (abridged)

Photo: EO’D

by Frank Mathew (1865 – 1924)
My friend the Reverend Peter Flannery is the sternest-looking and the gentlest of men. To look at him you would fancy he had spent a fierce life; but the truth is that he has lived in a wilderness and that in his broad parish of Moher there is not a mouse afraid of him. I first met him in an hotel at Lisdoonvarna. One night there was singing, and a big, truculent old priest sang in his turn;

When we went a-gipsying
A long time ago…

He was very serious and hoarse. With his grim face and white hair he looked the last man in the world to “go a-gipsying.” Afterwards I came to know Peter, and spent many evenings with him in the little house where he lives with an old housekeeper and a turbulent small boy known as Patrick Flannery. I found him a man knowing nothing of the world and troubling himself little about anything beyond the borders of Moher.  Though he is so unpretending he has deep respect for his dignity as a parish priest. On one of those evenings in his naked little parlour he told me the story of the only adventure of his life.

A small island with a ruined house on it lies near the shore of the most desolate part of the parish; at high tide it is ringed with white jumping waves, but at ebb it is set in a black rim of rocks. A miser was strangled there for his money by his daughter, seventy years ago, so the house is known for miles around as the “House of the Murder”. Then it was a headland, but afterwards the encroaching sea cut it off from the coast. The Moher folk say the island is haunted by the ghost of an old man with a choked face and with purple foam on his lips, and is given up to the Evil Spirits.

One stormy winter’s night, nearly twelve years ago now, Peter Flannery was riding back from visiting a dying woman near Liscannor. It was raining, the wind was dead against him; he had seldom been out on such a night though his life-work took him on many a wild lonely ride. As he reached the Liscannor cross-roads his horse stopped, and a heart-broken voice came from under the trees,
“Remember the Dark Man! For God’s sake, remember the Dark Man!” He knew that it was Andy Lonergan, the “Dark Man” – that is, the blind man – who haunted that place day and night.
“Is that yourself, Andy?” said he.
“‘Tis so, your reverence, but ’tis the black night to be abroad, the Banshee is keening on the island.”
“The Banshee, is it? I know, I know, and many’s the time I’ve heard that same, Andy. There’s never a rough night without her.”
“Is it the wind you mean, father? I know the wind’s cry if anyone, but t’wasn’t only that on the island tonight; ’twas a woman’s voice, sometimes t’was like a child’s. There’ll be sore hearts in Moher the morn.”
“Ah well, Andy! Many’s the queer thing you’ve heard in your time,” said Peter, and he rode homewards, but Andy’s words kept in his head.

Now the blind man was half crazed, yet he dared not lie about the Banshee.  Perhaps there was some poor soul out on the island? At last he turned his horse. As he rode back past the cross-roads he called out, “Are you there Andy?”, but no answer came. The horse seemed to have strong objections to going seaward, and Peter himself had misgivings. He is a Clare man, the son of a Ballyvaughan fisherman, and though of course he does not believe in the Banshee, he would rather not have gone where there was any chance of meeting her. Then he thought – suppose Andy was fooling him? He could fancy the blind man sitting hidden and grinning at him as he rode back past. It would be a fine joke in Moher. He flushed at such irreverence.

Then he reached the shore and, dismounting, fastened his horse to a wall, and walked down across the slipping shingle, crunching it underfoot.  He was tripped by tangles of seaweed, and stumbled over a fishing coracle. He could scarcely see a yard in front of him.
“‘Tis a blind man’s holiday,” he thought. “Dark Andy could see as much as I can, and why couldn’t McCaura leave his coracle in a sensible place?” He went to the water’s edge, the foam splashed over him. He could see nothing but the white flashes of breakers and was deafened by the noise.

A few minutes of this was enough. He turned back with a smile at the absurdity of his going out there at that time of night. “There’s no fool like an old one,” he said. Then he stopped to listen again, and in a pause (when the wind seemed to be taking breath for a howl) heard a child’s cry from the island. How could a baby be on the island in a hurricane, when there was not a soul for miles around would go there for love or money at any time? His misgivings rushed back with uncanny legends of lost souls bound on the winds or imprisoned in the waves that always keep racing towards the land yet always break before reaching it. This might be some Devil’s trap. True, he could exorcise the Devil, but would rather not.

He waited during the new howl of the wind – it seemed endless – then in the next pause heard the child’s voice again. It was an unmistakably human squall. “‘Tis a child, sure enough,” he said. “And a strong one at that.” The question for him was not how did the baby get on the island, but how was he to get it off? McCaura’s cabin was a mile away across the bog, and on such a night no one would be out except Dark Andy, who would be worse than useless. The only thing was to go out to the island himself, so he groped his way to the coracle.

Now a coracle is a sort of punt, a shallow frame covered with tarpaulin, a ticklish craft, but it can live in the wildest sea, though as Peter said – “‘Tis always on the look out for a chance to drown you.” He shouldered it as one to the manner born. Many a day and night he had spent afloat in the time when he was a fisher-boy. He thought how often since then he had longed to put out to sea, only his mighty dignity as a parish priest forbade it. His old bones were stiff, but he was as strong as ever.

Well, to cut a long story short, he launched that coracle and reached the island, not without risky and hard work. Dragging the coracle ashore, he made his way to the ruined house. The roof had fallen in, the windows were gone, only the walls were left. He could see nothing, but the child’s cry guided him. In a corner he found a woman lying huddled on a heap of fallen plaster and laths. Her face was to the wall. Her left arm clutched a tiny baby. He knelt down by her and touched her forehead. She was dead. By her dress he knew she came from the Arran Islands. Perhaps she had been brought to the “House of the Murder” to keep the birth secret; or perhaps the fishers bringing her to the mainland had been caught by the gale and could place her in no better shelter in the time of her trouble. Now the Arran folk were familiar to him. Many were of his kindred; he must have known this woman from her babyhood, and as a slip of a girl running barefoot on the hills. He turned her face to him, but could only see it dimly. It was much changed too, and half hidden by wet hair. Then the thought came that he had no right to pry into her secret. He laid her head back reverently.

He took the baby and chafed it, wrapping his woollen comforter round it. He thought it was dying, his knowledge of babies was small, so he decided to baptize it at once. There was no lack of water, for the rain was still falling in torrents. He filled a cup that was lying with some untasted food by the mother and baptized that wining infant as reverently and solemnly as if he had been in a great cathedral.

It must have been a strange scene in the “House of the Murder” – the gaunt old man dripping from the rain and the sea, holding the baby tenderly and awkwardly, with the body of the mother lying beside them. He gave the baby the name Patrick, the first that came to him, “Pathricius, ego te baptizo,” and so forth in his queer Latin brogue, and the small new Christian howled dismally and the gales answering howled outside. Then he unbuttoned the breast of his greatcoat and fastened the baby inside, so that only its ridiculous red face could be seen, and started for home. Crossing more easily this time, he found his old horse huddled in dumb resignation under the lee of the wall, and rode home through the storm at a good pace with a light heart. Every now and then the child cried to show that the life was in it, and then he tried to quiet it tenderly with “Be hushed now, Patrick.”

There was great work that night in the little house when the old priest and his housekeeper welcomed their guest. And when the baby was cosily asleep, Peter got into his big armchair and mixed himself a steaming tumbler of punch, for no man values punch more, though of course in strict moderation. He felt he deserved it tonight. At this point of the story his voice shook with pathos, “would you believe it, at the instant I put the glass to my lips the clock struck twelve, and so I couldn’t taste a drop, not a single drop!” If he had tasted it after midnight, he could not have said Mass. This was a lame ending to his one adventurous night. The baby was kept in the priest’s house, and when the gale went down, the mother’s body was brought from the island and buried. I think Father Peter found afterwards who she was, though her name never passed his lips.

For nearly twelve years, Patrick has ruled the priest’s house, thriving under the rough tenderness of Peter Flannery. Meanwhile Peter has led always the same life, rising in the early morning to say Mass in the cold chapel before a scanty congregation of women; many of them pray aloud with shut eyes and entire disregard of their neighbours. Patrick now serves him as clerk, looking very serious in his little white surplice.

Then Peter rides on his sick calls, miles and miles away through the bogs and over the hills, for he goes at any hour of the day or night to anyone who chooses to summon him, or he walks down to the school, where he usually finds Patrick standing in the corner with his face to the wall, in disgrace – or he goes his rounds through the village of Moher. Many a time I have seen him striding down the village, “like an executioner.” The first time babies see him they yell as if he was the Devil. Now, in the evenings he has something to dream about, and when he sits alone by the fire in his naked parlour, smoking his old pipe, with his tumbler of punch smoking too, to keep him company, he dreams of the great future of Patrick Flannery. He sees that urchin grow up a model, go to Maynooth and win prizes there, rise rapidly in the Church, and even become a Bishop. It is true Pat will have to change greatly before then, for it is a queer Bishop he would make now; but time works wonders and Pat has a good heart.

Peter hears him preaching the great sermons himself has never preached to the great congregations he has never seen. And he thinks that “His Lordship Dr. Flannery,” has a pleasing sound, that Bishop Flannery will be loved by all, that blessings will go with him. It is he that will have an eye for true worth and never let a plain man spend his life in a wilderness while smoother-tongued men have all they want. But at this point the dream breaks, for he knows in his heart that he would be sorry to leave his wilderness. So when the clock strikes nine he slowly finishes his punch, knocks out the ashes from his pipe and goes up the steep stairs to his bedroom, quavering in his hoarse voice,

When we went a-gipsying,
A long time ago.