James Joyce wrote a short story called 'The Sisters' which formed parts of his series of essays in the wonderful book The Dubliners. The story, like so much of Joyce’s work, is a combination of almost superhuman perception of so many aspects of early 20th century urban life. Joyce also explores the everyday influence of the church, an integral part of that world. Perhaps surprisingly Joyce remained sympathetic to the Irish Church, a fact reflected in his writings. The tale in question concerns the passing of Fr Flynn, an old man (for the time) of sixty-five, whose last years are spent sitting by a fire in a dark room behind a shop on Little Britain street.
Joyce describes his shaking hands as large and have been made clumsy by some unnamed neurological illness. He is touchingly described as been no longer able to take snuff without spilling most of it, without the assistance of his young friend in the story, who may be based on Joyce himself. What is most striking about this story is the imagery of the deceased Rev Flynn laid out in his coffin.
In reading this story, it brought back a memory to me of a similar sight as a small child, for such things leave a lasting impression. Having read about Father Flynn, I was put in mind of another priest who left an influence on my young mind by his later days and passing. This priest died in January 1984 when I was eight. His name was Father Hennessey. Unlike Joyce’s Father Flynn, who’s death appears to affect the child in the story indifferently and demise appears as little else then a ghoulish prop, the old priest who I knew was a man very much alive and imbued with humility and a jovial aspect. He was also a man who lived in near poverty notwithstanding the general living standards of early 1980’s rural Ireland. And yet he radiated a genuine gentleness and holiness which left an impression and a mark on all who knew him. As Parish Priest, Father Hennessey lived in the remote (as it was then) parish of Castletown in a large meagre block of a house owned by the Dublin Diocese. Castletown Parish is one of those anomalies which clearly demonstrates how dioceses predate counties and finds itself at the edge of both. A short distance from the church the Ahare River marks the parish and diocesan boundary with the Diocese of Ferns. Tara Hill overlooking Castletown is home to Kilcavan Church, a near neighbour, but under separate administration for nearly a thousand years. A few miles north of Castletown a small stream flowing onto Kilmichael Head marks the boundary with County Wicklow.
Returning to Father Hennessey in his border parish, he owned an ancient dog, a black Labrador, who I remember had a large cyst on one of his legs. This dog was driven around in an old grey car, vintage by any standards (even in 1980) which was coming apart at the seams. In this way Father Hennessey made his regular house calls to parishioners. On school visits he presented a genuine affableness and kindness to us children a person we were always glad to see.
On New Year’s Day 1984 he conducted a christening, my sister’s as it happened to be. He visited the house later in the day for supper. Some days later, when days are vague and long to a child, we were playing “chain tig”at the 2.00 pm break, recently back after the Christmas holidays. An ambulance appeared silently at the parochial house and the teacher told us the priest was gone to hospital. The following morning shortly after sitting down for school, our teacher, Mrs Condran informed us that Father Hennessey had gone to heaven. Looking back this was a gentle, effective and tactful way to break the news to a group of children. The next evening there was a long ceremony in a full church with a huddled concourse of parishioners made up of many teary-eyed women. I recollect they were wearing silk headscarf’s, a piece of dress still commonly worn at that time. The heady smell of incense hung in the air. The young priest on duty made the announcement that the coffin would be opened, and we could file up and around the deceased.
There he lay, this red faced bespectacled jovial man now altered to a solemn effigy with waxy fingers tied with rosary beads and a pair of highly polished shoes. As a child I found this an astonishing sight, a vested priest dressed for eternity. I filed past fascinated and detached from the fact this was the same man. Peter was his name and it was news to me that priests had first names. His burial took place the next day amid seemingly vast crowds. I remember being hemmed in and seeing nothing but adults all around as he was laid to rest in the sticky marl of Castletown beside the church.
Time passed and this man had largely faded from memory. Some twenty six years later I began to make a few enquires about Father Hennessey out of curiosity and sentimentality. I had contacted my former school principal, an obvious choice to reminisce on the late Father Hennessey. Tom Keegan’s memory and familiarity with Peter confirmed my early childhood memories of a gentle old soul. In fact, Father Hennessey had been perceived as a somewhat simple man which was interesting considering he could speak fluent Spanish, German as well as the usual Latin. On arrival in Castletown from a south Dublin parish (Kilmacanogue) in 1974, he was a relatively wealthy man having some property in his native County Carlow. More so to avoid troubling his parishioners, he had tended to make good any financial necessities for the Parish from his own meagre resources. This practise continued until he was left very poorly off. A similar impulse saw him praying for long hours in the church yard for his flock whom he knew extraordinarily well. Or he would sit alone in the gloom of the church on Summer evenings, it’s eves a haunt of swallows.
I eventually made enquiries about Peter Hennessey through the Dublin Diocesan office. On making the call I suddenly felt awkward as to how to articulate my request. An adult seeking information on a long dead priest, whom he knew as a small child, and was now looking for personal information as to the priest’s background twenty-six years later, was bound to be trouble. My own words sounded hollow as I was asked by the very polite but guarded lady, as to why I wanted to find out this information. Suddenly trying to explain that I had known him as a child, that he was a nice old fellow and there was no ulterior motive seemed an inadequate explanation. At the time I was writing an article for The Irish Catholic. The article was a tribute to Father Hennessey and was also intended as a small response to the endless and depressing litany of lurid stories which were appearing on the media one after another. But I understood her reasons for been guarded. The damage was done and had penetrated all aspects of the church right down from victims of clerical abuse to the innocent and dedicated priests, who now long dead, their positive memories and impressions were left open to scrutiny.
For a finish I left the article as it was, based entirely on a childhood memory with little biographical facts about Father Hennessey. Ultimately those factual details didn’t matter. What did matter was that barely remembered small, almost insignificant displays of jovial kindness and lightly carried holiness, left a lifelong impression. And that to my mind is the true spirit and power of a living church that continues to carry its subtle message through an ever-changing world. As regards Peter Hennessey and all the forgotten good characters like him, may they enjoy their eternal reward and continue to say a few prayers for the rest of us.