One Sunday Morning in May1960
Exam day at Mungret college, a Jesuit boarding school in the west of Ireland
The exam was on Religious Knowledge. I must have been 13. This was a subject I despised even at that early age.
At eight years old I had undergone a swift transfer from an enlightened Quaker environment to be fostered with Drogheda butchers family and full on Irish Catholicism. It wasn’t bad. I was well loved. And In the first instance I became quite enthusiastic. I was fitting in. First holy communion and confirmation all in the same year. I still have the formal photo of myself in corduroy short pants and the ubiquitous zip-up top of the period, happy, holding my open prayer book against the gable wall of the farm house. I remember those nights when rosary was said, kneeling, as my beloved Seamus Hogan wrote so well in ‘Decade’, “in the half moon, around the fire of personalised chairs, between the mysteries, the pinching, the faces and the smirks… …I’d be half half aware it was because of another world that we were kneeling there bums to the heat.” Sometimes we said it in Irish too.
My affair with catholic dogma wained slowly but surely as I approached adolescence . The version of the bible I was given was written in rather pedantic English and didn’t correspond to what I remembered from my quaker days. There was no beauty in it. (When I was 13 or so I flogged my copy to Kiely for the price of a packet of fags.) Years later I came back to the bible with pleasure when I discovered the text I’d been missing was called the King James’ . What a work of art.
In Mungret nobody bothered with the Old Testament. And the New was all Jesus this and Jesus that. And I found myself muttering under my breath ‘ for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory ….’ at the end of every Lord’s Prayer . My soul held a secret, never to be confessed. . At the weekly confessional I desperately sought for suitable sins – self abuse, dirty thoughts – to satisfy the man behind the grill with the soft insincere voice. Sometimes I burnt to tell but always bit it back. I knew the sky would fall if I did. It trained me in the art of keeping secrets, but at a steep price I only realised later in life.
That particular morning I was pissing against the urine stained concrete of the outside jacks. Basically a high wall with a stinking gutter running at it’s base. It was there that Kiely, Wardy and I held our pissing contests. Ward had a real hosepipe. He always hit higher. I was always second. In everything, even debating.
That late spring morning I was pissed off. I did not want to do the Religious Knowledge exam.
“Feck it I’m off” I said. Kiely gave me a hoosh up over the lip of the grey permanently wet concrete.
And I went. AWOL
The first thing I remember was the silence. And the immensity of the fields spread before me. And the clarity of the light.
I cut around the smoke walk area and the rockery with the statue of our lady and walked. Walked down the long tree lined avenue to the gates of the school. I didn’t wish to be seen. But I didn’t care either.
I turned left.
To this day I don’t know why.
Carrigogunnel castle sits on a high outcrop overlooking the Shannon just outside Clarina. I had visited it once before during a school outing and remembered it as magical. It was there I headed.
I sat on the ruins looking north towards the Shannon and had what my half brother Phill called ‘a meeting with myself’.
What I didn’t know then, but know now, was that I was looking over my cousin’s farm and land and sitting right in the middle of my grandfather Church of Ireland Rev. Craig’s parish of Clarina. I know little about him. He was a parson with twelve parishioners and a love of fishing. Before Clarina he had a living in Kerry. I understand it was he who first took in Roger Casement when he was landed in April 1916 from a German submarine on Banna Strand, wracked with malarial fever. I suppose it was he who informed the Irish constabulary Sargent of Casement’s presence. But that’s another story.
I was then the spitting image of my father Harry Craig. Certainly, had it not been Sunday and all in church, Catholic or Protestant, I would have been recognised as I walked, and thus uncovered, probably welcomed, and my life would have unfolded very differently.
I quietly curse my mother for having placed me in Mungret to go through those six long years. What possessed her I do not know. Vengeance? Defiance? So near and yet so far. And my father for not having the balls to ‘fess up. I will never know. Before she died burnt every paper she possessed and everything I possessed too. I have no trace of my childhood apart from photos gleaned from friends and relatives .
At the time she was living on the Doorus peninsula in Co. Galway in a tiny school house near the bridge to Inishdoorus island. ‘The Bus’ the family fishing lodge on Inishdoorus was my mother’s love. She tried to get it as as part of her divorce agreement but the relationship between her and her husband was such that it was never going to happen. However this is a place I have always felt as ‘home’. It was there I befriended a blackbird. I snared rabbits and swam. I was there I read ‘The crock of gold’ by James Stevens. And the ideas first germed of the stories which I would tell my children when they were growing up. It was there that the neighbour Miko Burke made the best apple cake I have ever tasted. He spread it with thick yellow butter. I would eat through it in his whitewashed kitchen while he and my mother would drink tea discuss outside in the garden in the cool of late afternoons.
I decided to head there and, retracing my steps I walked the four miles along the lower road to Limerick and crossed the Shannon into Clare. I walked at a steady clip. The Galway road was well signposted. I was well turned out, dressed in my Mungret blazer, regulation tie and white shirt. I tried to hitch but there were few cars and none stopped. The hedgerows were bright with colour. The sun beat down. The freshness of the morning opened into a day of windless heat. The fresh scents became muggy. A dogged determination drove me. And still the cars did not stop.
At Sixmilebridge I rested. I remember an old lady giving me a cup of water. And the pub closed for holy hour. When I was older, eighteen or so, I went to Ennis for a ‘Fleadh Cheoil’ an Irish music festival. And for some now unknown reason ended up drinking in that very bar I’d walked past those years ago in Sixmilebridge. There were was a session in progress and an intoxicating atmosphere of astonishingly good music, Guinness and general craic. At 11:00 the doors were locked but the pub continued serving, till about two. There was a guard there too as I remember . Afterwards I slept. In a parked bus. The driver asked me to get off in the morning. But without anger.
I walked. Somewhere beyond Kilcornan Cross a car stopped. But not going my way. The parents of another child. Out for the day. I got in. And was brought back.
On the peron of the college the rector was waiting. I was let out of the car which then drove off to park somewhere at let it’s other passenger off at a more normal entrance. I walked across the gravel and up the steps to the portico. A long moment for such a short distance . I felt isolated facing the grey stone walls and faceless windows of the formal frontage. When I visited the place again with Seamus Hogan I relived that feeling.
“Every dog has his day” said the Rector. But without anger. The words have stayed with me. The inevitable beating was less comprehensive that I had expected. The hands but not the arse.
My mother drove down to see me the following weekend. In a hired car. I remember she was furious because she had driven 70 miles with the handbrake on.
It was the last time she ever came.
I lost whatever interest remained to me in study. I enjoyed literature though and read my way through the school library over the remaining years. My saving grace.