A Kind of Returned Yank
Gerry Whelan S.J.
Nairobi, March 1997
I know the people of Athenry are well used to returned ‘Yanks’. Everyone seems to have a cousin of some description who makes his or her way back to visit the ancestral seat. I know also the patient smirk that is evoked by great claims to how Irish these visitors are. Well, I am something of a returned Dubliner. Actually, I was born in the States, but my parents brought me back when I was a baby. My real foreignness to Athenry comes from being brought up in suburban South Dublin. Now, this is where the plot thickens: I was brought up by a Limerick mother and an Athenry father. We four children were always given the feeling that “the real people lived in the country.” I believed this idea then, and I still have a lot of time for it now.
VISITS TO ATHENRY
My Limerick grandparents died when I was quite young; so it was to Athenry that I made most of my visits to see relatives. Granny Whelan, God rest her, promised she would make it to my ordination in 1992, but fell short by a year. Some of my happiest memories are of my visits to Athenry, as I grew up. Grandad ran the bar in The Square. A more fascinating place, for a ten-year-old from Dublin suburbia, you cannot imagine -smells of beer, the metallic sound of rolling drums, sawdust on the floor for sliding on, and the challenge of climbing up onto one of those wooden beer stools—all this fascinated me. However, Grandad’s main characteristic was that he used to leave a three-day growth of beard on him when we came to visit. Within minutes of arriving, he would take me on his lap in the big chair beside the fire in the backroom. From this position he would both tickle me with his hands and rub his beard all over my face. I would go hysterical with laughter.
Granny also was marvellous to visit. Granny ran the shoe shop beside the bar. Indeed, when we visited, she seemed to organise all of us while she was at it. She had preternaturally black hair. She had a square face with dark, Hispanic eyes that always knew what you had just been up to. Funnily enough, some of my fondest memories are of getting into trouble with her. There was the time I walked out at night and visited the train-station. I climbed up to the signal office and chatted with the kind man there. His kindness went so far as to show me what all the levers in the office were for and then to phone Granny, as soon as I had departed. He told her that her grandson was roaming the streets at night. What a welcoming reception I received when I rambled back to The Square!
A FAIR DAY
And then there was the Fair-Day. If there was one thing more fascinating than Grandad’s bar, it was the transformation Athenry went through on a Fair Day. It was kind of scary, too—for a Dublin ten-year-old. You couldn’t open the front door between the shop and the bar without running the risk of a frightened cow or calf trampling over you. Or, at the very least, you ran every risk of standing smack in the middle of some of their droppings. Then there was the chaos of noise. The moo’s of the cattle were matched by the high-pitched chatter coming from the Bar. Then there were various shouts from people thronging the Square. The hawkers were my favourites. I wished I had heaps of money to buy things from each of the stalls that lined the street. I would have no use for most of what they sold-Wellington boots, women’s clothing, glass ornaments for a house. Still, there was a sort of fever that got into you on a fair day. Buying like mad seemed to be part of the excitement.
This was where my trouble with Granny began. One day, she discovered that I had spent my savings on buying a penknife the day before. A beautiful penknife it was – second hand, with a ribbed-ivory finish. To my mortification, Granny dragged me out of the house to point out the hawker who had sold it to me. It was bad enough me being in trouble, but you should have heard the earful she gave to the hawker! In a flash, he took the knife back and returned my money. By the look of him, he would have returned twice the amount if she had told him to.
A WISDOM FIGURE
Granny lived long enough to see me through adolescence and adulthood. My image of her, as the years passed was of her sitting in her room over the boot shop. Instead of running everything, she was now being looked after by my aunty Marie and her husband Leo Gardiner. My aunty Carmel lived just across the road and was married to Sean Torpey. The room always seemed dark and shrouded in cigarette smoke. Prominent on the wall, was a picture of the Sacred Heart with a flickering red light under it. Jesus seemed to have the same kind of yellow smoker’s-skin that Granny had. The other item, always near Granny, was her dog-eared prayer book. It seemed to have more inserts than pages—pictures of saints and memorial cards of the dead.
You could talk with Granny about anything. It was always a good starting point to know you were the apple of her eye. In retrospect, I realise that Granny was a woman of exceptional intelligence and judgement. And I needed a listening ear. As a teenager, I was having trouble with ‘the Dublin thing’. I felt unsettled – uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life. So, coming down to the “real people” in Athenry was very important. I told Granny of my thoughts of priesthood almost before anybody. She was a safe distance from Dublin, of course. These thoughts of mine were a bit like the conversation of a couple who talk privately about the possibility of getting married long before any engagement is made, either formally or informally. They would not dream of telling most people what they were talking about. Well, Granny was party to my speculations about priesthood. I did a pretty good job of covering up the fact that I had these thoughts during most of my four years at Trinity College. However, in the final year of my degree, I announced I was joining the Jesuits. I believe that Granny was one of the few people who were not surprised. On reflection, I think that priesthood was my way of becoming a “real person.” To this day, I have a sense of awe about how far the faith goes back among my Galway ancestors. When studying in Boston recently, I visited the mass-grave of members of a famine coffin-ship that was wrecked within sight of land. It had come from Galway port and I reflected that some of the dead would have known my great-grandparents). I feel connected to that tradition in a special way by my vocation. I really believe that these generations of ancestors are in Heaven and that they are delighted with me. What times they saw, those people. I just know their faith was as strong as Granny’s.
ATHENRY AND AFRICA
In the last couple of weeks, I have started a job that I can foresee staying with for a very long time. I have just finished graduate studies in Canada and am settling in as a theology professor in a Jesuit seminary in Kenya. Young Jesuits come to study here from most of the countries of Africa. I spent three years of my own training here before ordination and another two in Zambia. I am supposed to be the last generation of European missionaries in Africa. Vocations are booming here, but this produces huge needs for “formation personnel”. Missionaries are still much needed for this work. Still, there are drawbacks to having us white-folk as teachers. Since Vatican 2, the emphasis in theology is on expressing Christianity in African culture. I have to somehow give these students the tools to create an African theology, without pretending to be African myself.
One of the methods I hope to employ, is to discuss how deeply Christianity embedded itself in Irish Culture. I hope they can recognise the relevance for themselves of studying how our faith was translated from a Greco-Roman culture into the foreign one of the Celts. The tragedy about African Christianity is that evangelization took place in a context of European colonisation. Because Africans were never allowed the luxury that the Celts had they received the impression that there was little of their culture that was acceptable in Christianity.
I have just read the December 1996 issue of the Athenry Journal. Believe it or not, I am going to use it in class. Do you remember the article about the “Number of Ancient Cooking Places in the Athenry Area”? I am particularly interested about the description of the one near Lady Well. I understand that Lady Well was a place of religious devotion before Christianity. Well, Africans know all about holy wells from their traditional religions, but usually instead of the symbolism of such wells from their traditional religions, being brought forward into Christianity, the people were forbidden to consider them as holy. I have a Jesuit friend, who has a child-hood memory of his family being publicly reprimanded in Church for engaging in a ceremony much like the kind of devotion some Celtic pagans would have performed in visiting a holy well.
What I hope will fascinate my students will be the way in which wells like Lady’sWell were dedicated to Our Lady and became a place of Christian pilgrimage. Then there is the “Carnaun Cross”. Do you remember the article about the penal cross in the December issue? I just loved the story about the cock popping out of the pot to give witness to the resurrection! I can show slides of wooden artefacts that are strikingly similar from African traditional religion. They are full of symbolic images that serve as a base for religious instruction. But where are the Christian versions of these works of art? I tell you no lie when I state that the great bulk of statues and crucifixes in Catholic Africa have been import from Italy.
IRELAND’S NEXT CHALLENGE?
I have been rambling on, but I have one final reflection. Really, it is prayer.Ireland is going through what seems like a major cultural transformation. I pray to God that the Irish will find a way of carrying their Christianity with them into the new times. What does Christ of the European Community look like? Christ of the Internet? Christ of a confident people, highly educated and working in high-tech industry? Christ of the chronically unemployed black-spots that seem to flounder in the rising tide? Christ of a reconciled Northern Ireland? Irish people once achieved a monumental translation of Roman Christianity into its own culture. I pray that they may achieve the next translation of Christianity into the culture of the second millennium.
So, there you have it- the reflections of a version of a returned yank. Maybe I am romanticising Athenry. After all, I have spent relatively little time there. Nevertheless, I wish you well. And I assure you that, however foreign I may be to Athenry- either as a Dubliner or as a resident of Kenya – Athenry has an important place in my heart.