Brian D’Arcy’s controversial autobiography is his story of struggle between his human nature and his calling. As a Passionist Father he found a way of combining his love for music and sport by becoming chaplain to the entertainment industry (and playing football for charities). He has integrated a career in journalism and broadcasting with his priesthood. He tries to keep integrity in a Church that has disappointed and betrayed many and lives a ministry that speaks to those living both in the mainstream and on the margins.
332pp. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie
THE TOWN OF FLAGSTONES
My family is an ordinary working-class family. We lived in the village of Bellanaleck (which means ‘the town of the flagstones’), about five miles from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. I lived there with my father, Hugh, my mother, Ellie, my sisters, Marie and Joan, and my only brother, Gaby, in a nice cosy little house. Our house was beside the road and everybody who walked up and down dropped in. Old people, collecting their pensions, would call to my mother on the way home, get a cup of tea, have a rest and head off home restored. That’s my abiding image of my mother – always at home, always doing her best to help and to encourage. Everybody who visited trusted her. My mother chatted to them all and she was a kind of a confessor for them. She was a huge influence on me; my way of being a priest comes from her.
Because my father was football mad, our house at night had callers who talked football, local and national. It was a dull night if nobody came in. That’s where I learned the art of storytelling and the art of listening. I can still remember stories and characters from that time. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was where I discovered how to recognise and tell a good story. These people were experts who could hold you enthralled from beginning to end. They had rehearsed it and they made sure you never forgot it. They were superb teachers although most of them could barely read or write. Maybe that’s why Bellanaleck has produced seven well-known writers and broadcasters – Cormac, Mickey and Sean MacConnell, George and Jennifer Cathcart, Derek Thornton and me.
Even in those days, in the mid-1950s, literacy could not be taken for granted. My father could read and write, and he used his skills to fill in forms for his neighbours. after the Second World War, the Government handed out free shoes to some children and bus passes to other children and meal vouchers, too. You could get free supplies of orange juice and cod liver oil, to build up strong, healthy bodies. The orange juice was lovely but the cod liver oil was a sickening dose. My father filled in the application forms for half the country for these. There were always visitors and they were always welcome. To this day, I love to see people calling for the tea and a chat; it seems a truly Eucharistic thing to do.
My mother baked bread. She’d roll it out on the table and bake it on the open-hearth fire, in an oven hanging from the crook. She’d put a row of coals on the top of it so it baked from the top and the bottom. I can still smell that bread baking. We called it fadge bread and nothing ever tasted as good. While it was still hot we spread butter on it, watched it melt, and ate it as quickly as we could. We caught the chicken out in the field, wrung its neck, plucked it, cleaned it out and cooked it in the pot, in the same way over the big, open fire with the turf flaming round it.
We always had a big, roaring turf fire. We were never short, but we never had anything extra, either. It was a struggle to make sure there would be enough on Thursday to buy what we needed, so that, when the wages came on Friday, we’d be able to start again. Thrift was encouraged, nothing was wasted. But we were no different from any other family in the parish. Working-class people lived close to the breadline.
Being young and Catholic meant I was an altar server and played Gaelic football morning, noon and night. If there was a wake or if somebody was sick, my mother made bread and brought it to them. It was the same for both Protestants and Catholics. Being a good neighbour wasn’t sectarian. There was, however, a strict code when it came to religious practice. I remember going to the door of the Protestant church but never entering. It was the same when Protestants came to Catholic funerals. Even then I knew it was stupid.
Hard work was part of the example handed down by my father. He was up at seven, got on his bicycle and started work at eight in Enniskillen Railway Station. He finished at five, was home about a quarter to six, ate spuds and bacon and cabbage and then started another day’s work, setting potatoes, and getting as much as he could from five acres of bad land. The day finished at 10 when he’d come inside and get more tea. That’s when the visitors came in. It was that kind of house, that kind of life.
In my young days we got one day’s holiday a year. We went to Bundoran. My father worked on the railway and we thought it was a wonderful privilege to get a free pass on a train from Enniskillen to Bundoran. We really thought we were special, a step above the ordinary. I used to get so excited about our day out that my family couldn’t tell me beforehand. On two occasions, I got, literally, sick with excitement, and the whole family had to stay home. They learned not to tell me about the day out until they were ready to travel.
Suddenly, I’d get a shaking in the bed very early in the morning. “Come on, you have to get up, we’re going to Bundoran today.” We’d get the eight o’clock bus to Enniskillen and catch the nine o’clock train to Bundoran. Our meal was the sandwiches we brought. There was no such thing as going to cafes, and if you did, you brought your sandwiches with you and bought the tea.
I was nearly drowned in Bundoran on one of those days out. I went walking along the sea pool and slipped in. Nobody saw me, and when eventually they did, none of them could swim. Someone pulled me out and I spent the day wet and shivering. It scared my mother. Another day, my father had me on a boat in Lough Erne and I fell out of the boat. He pulled me back by the hair of the head and, after that, my mother would never let me go near water or swim again. She said, “The third time you’ll die.” And it meant that I was 35 years of age before I had the courage to go to a swimming pool. I’m still not comfortable in the water, though.
My father was an active officer in the local GAA club. He was a famous footballer himself, who played for Fermanagh for nearly a decade. It’s not for me to boast, but those who saw him play reckon he was as good a half-back as ever played for the county. He was a respected man and a capable man, even though he had to leave school early. His constant mantra was, whatever you do, get a better education than I did. The key at the time in the North was the Eleven Plus. I was going to a small, two-teacher school in rural Fermanagh with fewer than 30 pupils in it. In its entire history, nobody had ever passed the Eleven Plus. My father concluded that not every child in this area was stupid, so it had to be the system that was wrong.
I had an aunt in Omagh, my mother’s sister, who had a boarding house there. Aunt Maggie came to visit us and obviously heard some cheeky back chat from me. I can still hear her describe me: “That’s an ould-fashioned brat there and if I had him I’d put manners on him.” That’s how I attended the Christian Brothers’ school in Omagh. I went down every Sunday evening with my little case. My father brought me five miles on the crossbar of the bike, as far as the train. I got on the train, at nine years of age, went 30 miles to Omagh, got off the train, walked about a mile to my aunt’s house and helped with the dishes and got ready for school the next day. I hate Sunday nights to this day. Sunday nights are leaving nights for me.
My aunt was a nice woman who was good to me. She had boarders as well as her own family and the first thing I did when I got up every morning was to set the table for the boarders. She spent her day cooking for them. There was no molly-coddling, no room for emotion. You did the job you were expected to do and there were no excuses taken for not doing it. But Aunt Maggie was good to me and I would have got nowhere without her foresight and the dedication of her son Donal, who taught me.
In Omagh School they had a superb system of preparing for the Eleven Plus. Every Friday we did test papers under exam conditions. When the actual days of the Eleven Plus came round it was just routine. So after two years in Omagh, even I was able to pass the exam. It meant I got free grammar school education.
There is a kind of providence about growing up which, in an unknowing way, directs the rest of our lives. For me it began with being chosen to go to school in Omagh, the loneliness I endured during that time, the preparation for future life which it entailed; all this I can see now as God’s providential care. Why was I the one that my aunt’s eyes lit on that particular day? If my brother, Gaby, had been the one who answered her back, he might have been the one taken by her and he’d have made a better, safer priest than me. I’d say there’s many a bishop who thinks my aunt made the wrong choice and it should have been left to God, not her. Yet we know it’s God who makes the choices and it’s not always the most obvious one He chooses.
I came back to Enniskillen and went to St Michael’s College in 1957. I was the only one from our whole area in it. That’s why there’s a part of me that is always lost. When I went to Omagh, I was a country boy, not only moving to a town, but a town 30 miles away. I was struggling all the time, both in Omagh and in St Michael’s in Enniskillen.
In St Michael’s College, priests ran the school like a junior seminary. The Presentation brothers founded St Michael’s but moved out in 1957 when the priests took over. The reason the priests came was to encourage Fermanagh boys to become priests in Clogher Diocese.
As a teenager, I had no real notion of being a priest. I was a normal, reasonably good young fellow who did what I was told, served Mass and tried to live the way my parents taught me. I didn’t consider I had a vocation because I didn’t think I was good enough to be a priest. My family wasn’t wealthy enough to pay for me. At that time, you had to be a boarder in a junior seminary for two years before they’d accept you in Maynooth.
I wasn’t the most suitable one in our family to be a priest because I was always interested in music and sport. I always had a variety of interests. I was more like my father and more influenced by him. I was a footballer like him. At 16 I had played in the county championships at all levels.
My interest in pop and popular music goes back to my earliest days. In our wee house in Bellanaleck we always had a wireless. Television was totally unheard of in those days. It sounds as if I’m going back to “old god’s time”, but it’s actually only 50 years, a short enough period as history goes. The wireless was in the kitchen and had a grand shelf all to itself.
Before we got electricity, the wireless ran on what were called wet batteries. They were two glass containers that held some sort of acid. They had a short lifespan and these wet batteries had to be brought to a supplier in Enniskillen who recharged or refilled them and so kept us up to date with the news for another couple of weeks.
Wet batteries were used sparingly. The wireless was put on for the news each night. We all had to be as quiet as mice as my mother and father and whatever visitor happened to be passing our door all gathered as close to the wireless as they could.
Another big occasion was the broadcast of Gaelic games on a Sunday afternoon. If we weren’t quiet we were put out to play. Usually five or six men came and parked their bicycles along the tightly clipped hedge on the side of the road. They then proceeded to kick every ball with Micheal O’Hehir as he broadcast in his wonderfully exciting fashion from the mecca itself: Croke Park in Dublin. For me, O’Hehir has always been the voice of the GAA.
Later we got electricity into the house. There were few enough appliances that could run on electricity and we could afford. There was a light in each room which was a godsend; there was one electric fire with two bars which was used sparingly because it was too expensive and a little two-ringed cooker which was more effective for heating water and boiling eggs early in the morning before the turf fire took off. And there was a wonderful Morphy- Richards radio. This meant the wet batteries were gone forever and we could listen to the radio night and day.
That was when I discovered Radio Luxembourg. It had a famous catchphrase: “208 on the dial”. And that’s when I began to discover the world of pop music, especially the great Elvis Presley. For me, back in the 1950s, Elvis on Radio Luxembourg was eternal happiness on earth.
From that moment I was hooked on music. The highlight of the week was the Top Twenty from 11 to 12 on a Sunday night. The problem was that I had to wait until 12 to find out what was number one. No self-respecting student could dare enter St Michael’s College the next morning without having listened to the number one the night before. That was “cool” back then. To get staying up until 12 o’clock on a Sunday night was always a fight. But secretly I think even my parents were interested in pop charts though they constantly berated the “jungle music” of Elvis, Cliff, Bill Haley and Billy Fury.
In St Michael’s College it was the custom for priests to visit and give a really good talk about the work their congregation or order did. Then they’d give you a slip of paper asking if you were interested in their work. If you were interested they sent you material. I remember one priest who came and gave a great talk about his work in South America. It was an appealing and idealistic life. He was from The Legionaries of Christ. At the time I showed some interest, so one evening, about a month afterwards, this priest arrived at our house. He was probably Spanish and looked awfully clean with his white cuffs and gold cufflinks. He looked perfect.
My father and I were out in the field working when this strange priest came out to us. He stood at the edge of the field and beckoned my father to come to him; they talked secretly for 10 minutes or more. He never spoke to me at all. I never knew until 30 years later what he said to my father. First, he asked how much my father earned, and when my father told him, he said, “I don’t think your family is rich enough for your son to join us. We’re not interested.” A cousin in whom my father confided told me that long after my father died. My father never told me, but I discovered that he was deeply hurt by this insult. When he came back to me in the potato drill, all he said was, “You won’t be joining that crowd anyway.”
The founder of The Legionaries of Christ, in the spring of 2006, was silenced by the Vatican for the alleged abuse of young boys, especially young students who entered his order.
Looking back, I understand now why my father didn’t want me to be a priest. He always said we weren’t rich enough for me to be a priest. Early on he did his best to change my mind. It would be a very long time afterwards before I understood why.
My first meeting with a very quiet Passionist priest in a mystical church attached to The Graan in Enniskillen in 1960 was a different experience. It was a quiet Saturday evening and I had gone there to confession. The priest obviously took time to speak to his penitents. I didn’t know who he was then, but I got to know him later. His name was Father Angelo. His family name was Boylan from County Monaghan and he still has two nephews in the Passionist congregation.
Angelo was a quiet man and saintly in a detached sort of way. When he left the world he was quite happy not to rejoin it. At the end of confession he whispered through the wire mesh, “Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?” I answered that I hadn’t and that was really the truth. Actually, I hadn’t thought about it seriously even at the time of The Legionaries of Christ; I was only vaguely interested then.
He continued whispering through the grille, “I think you should think about it. Could you come down to meet me tomorrow evening?” It sounded a bit rushed to me and anyway I had a football match to play for Kinawley minors the next day. And I told him the truth – that I couldn’t do it. But he did make an appointment for the following Saturday. I was really scared of it but felt I had to keep it.
I told him what my parents had said – namely, that I was too fond of music and football to be a priest. I subsequently learned that Angelo had no great love of football although he would have claimed a certain musical ability.
My mother didn’t want me to be a priest either, though her opposition was for a different reason from my father’s. Maybe she understood the loneliness of a priest’s life. My father worked for the parish priest in his local area at one time, so maybe he knew what a priest’s life was like, too, and didn’t want it for his son.
I mentioned my dilemma to a friend at school, Artie McCann, and he shocked me by admitting he had decided to join the Passionists. His uncle was a Passionist priest. We began our journey together then. The life appealed to me because I heard our neighbours talking about going to The Graan to get blessed or going to The Graan for confessions. The Graan always seemed to be a place that people thought highly of It was a place where people weren’t afraid of priests. Or, if you were in trouble, The Graan had a special place in people’s lives. That image of priesthood attracted me.
My mother tried to persuade me not to go. She prayed every day and got the rest of the family to try to persuade me not to go because my interests were incompatible with what they thought a priest should be. She gave in on my last summer in school. I would have been 15, going on 16, and she said to me, “If you come with me on a pilgrimage to Knock, we’ll pray there. Then, after that, if you still want to go, I’ll not stand in your way”.
The parish was running a bus to Knock. We said 15 decades of the rosary on the way, 15 decades while we were there, another 15 on the way home. I had as much praying that day as I ever needed. But it was a lovely place and I still go to Knock once or twice a year, just to top up my vocation, as it were. Because that’s where it came from.
About two or three weeks later, my mother asked me, “Do you still want to be a priest?” And I said, “I think I have to give it a try.” That’s when she agreed to let me go.
It seems providential that out of very ordinary circumstances and out of basic choices, a life journey begins. We have no idea where the little decisions we make today will eventually lead us.
The priests of the diocese didn’t want me entering the Passionists because there was a hint of mistrusting religious life. I was told I was making a mistake by joining the Passionists. It would make more sense to be a diocesan priest. The president of St Michael’s College, when I asked him for a reference, gave it to me but made his displeasure obvious. I didn’t understand it at the time and still don’t.
The parish priest, Fr McIlroy, who lived two miles up the road beside the church in Arney, was very good to me. I’d been an altar boy and he knew me well. His advice was simple and reflective: “It takes a good man to enter, Brian, but it takes a great man to leave if it’s not made for him.” Sound advice.
The next thing was to buy a new black suit. I didn’t want my family to be out too much money, so I worked. Peter McKevitt had a pub in Arney and he used to see me going to morning Mass. He’d probably heard I was thinking of going on to be a priest. One day he approached me: “I wonder if you would paint our pub, Brian?” He worked it out that I would get two shillings an hour. And I worked it out that if I painted for 10 hours I could make a pound a day. The suit cost 24 pounds in Tully’s. I got the money for it by working for Peter and also by helping out my cousins and getting the odd fiver here and there. So my family weren’t out too much money when I joined. Passionists didn’t ask for much money from the families. Once you made your profession, you were a Passionist after that and they took care of you.
On the night of the 30th of August 1962, I went to Bundoran to a dance as a kind of a last fling, myself and my brother and a few neighbours. I went to dances regularly before I entered and I still wanted to hang on to the music. It was a double attraction that night. The Melody Aces were the first band and Butch Moore and the Capitol Showband were the second, in the Astoria Ballroom in Bundoran.
There’s a quaint story that gives you an indication of the times we lived in back then. I actually played football for a neighbouring club, Kinawley, at underage level, and they took me onto the senior panel as well. I played in the county senior championship semi-final in August when I came on as a sub even though I was only 17 years old. We won the match and got to the final. But I had entered the Passionist monastery at The Graan before the final took place and I never played in the county senior final. We didn’t get letters, papers, visits from people or anything like that while we were in the novitiate. We simply entered a monastery and from day one you became a contemplative monk. One day I was a teenager running around Bellanaleck and the next I was a contemplative monk. I never knew who won the county final until Christmas morning, when we were allowed one letter from my family. That was when I first realised that Roslea, not Kinawley, had won the cup.
The day I entered was a really, really sad day. I spent the day crying and saying goodbye to people, places of interest and even the sad old donkey out in the field. The day before I entered I had a sense of it being the last day of my life. I remember going on a bicycle to Enniskillen, crying because I was leaving home at 17 years of age. It was almost like a death in the family. That was the feeling around the house. My mother and my sisters were crying all day. Somebody had arranged to get a car to bring me to The Graan, which was unusual in itself. All my worldly possessions were in one little case.
The bleakness of The Graan was awful.