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Is it about a bicycle? Thoughts for the day

04 April, 2012

Oliver Crilly’ book of short reflections resonates with the Old and New Testament Scriptures and the early Irish tradition, both written and visual. The subjects cover things as diverse as stories from his rural childhood and ‘Schindler’s List’, the spirituality of the Church Year, Charles de Foucauld and of the Focolare Movement. The common thread is a bicycle!

This book of short reflections is rooted in the soil of County Derry, reflects a landscape which includes Flann O’Brien and Seamus Heaney, resonates with the Old and New Testament Scriptures and the early Irish tradition, written and visual. Other stories and images came from his work and travels from the Vietnam Vets Memorial in Washington and Rwanda after the massacres of 1994. Other reflections were inspired by family, friends, even Pope John XXIII. The common thread is the place of a bicycle or its shadow as a symbol in our lives.



1.  Is it about a Bicycle?
2.  The Lure of the Hills
3.  In the Hill Country of Rwanda
4.  Marbh le Tae agus Marbh Gan É
5.  Another Slunk
6.  ‘We Need a Fourth’
7.  Unfinished Work
8.  Vietnam Vets’ Memorial
9.   In The Bunker
10. Resonances of Mind and Spirit
11. The Call of the Irish
12. Esther
13. Roundabouts
14. Caught!
15. Charles de Foucauld
16. Bread
17. The Windmill Stump
18. The Runaway Train
19. Flags
20. Schindler’s List
21. The Shadow of Bealnablath
22. Smoke
23. News for the Poor?
24. Rodin
25. Risks
26. Church on a Plate
27. The Gift of Tenderness
28. The Issue is the Relationship
29. The Drama of Holy Week
30. Whin Blossoms and Daffodils
31. The Big Snow
32. Like Little Children
33. Battery
34. Hands
35. The Rocktown Road
36. Pope John XXIII
37. Granny Bradley
38. Frank Crilley
39. Liam Miller
40. Jim O’Sullivan

The Music of What happens
The Darkness of Hunger
Building Bricks
Walking on the Blood
Harvest Restored

144pp, Veritas 1995. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie

Chapter one:  Is it about a bicycle?
There’s a plaque on a house front in the Bowling Green in Strabane which marks the home of the writer Brian O’Nolan, or Flann O’Brien. In O’Brien’s very funny book The Third Policeman, the desk sergeant in the police station greets every enquirer with the same question: ‘Is it about a bicycle?’ In the age we live in there is something innocent and refreshing about the sergeant’s assumption that crime statistics exclusively consist of no lights, bad brakes, and at worst loose handlebars.

At the beginning of Lent in 1995, I was infected with the same insanity as Flann O’Brien’s policeman. If Lent was not about a bicycle, at least there were several cycling memories which seemed to be related to Lent. The previous July, as we cycled in France, my brother Pat and I came across an article in a French magazine entitled La Sagesse de fa Bicyclette – the wisdom of the bicycle. This wisdom, said the article, has to do with the combination of solitude and movement. Aha, says I to myself: Lent involves time for prayer and reflection, but also movement – a bit of progress. We’re making an effort, and hopefully we should be going somewhere.

A more painful memory from that summer of 1994 was of the time I spent with a Trócaire delegation in Rwanda. Was it about a bicycle, you may ask? Strange as it may seem, in the midst of the hunger and disease and the refugee camps on the hills, there were a lot of bicycles. The day after we arrived in Cyanika, where the Medical Missionary sisters had their clinic, we went to visit the nearest camp, where several thousand people had erected little temporary huts of twigs and leaves. There at the foot of the hill a man was repairing an upturned bicycle – a solid machine with a well sprung saddle and rod brakes, and a very large carrier, a metal structure extended by the addition of wooden planks.

All the bicycles we saw had large carriers, suitable not only for a bag of rice or beans when they could be got, but also for carrying items of furniture during the long journeying of the displaced. We saw bikes with tables and chairs, and in one case even a complete iron bedstead, tied to the carrier. The overloaded bicycle almost symbolised the awful situation of war and famine and displacement. Lent reminds us of human situations we would rather forget. It should also remind us that we don’t just fast for ourselves, but to share with the hungry and the anguished.

Lent is difficult. But then life is not all downhill either. There are times when we all need support. When the pressure’s on, the solitude of the bicycle needs to yield to teamwork. The secret is not to go it alone: Christianity is about sharing the effort. Lord, be with me on the road; help me to keep pedalling, and give me the sense to let you control the handlebars.

Chapter Two The Lure of the Hills
I was born and reared in the foothills of the Sperrin mountains in the North-west of Ireland.
From my home in County Derry we could look in one direction across Lough Neagh to the mountains of Mourne, and in the other direction towards our favourite local hill, Slieve Gallon. I have happy memories of Sunday afternoons in summer when we set out on bicycles to explore the slopes of Slieve Gallon, walking some of the steeper hills on the way up and enjoying the exhilaration of the downhill swoops with the wind in our faces on the way back.

In the summer of 1994 my brother and I reclaimed some of those early memories when we went on a cycling holiday in France. We explored the beauty of Burgundy on two sturdy mountain bikes, heading up into the hills by quiet country roads through fields of wheat and sunflowers and many little vineyards. The very first winding hill took us up from the river Yonne into the mountain village of lrancy, where a friendly countrywoman invited us into the little cellar which was the focus of the family’s winemaking business for seven generations. We heard the gurgling of the vats where the last season’s vine crop was working in the darkness as the next season’s was ripening for the harvest.

After a week among the gentle hills and vineyards of Burgundy, we left the bicycles behind and took a train south to Toulouse. We still felt the lure of the hills, and early one morning we took a little train up into the Pyrenees as far as Lourdes. As the train pulled into the station, we saw a crowd gathered along the street, and we realised that they had come to see the start of a stage in the Tour de France cycle race. Fresh from the mountain bikes of Burgundy, we couldn’t resist joining the crowd, and we had the pleasure of seeing some of the world’s great cyclists, including the eventual winner of that year’s Tour, Miguel Indurain, pedalling easily up the hill to the starting point.

Afterwards, we went down to the grotto of our Lady in Lourdes, a centre of faith and healing, thronged with pilgrims, including the crippled and the sick. The contrast was stark. We had just seen some of the world’s strongest athletes at the peak of their fitness setting out to cycle up the great hills of the Pyrenees, and here were some of the world’s weakest and most infirm. I saw a child on a stretcher whose hand had to be moved by the nurse as they approached the grotto. It’s not that we had to deny the energy and the joy of the cyclists in their physical achievement in order to appreciate the suffering of the invalids. But we had to struggle to accommodate the two extremes of human experience, and to recognise the presence of the same God of power and compassion in the strength and in the weakness.

Chapter Three In the Hill Country of Rwanda
In August 1994 I visited Rwanda. From Nairobi we flew into Burundi and spent the night in Bujumbura. The following day we travelled by road through the hills into the South-west of Rwanda. The hills were steep and densely forested: great, dramatically beautiful mountains. Later, when we had arrived in the Gikongoro area, the hills were not so large and not so forested. The red earth was visible and many of the hills had camps of refugees or displaced persons living in little temporary huts of branches and leaves. We saw even more of the little huts when we arrived in Cyanika to visit the clinic which was being run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

Thousands of people were gathered in the area, and the Sisters treated about twelve hundred in the clinic every day. During the few days we spent there we visited the camps, and we prayed with the Sisters and listened to the story of their experiences, and the many stories of the pain and the courage of the Rwandan people among whom they lived.

Sister Josephine, who was looking after the prenatal programme, told us about a young Rwandan couple who had arrived at the clinic just the day before we came. They had walked from Butare, a town about 25 kilometres from Cyanika which had been in the front line of the conflict. The wife was pregnant, and near her time for giving birth. Sister Josephine examined her and settled her in the clinic, and left her assistant to keep an eye on the young woman while she went down to the house.

The baby came sooner than expected, and Sr Josephine was called and went back up to the clinic. The child had been safely delivered, and the mother was resting on the floor of the clinic, on the only available blanket, which was an old blue plastic raincoat. She was holding her child on her shoulder. To Sr Josephine, she was like an image of our Lady in Bethlehem, a displaced person – an exile in her own country – giving birth to her child without home or comfort, without hope or prospects, among the steep hillsides where 600,000 people had found a precarious stopover between the massacres and the September rains.

In the anguish of that birth there is something of the tragedy of human life, just as, in the story of Mary, the anguish of the cross on the hill of Calvary was already mysteriously present at the manger on the little hill of Bethlehem. It’s a long way from the sentiment of the plaster image we often see of Mary. And yet, out of the earthy realism of that birthplace, something flowers, as the glory of Mary flowered out of the suffering she shared with her Son and with Joseph.

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