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Observe the rustling leaves: the Church and world of the future

30 November, 1999

For the eighth centenary of the town of Callan, Co. Kilkenny, Jim O’Halloran SDB addresses his fellow Callan-ites on the topic of “The Church and the World of the Future”.

62 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie

The book consists of a Preface and an address given to his native parish on: “The Church and the world of the future”.


The Father laughs with the Son;
The Son laughs with the Father.
The Father likes the Son;
The Son likes the Father.
The Father delights in the Son;
The Son delights in the Father.
The Father loves the Son;
The Son loves the Father.
The laughter, liking, delighting,
loving is the Holy Spirit.
(Meister Eckhart)

This year, 2007, my native town of Callan, Co Kilkenny, Ireland, celebrates the 8th centenary of its foundation. As part of this celebration, I have been asked to give an address on the subject of ‘The Church and World of the Future’. Needless to say, I feel deeply honoured by this invitation. Being recognised by your native town carries a satisfaction that no other honour can bestow. I now understand what they mean when Kilkenny hurlers, such as Henry Sheflin, D. J. Carey and John Power, say that winning the Kilkenny County Championship for their club is sweeter than even winning the All Ireland Final!

I find the subject on which I was asked to speak intriguing; it’s the universality of it that fascinates. Had I been asked to give a talk entitled ‘A Window on Callan of the 1940s’, for example, it would not have been unexpected — my vivid memories of the town and its people are of that period. I would have found myself talking about the greatest raconteur I ever met, Dick Kelly Snr of Mill Street, and of places like the Turning Hole, Butler’s Grove and James’s Well. The remainder of my life has been spent largely in faraway lands. But, no doubt, bearing in mind my own life experience and the interpenetration of the universal and the local, the organisers of the events to mark the centenary wisely chose the subject ‘The Church and World of the Future’.

But, then, Callan has always been keenly aware of the world beyond its confines. How could it be otherwise, since in search of a livlihood so many of its sons and daughters, as part of a virtual Irish exodus, took the emigrant ship to America, Canada, Australia, Britain and many other lands. I recall meeting a McBride in a town bordering the jungle in Ecuador. He spoke no English, pronounced his name ‘Macbreeday’, as in Spanish, and knew only vaguely that his forebears had come from somewhere far beyond the seas.

Outstanding people
The town has also produced people of renown who have made an impact both nationally and internationally. In this context, among so many others, we could mention: famed Benedictine Abbess Mary Butler, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice (founder of the Irish Christian Brothers), architect James Hoban, diarist Humphrey O’Sullivan, Father Tom O’Shea (co-founder of the Callan Tenant Protection Society), poet John Locke, historian and patriot Thomas Shelley, artist Tony O’Malley and dramatist Thomas Kilroy.

The contribution of Brother Rice to education in Ireland and around the world has been enormous. Without it, many an Irish child would have had little or no education at all, and the same would undoubtedly be true of young people elsewhere. He was a person well ahead of his times. Already in the 1800s, for example, he opposed the use of corporal punishment in schools.

James Hoban was of course the architect of the White House in Washington DC. In 1996, I was taken on a tour of the White House by President Clinton’s Advance Press Secretary, Ann Edwards. This through the good offices of Adrian O’Neill of the Irish Embassy, a friend of mine for many years. When I told Ann that I came from the same parish as the architect of ‘this venerable pile’, she got quite excited, and for a few exquisite moments I basked in the reflected glory of James Hoban. Ann mentioned that some days earlier a group of English officials were given the same tour as ourselves and were told that in 1814 the White House was damaged by fire. I wondered if their guide did this with tongue in cheek because the arsonists were none other than British troops!

Humphrey O’Sullivan’s diary is unique insofar as it is a sustained account of the lives of ordinary people in a small provincial town during the years 1827-35; it was also written in Irish, widely spoken in the West Kilkenny area at the time. Kerry people proudly point out that O’Sullivan was born near Killarney in 1780. True. But Humphrey spent practically all his life in Callan and is an adopted Callan man, so to all Kerry people we say: ‘Hands off!’

Fr Tom O’Shea’s importance is emphasised in Callan County Kilkenny: A Short Guide to its History, Monuments and People (Callan Heritage Society). In this volume, Joseph Kennedy writes:

The ‘Callan Tenant Protection Society’ which was founded in the Town Hall on the 14th of October 1849, was to evolve into one of the most important movements in Irish history, the ‘Irish Tenant League’. This organisation was the forerunner of the famous Land League of the 1880s, which finally ended ‘Landlordism’ in Ireland. It was founded by the ‘Callan Curates’ Father Matt O’Keefe from Higginstown, Clara, and Father Tom O’Shea from Cappahayden, near Callan.’

Callan’s beloved
Poet John Locke (1847-89) is undoubtedly the town’s darling, though his achievements would hardly match those of some of the foregoing. That the Callan hurling team is named the John Lockes and their local pitch John Locke Park are precise indicators of his popularity. In Kilkenny, only achieving eternal salvation is – possibly – more important than winning the All Ireland Hurling Final. So what was the secret of the adulation for Locke? A variety of factors, I would suggest. As a scholar at the Callan National School, grandly known as the Academy, he was regarded as the most stylish hurler that had been seen there for a long time. More seriously, again with the proviso that there can be anything more serious than the national game, the sweet nostalgia of his poetry spoke to the hearts of people. How many children, not only from Callan but from Ireland and elsewhere, rejoiced in and committed to memory his anthem for the returning exile in ‘Dawn on the Irish Coast’:

T’anam chun Dia! but there it is –
The dawn on the hills of Ireland!
God’s angels lifting the night’s black veil
From the fair, sweet face of my sireland! 
O Ireland! isn’t it grand you look –
Like a bride in her rich adornin’!
With all the pent-up love of my heart
I bid you the top of the mornin’!

John Locke had a special love for the King’s River, the stream that gently wends its way through Callan. It’s a love that I share with him. As a boy I had a romance with that river. Spent hours and hours on its banks, watching the long-haired weeds swaying gently in the murmuring waters, imagining a mysterious world below the undulating weeds and darting silver trout. In that place I dreamed dreams and had what a bard evocatively called ‘my long, long thoughts’. So my own favourite poem of Locke is ‘The Calm Avonree’ (another anglicised form of the Gaelic Abhainn Rí, King’s River):

Ah me! I could fly, like a bird o’er the ocean,
To the home of my heart, to the land of my love,
I’d be up on the wings, with an exile’s devotion;
And dare every danger the dark seas above;
Again would I roam, through the green shady bowers,
Where the boys used to drill e’er I first crossed the sea,
And I’d weave for my Kathleen a garland of flowers,
On the green mossy banks of the calm Avonree.

In this verse we also have the key to John Locke’s destiny. Because of his involvement in the Fenian movement, he found himself in Kilkenny gaol at the tender age of twenty. On being released, he was continually harassed and eventually went into reluctant exile, first of all to Manchester and then to New York in 1867. There he settled down as a journalist in the Irish milieu and married Mary Cooney, a native of Kilkenny City. His marriage was happy but, sadly, short. He died in 1889 at the age of forty-one.

The elements that contributed to John Locke’s iconic status, therefore, were: his being a superb hurler, a poet of the heart, a patriot who suffered for his country (whereas we Irish tend to trim tall poppies, we are genuinely full of compassion for the victim of persecution or whatever), and he died young. That he possessed fair curly hair and a captivating smile must have endeared him to people as well, especially to the ladies. My grandmother Maggie O’Reilly, in her time a striking beauty, was the first to tell me about John Locke. She would have been born just after he left Callan, yet his memory remained vivid in the town. She also mentioned a sister of his, Ellen Locke, whom she seemed to have known fairly well. Ellen lived at the top of Bridge Street where the post office was at the time.

Above all, John Locke was a good person and devout Christian. But maybe we should leave the last word on the man to his wife Mary, herself no mean poet:

God gave me all I asked in life,
Companion equal in the strife,
In all my thoughts to share;
A husband, high-souled, noble-browed,
Of whom a princess might be proud,
A man of talents rare.

Scholar of substance
Of the outstanding Callan people mentioned so far, the only ones I saw in the flesh were artist Tony O’Malley and dramatist Thomas Kilroy. Tony O’Malley I saw, yet never had the privilege of speaking to, a fact I regret. His brother Mattie and sister Rita – lovely people – I knew well through frequent visits to their quaint little sweet shop in lower Bridge Street. Mattie would sometimes meet you with a few accurately, but gently, delivered punches to the jaw and rib cage (he was quite a boxer).

I was actually in the same school as Thomas Kilroy for about two years, but have no clear memories of him there. I can never remember speaking to him either. I do, however, have one clear vignette of Tommy, as he was called. He was going home from school and it was his school bag that first caught my attention. It was unusually laden with books. I then paid attention to the flaming red-haired bearer. The glasses had slid down his nose in professorial fashion and he pushed them back up. If I had known the word nerd at the time, it would have fitted perfectly. I vaguely recall a hurley stick as well, but that would only have been for political correctness. Everyone in Kilkenny was expected to carry a hurley — you’d never know when you might be called up! Even at that young age my deep impression was that here was a serious intellectual. From his plays I have verified that my original diagnosis was correct. One of my most pleasing dramatic experiences was attending his Irish adaptation of Chekov’s Seagull in London’s West End, featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp. In it there was this character who kept on repeating some telling remark he had made ad nauseam, and I really had to laugh, because I’d so often met ‘characters’ around Callan who had a habit of doing just that.

I also enjoyed his prize winning novel The Big Chapel and often got into an argument with a Callan person about it. Time and again, when the historicity of some detail would be questioned, I found myself protesting: ‘Hey, the novel is historical, not history. It’s fiction!’

One other thing I found I had in common with Thomas Kilroy was a deep admiration for the American author Flannery O’Connor. As a writer I found her so different, quite unique. In the posthumous publication of her letters in the Habit of Being, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Thomas paid her a visit at her home in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she struggled to write – while slowly losing her battle to lupus disease. She died at thirty-nine.

Callan and the church and world
Mention of Brother Rice, Fr Tom O’Shea and an exemplary Christian layman like John Locke reminds us of Callan’s relationship with, and outstanding contribution to, the church. I later saw their likes in Latin America of the 1970s. Archbishop Romero, who gave his life in the cause of justice, would be an example. However, it wasn’t only Callan figures such as Rice, O’Shea and Locke, who served their church and world well. Countless missionaries (priests, religious and lay) and ordinary emigrants of deep faith from the town did the same. I would like to pay tribute to them all here. I am convinced that, when we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’, we will find that many of the greatest saints in heaven will have passed their lives on earth in relative obscurity. Their names may not be written in the annals of history, but they will loom largely where it matters most —in the Book of Life.

Nor were the lives of Callan people, historically, without suffering. They were often ravaged by oppression, poverty, famine and disease. If the walls of the Workhouse could talk, what stories they would have to tell. The Great Hunger of the 1840s was particularly traumatic. It burned into the psyche of people. My grand
mother, Maggie O’Reilly, served in the Workhouse Hospital as a young woman. Having been born in 1870, she would have known, and listened to, the stories of people who were scarred by the Famine. She told me how victims were found dead with their mouths still stained by the grass they had been eating to assuage their raging hunger. She talked also of overladen carts taking people for sad burial in the graveyard at Cherryfield. We Callan people must be eternally grateful to Afri for erecting a fit monument in Cherryfield to all those nameless people who were, after all, our forebears. If I might add a personal note, I am proud that the founder of Afri, Fr Seán McFerran, was like myself a Salesian of Don Bosco, and that I had the honour of serving for a time on the Afri executive.

And spare a special thought for the trials of our emigrants who, down the years, were forced to leave their homeland with heavy hearts, often with no prospect of ever returning. The haunting song ‘She lived beside the Anner’ captures the plight of them all for me in a couple of heart-rending lines:

O brave brave Irish girls, we well may call you brave,
For the least of all your perils is the stormy ocean wave …
(Charles Joseph Kickham)

The people of Callan also suffered greatly through divisions resulting from the parish Schism (1869-81). The main protagonists in the strife were Fr Robert O’Keefe, parish priest of the town and the Bishop of Ossory, Dr Edward Walsh. The sad episode, which resonated in the halls of the Vatican and chambers of the British Parliament, trailed bitter consequences for decades and inspired two outstanding novels (The Greatest of These, by Francis McManus and, as already noted, The Big Chapel, by Thomas Kilroy). Patrick Hogan, now deceased and a close friend of mine since we were altar boys in the Friary together in the 1940s, produced a fine historical study of the Schism entitled ‘The Fr Robert O’Keefe Controversy 1869-81’ (Kilkenny History and Society, 1990). One intriguing aspect of the whole affair was the passion with which the populace approached matters religious; such passion may now seem strange to us in times that are more secular and apathetic.

To underline the devotion with which parishioners lined up on one or other side of the controversy in the Schism, an experience of my maternal grandfather, James O’Reilly, is illuminating. I distinctly remember him telling me in hushed tones of having gone, as an eleven-year-old, to the funeral of Fr O’Keefe. The rain on that day seems to have been on a scale that would have surprised even Noah. James, however, braved the elements and went to the burial in bare feet. Whether this was because of poverty or the appalling weather, I do not know. Going barefoot may in the conditions prevailing have proved the more practical option, yet I somehow got the impression that the fact was given as evidence of the awesome tumult in the heavens at the passing of Fr O’Keefe.

In conclusion, I believe the foregoing has helped us to realise that the world is the little town and the little town the world. We see the local dramas of Callan (religious, social, political, artistic, cultural, economic and so forth) played out on all continents. We continually respond practically to re-runs of our travails of famine, disease, exile and religious strife coming from all parts of the planet. We have seen too our alertness to world issues through the Irish abroad. Given these realities, it is entirely appropriate that I was requested to give the address that follows on ‘The Church and World of the Future’. Its fundamental theme is community. Putting closure to any divisions we may have had in the past and ridding our selves of the petty snobbery that has so often 
bred personal and public tragedy in our town and country, may it help us face the future with a united front. If we recall the perceptive observation of Cavafy, this heartfelt appeal is also relevant to those of our people who now dwell far from the calm Avonree. These are his poignant words: ‘In those few fields or streets of your childhood, no matter where you roam, you will live – and so also will you die.’ In a sense, we never leave Callan.



1. Kennedy, Joseph, Callan County Kilkenny: A Short Guide to its History, Monuments and People, Callan: Callan Heritage Society, 2000, p 21.

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