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Reflections on a life: Ó Mhuigheó go Valparaíso

30 November, 1999

Teresita Durkan’s “Reflections on a Life” range over the seven decades of a rich spirituality from a free-ranging childhood on the Atlantic coast of Mayo, through three decades as a Sister of Mercy and re-location to Valparaiso in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

pp. 142.  Veritas Publications.  To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.


Getting to the City of the Ship
The most dramatic and far-reaching change?
Under the Holy Mountain
This is no outer dark
De threabh mara me?
Born into the Europe of the dictators
Getting started
Playstations: 1930’s style
Meeting my ancestors 1
Meeting my ancestors 2
Chartless but on course
No epic life
Valparaiso neighbours
My brother’s keeper?
Valparaiso cats
From the sea
What it is to grow up
Gold at the end of a rainbow
It can take an earthquake
On the shore fish toss…
Through one window
Scáth na Cruaiche
The aunts who had to emigrate
Mixed motives
An old love song
Getting around
Humble crafts
One bright morning
A valley of paradise
When you are tired or terrified
Falling in love with a tree
Above the Andes a universe of stars
Pensioned early
The scent of eucalyptus
To be another’s dream
To the ends of the earth
When Drake was winning seas for England
A South Pacific storm
With the poor of the earth
Ceolta tíre
Strange echoes
Crass conjunctions
Nothing is finally true which compels us to exclude
A ringed plover’s nest
In a summer meadow
By the Bunowen River
To be and to be just
A población in Santiago
War is a vast dark jungle
On Robinson Crusoe’s island
Mo thrua amaireach
Blas sméara dubh’
Not what we give but what we share…
A raw truth
Old ways passing
On the Pacific coast
‘Where is your Godi
Saving your soul
Safe in a dangerous world
Reluctant choristers
O Lord, she was Thin
Peter the postman
An intelligent fish
A famine field
A reluctant extra-curricular learner
Another kind of learning
A thoughtful neighbour
A hard calling
Goodbye to freedom
A shadow of Anglo-Ireland
A Gaelic schooling
Things past
A place called Carysfort
What a piece of work
The labouring children
But can we really change things?
The litmus test
Don’t count on a clear view
Puzzling about providence
And that busy office?
In North County Dublin
Images of spring in Carysfort
The limits of my language
Dreams of a wordless eloquence
Another Ireland
Variations on an old theme
Something you haven’t to deserve
From the depths
About praying



Teresita Durkan was a Sister of Mercy and president of Carysfort College from 1974 to 1988 when it closed.  The memories and reflections she evokes in this book extend from a free-ranging rural childhood on the Atlantic coast of Mayo through thirty years as a teacher and to her mid-life relocation to Valparaíso on the coast of Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s.

The book challenges us to be observant in our own lives of the kind of life we are helping to shape both in ourselves and around us.  She calls us to appreciate, in the words of poet Pablo Neruda  “the little things that make life great”.

Royalties from the sale of the book go to the care and education of poor children in Chile, Bolivia and Uganda.

She has a lovely quote from Pablo Neruda:

Maybe we still have time
to be
and to be just.



Reflection is a word with many meanings. For better or worse the reflection that’s likely to give most of us pause, from time to time, is our own image in the mirror – which may be about as close as some of us get to being reflective on a daily basis. This is a pity because it can be rewarding as well as useful to reflect a little on our lives and experiences.

The short autobiographical pieces in this book are an effort to hold a kind of rear-view mirror up to a life, partly so that memories and experiences from the past won’t vanish forever into an unreflective waste, but also for the enjoyment, understanding, memories and occasional, worthwhile lessons that the past can still give us. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda talks about ‘the little things that make life great.’  That is, in the main, the chosen territory of these reflections, most of which are brief and written in short-line prose to make them feel even briefer.

Playa Ancha, Valparaiso
June 2005

*     *     *

A ship from Valparaíso came,
And in the bay her sails were furled.
She brought the wonder of her name,
And tidings from a sunnier world.

‘O you must travel far, if you
Would sail away from gloom and wet,
And see beneath the Andes blue,
Our white umbrageous city set’. . .

Oliver Saint John Gogarty ‘The Ship’

Tháinig long ó Valparaíso.
Scaoileadh téad a seol sa chuan.
Chuir a h-ainm dom i gcuimhne
Ríocht na gréine, tír na mbua.

‘Gluais,’ ar sí ‘ar thuras fada
liom ó scamall is ó cheo.
Tá faoi shleasaibh ghorm Andes
Cathair scáthmhar, glée mar sheod’…

An t-Athair Pádraig de Brún (A Gaelic translation of Gogarty’s ‘The Ship’)

 *       *       *

Getting to the City of the Ship
The word Valparaíso became familiar to many of us who were schoolchildren in Ireland around the middle of the twentieth century, from a favourite poem in our Irish schoolbooks. This was a Gaelic translation by An tAthair Pádraig de Brún, of ‘The Ship’ by Oliver Saint John Gogarty, the Dublin man of letters who was a fellowlodger with James Joyce in Sandycove Tower.

The Gaelic version of the poem turned out to be far more evocative than its English original, possibly because it appealed more directly to the dream of voyaging to faraway places that is latent in the heart of every Celt. So, for many Irish people of that generation, the word Valparaíso came to stand for the goal of an improbable dream-journey.

But most of us in those straitened times had to settle for less exotic destinations. From Louisburgh in west Mayo, I went to Dublin to train as a teacher in Carysfort College where, afterwards, I joined the Sisters of Mercy and was to work for nearly twenty years.

In the 1980s Carysfort was closed as a teacher-training college and I found myself with the freedom and impetus to fulfil an old dream – not of voyaging to Valparaíso, but of going to work in a poor country of the Third World. In 1989 I left Ireland and Mercy community life in Dublin to live and work in South America. My dream was to contribute something to the struggle against poverty on that continent, especially through the education of disadvantaged children.

Choosing Chile was a stroke of good luck, a country so geographically peculiar it barely fits between the Andes and the Pacific, but stretches all the way from the burning Atacama desert to the frozen reaches of the Antarctic. After some uncertain months in Santiago, a chance opening to do voluntary work in Valparaiso brought me to this old seaport where I found friends and made my home.

Although the word Valparaíso means ‘a valley of paradise’, nearly half the people of this city are poor, many of them desperately so. But it is a poverty largely of human making. Nature itself is rugged and bountiful here. The coast of central Chile enjoys a mild climate, striking scenery, and proximity to a fertile hinterland which produces fruit, wine and vegetables in abundance while the local fisheries provide a rich variety of sea-foods.

The people are lively and friendly too, and there is still in Valparaiso an old-fashioned sense of community, inclusive enough for even a solitary Irishwoman to find a niche, fit into a family circle, and feel at home. So, did the poem about the ship finally bring me to the City of the Ship? Looking back, I don’t really suppose so. This journey began with an appeal by Pope John XXIII which first turned my thoughts to South America and the plight of its oppressed peoples in the early 1960s.

After that, I owe more than I can say or ever repay to the Columban missionaries, men and women, who first welcomed me to Chile for a sabbatical experience in 1984-85, and to the South American Province of the Cross and Passion Sisters who helped me to find a more permanent footing here in 1989. Ongoing is my debt of love and gratitude to Rebecca Perez Roldan and her family for the warmth and support of a Chilean home.

So, when all is said and done, only God knows by what unlikely routes we each find a way to our own City of the Ship.


*            *            *

The most dramatic and far-reaching change?

According to Eric Hobsbawm, one of the great historians of our time

the most dramatic and far~reaching change of the second half of the twentieth century, and the one that cuts us off forever from the past, is the death of the peasantry. For since the Neolithic era most human beings had lived off the land and its livestock or harvested the sea as fishers… When the land empties, the cities fill up. The world of the second half of the twentieth century became urbanised as never before.

It was only in the course of compiling these brief autobiographical notes that I began to realise how intimately my own life and that of my family has reflected this deep historical change which Hobsbawm traces across the surface of the globe.

A west of Ireland peasant watching the sun set over the rim of the South Pacific and humming a verse of a Gaelic song composed beside the Atlantic, is certainly not among the first of her kind. It seems a sad thought, though, that she may well be among the last. 

Under the Holy Mountain

I was born in Bunowen
between Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic.
A sandy river-mouth was my first shore.
The searching beam of old Clare Island lighthouse
circled Clew Bay and lit up our back door.
The sound of ocean-surf was my first suantraí,
a long, arrhythmic, lulling, nightly snore.
Faint blue on a rugged horizon,
the straggling mountain-stacks lay back,
steep-banked, from frothing waters.
Each long slow-swelling breaker
seemed to gather and spill a bit of our past.
I was lucky to make it, the ninth of nine,
to be welcomed to life in a place and time
where, as yet, demographics and birth control
hadn’t frowned on nine as overload.
Decades later, in a poem by Richard Wilbur,
I’d find a phrase that would evoke strongly for me
the feeling of that rural west of Ireland community
into which I was born in 1937
A small province haunted by the good.
Wilbur applies that epithet to the earth itself
in a poem whose two final stanzas
sum up, very beautifully, the sense of life
that I was fortunate enough to inherit
in my west Mayo village nearly seven decades ago.

This is no outer dark

This is no outer dark
But a small province haunted by the good,
Where something may be understood
And where, within the sun’s coronal arc,

We keep our proper range,
Aspiring, with this lesser globe of sight,
To gather tokens of the light
Not in the bullion, but in the loose change.

Richard Wilbur ‘Icarium Mare’

As children we were usually very aware of the existence and whereabouts of the loose change in our homes. Some of us kept a hopeful eye out for what might emerge from our mother’s purse or our father’s pocket. Afterwards, the financial preoccupations of adult life made that kind of small change recede in importance until it came to seem, at times, almost a bit of a bother.

But isn’t it true that not all the bullion in Fort Worth could ever bring us as much delight as one of those small hand-warmed coins that we eyed with such longing and spent with so much satisfaction – usually in the nearest sweet-shop – when we were young children?

The loose change of life, the little day-to-day gifts and graces of existence are all around, still, to be enjoyed and appreciated. They can bring us surprise, delight, unexpected chimes and echoes, the pleasures of recognition and memory, and even, on occasion, deep joy, gratitude and wonder. But, like the drops that make up the ocean or the loose change in our pockets, they tend to pass us by unnoticed, much of the time.

‘Unless you become as little children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ A practicable and enriching philosophy of life is encapsulated in that slightly-enigmatic gospel saying, a way of seeing and appreciating the world around us, which is close to Richard Wilbur’s sense of things. And Wordsworth – using the verb ‘watch’ in an old sense – to be alert, wakeful, on the qui vive like a sentry puts the same idea even more directly:

Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

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