OUR LADY OF AUTUMN
Studies of law in Ireland, and now EU policy at the College of Europe keep Paul Whelan’s days occupied, but it is in the late hours of the evening that he can be found tapping away at short stories. In his story Our Lady of Autumns, a priest confronts the death of his church, his faith, and how all things end.
I gave my heart to the clergy. It was the only sentimental thing I could think of, aged twenty. That or the army. Fifty years have now been lost in time. I sometimes catch myself trying to fish them out, as if the past were some well full of dark water, with flickering images at the bottom. At the worst of times I’ll feel myself lose balance and tip head first down the well and panic seizes me; but I always manage to catch my balance before it’s too late.
St. Jude’s Church in Rathglen was founded in 1850, after the famine. For the locals to build a shrine to a god that took a leave of absence from the island for the good part of a decade was quite a head scratcher, even for me. But they were grateful to have survived. Then there was the matter of resourcing such a project with a broken people and a hollowed-out country. There used to be an old stone Celtic fort in the area somewhere in the mists of time, “Rath” being old, old Irish for fort, but no trace of it can be found, so the historians have concluded the locals pillaged the fort to erect this church. Pagan gods sacrificed for a Christian one. The pagan deities hadn’t exactly been of much use either during the famine, but maybe they were feeling somewhat neglected and spiteful by then anyway.
Yet the pagan gods would get the last word, it seemed. The church would be slowly reclaimed by the goddess of vines and creepers and overgrown grass and cracked foundations. Or at least until the town decided what to do with the place. Some mischievous people from Dublin had expressed interest in turning it into a gay bar, which left me somewhere between a wince and a laugh. This morning the church had seen its last mass, accompanied by a handful of locals, and a magpie who had made its home in the rafters in the last two weeks and whom I didn’t have the heart to evict. You wouldn’t bother to kick out a polite squatter and her chicks when you’re taking leave off the crumbling place yourself.
As I sit in one of the pews I can see her now, just back with a few more twigs to knit into her nest. Little does she know the history vested in this day in this church, nor would she care if I bothered to lay it all out for her as she busies herself. For St. Jude’s was the last church to be closed on the island of Ireland, the straggler hurrying to catch up with the rest. Today was the last tired breath of the slow death of the Catholic Church.
I see the black well, it grows larger. A pupil enlarging.
A man came to me for confession when I moved to the parish. I had wondered at the time what drew him to the church and to me to seek help.
“Forgive me father for I have sinned.”
“Go on…” I sighed, internally, “my child.”
“I have stolen and lied and done awful things father, I have”
“Drugs father. Drugs.”
“Are you an addict?”
“I suppose I would be yeah father.”
“Do you intend to stop?”
“I wish I could sih here wi’h you now father and tell you yes. But that would be an awful lie. If I say I’ll stop today I’ll be back at it again this time tomorrow once the need sets in”
“Then what’s the point of confessing?”
“Don’t really have anyone else to be talking about it wih’ father to be honest with ya.”
So I gave him a job. Drug addict and thief Diarmuid O’Reilly worked three days a week as assistant caretaker of the church grounds. And he stole from me and the church many a time.
“There’s about fifty missing from my wallet there Diarmuid.”
“Wouldn’t know anything about that father.”
“I’d say you don’t.”
“Aye I don’t”
“That’ll be your wages then so Diarmuid for the five hours today.”
I knew he wouldn’t take anything big, because then he’d have gone too far, and he wouldn’t be able to come to the church where he could have tea with me and Ms Gale, who looked after my household at the time, and regale us with his long-winded stories that were almost certainly all made up. Diarmuid’s true pestilence was loneliness, not heroin. The adventures he got up to as a child that usually involved stealing a car and impressing the girls “and oh jaysus once they saw what I could do with a car they’d be mad impressed father I’ll tell ya.” He slurped his tea. “There’s not much I’m bright at but anything with four wheels I’m mad skilled at.”
I felt a connection to Diarmuid, and I knew he felt one with me. It was why he had come to me. There was a mutual melancholy in us.
One summers evening, I was wandering the church grounds in prayer, with the sound of Diarmuid clipping hedges in the background. The repeated “Our Father”, the warm evening, lulled me into a strange state. In my mind’s eye I was drawing from the well, fishing out the coins of light, turning them over, inspecting them: little glimpses into another life that could have been, that exists on the other side of that well. An old girlfriend, an old dream. The waters were simultaneously cold and warm as I climbed in, they were numbing, the relief of not having to resist them anymore. I let out a shuddering sigh. Then I felt a rough hand on my shoulder and a light slap across my face, and suddenly I’m was out of the well, dry again.
I was of my own thoughts, back in the world, with a wood pigeon cooing in the late summer evening. Diarmuid was standing in front of me, staring at me in horror and realisation.
“I’ve seen men die in dark alleyway wi’h faces like tha’ Father,” he said.
I understood Diarmuid then more than I’d ever understood any creature. The clergy or the army wouldn’t take him, but I would find something. He mightn’t have known anything about cars, but he could learn.
The next day, I wandered up to the local mechanic, Seamus Dwyer, one autumn evening and sat him down.
“So you want me to take on the local drunk and god knows what else who you freely admit has stolen from you father?”
“Yes, that’s the proposition I’m making.”
“But why in hell would I father?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do Seamus. He’s a good man, he just needs company and a bit of a purpose. And as I said, whatever he steals won’t be too much, he only takes little things for the next fix, he’s not a long-term planner. And whatever he takes just dock from his wages. I’ll even chip in if he takes a little more than expected.”
Diarmuid worked there for four months. I was right, he knew next to nothing about cars. But he showed up on time and I made sure he wasn’t too much of an expense. Seamus thought I was mad at first, but even he warmed to Diarmuid’s chatty ways. Diarmuid ate Christmas dinner with Seamus and his wife, a celebration of four months clean. The next day, St. Stephen’s Day, he disappeared.
He’s either out there somewhere, moving on from a town that only reminds him of despair and addiction and loneliness, or he’s hunkered in some squalid alley injecting himself between his toes again. Or, he’s dead in some ditch from a Christmas “treat”. He’s Schrodinger’s Diarmuid. Maybe one day I’ll walk by him on Grafton Street in Dublin and we’ll smile to each other. But I won’t stop and bother him, I won’t remind him of what he was, and allow him to be what he has fought to become.
I see the lights dancing at the bottom of the well. I gave my heart to Our Lady, it was the only sentimental thing I could think of. That or the army. I had reached and grasped at what turned out to be an incensed mirage, which has dissipated to be replaced with creeping vines and magpies. I was at the bottom of the black well now. There were Celtic stone forts down here, the bones of forgotten soldiers, and churches of strange religions. I wouldn’t add my bones to this sad collection. Diarmuid may be relapsed or dead by now, I knew. At the least, I gave him a few weeks of normalcy. I stood up, and nodded goodbye to the magpie.