Age to Age, East to West

By Patrick Cook - Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA - 8 December 2012



In the early Eighties, I worked for an agency that resettled political refugees. We got families from Vietnam, still fleeing in fishing boats nine years after the fall of Saigon. We got Cubans, Poles, Romanians and Ethiopians. They came from despairing camps in Malaysia, old military barracks in Austria, desert centers in Sudan.  Sometimes they got out as intact families; sometimes they defected alone during a visit outside their homelands. As the joke went in Bucharest, what’s a Romanian string trio? A Romanian string quartet that just got back from the West.


In the fall of 1984, I was burned out. Social work of this kind was not for me. The truth is, it required a calm, competent, organized person, and I was none of those things. Least of all organized. My brother and I took a trip to Ireland, a good long three week trip. The exchange rate was good that year, and I certainly needed the break.

The end of October found us leaving Dublin. We had seen The Plough and Stars at the Abbey Theater, the Book of Kells at Trinity College, the Guinness brewery at St. James Gate.  We had seen Swift’s grave in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Our hotel was raising its prices for the holiday -- All Saints Day is a national holiday in Ireland, along with St. Patrick’s Day and Good Friday. We thought it was time to be heading westward.

The train moved through the countryside of central Ireland, past gondola cars of sugar-beets, through tiny villages, over the bogs. The famous green landscape was smudged by withered reddish heather on the hills. The train was full of young people going to the West for the holiday. We sat in a back-facing seat across from two young women.

They were teenagers, wearing school sweatshirts -- Sacred Heart of Jesus Academy, Wicklow -- and were off to visit Grandmother in Tralee. They chattered about their school project, which was raising funds for the Ethiopian famine. The news had finally gotten out, along with pictures of the starving. My brother and I indicated interest. The younger sister spoke to us:

“Have ye seen the pictures, then?”

“Of the Ethiopians? Yes we have. A terrible situation,” my brother said.

“The entire country is starving. Did you know it was an Irish plane full of bread that was the first to land at their airport? In…” she tried her best to remember the capital of Ethiopia.

“Addis Ababa” I said. “That’s where the airport is. Yes, I did know that." (I’d read it in The Irish Times.) "And why is that important?” I had gone into my teacher act. Something about talking to people less than half my age sends me into the pedagogical mode automatically, like a reflex.

“Well, sure didn’t we have a famine of our own here in Ireland only a century ago? When the potatoes got the blight?”

“Ah. You’ve studied your history.” I looked out the train window. It was hard to imagine that scene in 1847, when those peaceful hills had been the home of despair, the roads full of evicted tenants. My brother Tim said, “You know, our great-grandmother came to America then. In 1850.”

“Ah,” said Mairead, the elder sister, “so many of them left. They got fever on the ships and died by the thousands.”

“Well, that’s exactly what happened. Our great-grandmother lost her parents, either on the ship or in the port at Montreal, in Canada. She was adopted by a family in Michigan. The Patricks. We don’t even know what her real name was, or what part of Ireland she came from.” 

“They had lice,” volunteered Breda, the younger sister. “’Twas the lice spread the fever. Typhus.”

“Whush. Sure it’s their own family they’re talking about,” Mairead chided. As if we’d be embarrassed by our great-great grandfather’s parasites. “And do you know," she continued, "that the ships left Cork every day loaded with Irish grain? Shiploads of barley and live cattle going to England, and the Irish eating grass by the side of the road.”

“Politics” said Breda, solemnly -- as though that explained everything.

“Well. The ships leave Ethiopia full of grain, today,” I said, “and it makes no more sense now than it ever did.”

“They do? And where is it going, then?” Mairead asked.

“They take the ships through the Suez canal, up the Bosporus, and into the Black Sea to the Soviet Union. They trade food for Kalashnikovs.”

“And what’s a Kalashnikov?” Breda asked.

“It’s a kind of machine gun the Russians make,” said her sister.

“Ah, well, it’s politics again, then. I’m telling you. Better take a few of those koloshes and shoot the lot of them.”

I thought that was bloodthirsty, even for an Irish schoolgirl, but it only repeated what I had heard at home. People would help the victims of a natural disaster, but when it came to politics, they wanted nothing to do with it. This wasn’t taking my mind off work.

The girls chatted about other things, and I went back to looking out the window. More villages slipped past, more hills and the rocky valleys of Kerry. We pulled into Tralee, two months late for the Rose of Tralee festival. I didn’t think we’d missed much. Tralee has the romantic charm of the Cleveland bus station, and fewer choices of late night restaurants. It is all gray stucco and puddles. I was beginning to wish we’d stayed in Dublin.

The next morning we set off for Dingle. We took a bus over Mount Brandon, down the long hill to Dingle Harbor. Unlike Tralee, Dingle is romantic. The harbor is full of gaily painted fishing boats, which we could see from our waterfront bed and breakfast, run by the estimable Mrs. Sheehy. Mrs. Sheehy was nearly ninety and could remember the troubles of the Irish Civil War along with the rest of the area’s history. She had a tiny little pub in her establishment too, which she didn’t open very often -- “I’m gettin' old, ye see. I shpill the drink.”

Mrs. Sheehy gave us a little guidebook, full of mapped walks around the area.  The author was obviously a great lover of his homeland, and very knowledgeable. He directed us to the plaque at the waterfront which commemorated a combined Spanish-Papal military landing in the 16th century.  His maps showed Bronze Age burial grounds, medieval oratories, Renaissance-era castles, and sites featured in the 1972 movie, Ryan’s Daughter, which was shot in various locations around the peninsula. We found out that Dingle was the westernmost town in Ireland.

My brother rented a bicycle one day, anxious to see the sights. I considered the curving two lane roads far too dangerous for a bike, and preferred to walk.  I discovered the secret of Dingle. It doesn’t have any more history than anywhere else; it’s just that whatever anyone’s done there is still on the ground. It may be falling apart, like Henry the VIII’s castle, or it may be in great shape, like the Gallarus Oratory. Druid sacred artifacts exist along with monasteries; the stone igloos known as clochans are in plain sight along the highway. Nothing is built over, torn down or forgotten -- although some things are renamed, like the Druid cup stones known as Saint Brendan’s milkers. (Although I’m sure the great navigator milked his cows into a proper bucket.)

I got back to Mrs. Sheehy’s and asked her about the monks who lived in the clochans. I had seen the stunted black-faced sheep making a poor living on the grass around the structures, and how thin the soil was, half an inch deep over the solid rock. It seemed to me that neither garden nor flock could have kept a community alive. “What did they do out there, Mrs. Sheehy?”  I asked.

Mrs. Sheehy looked startled. “What did they do? They prayed!”  The perfect answer. The truth is, those monks took seriously the command to teach all nations. They established communities everywhere so that even lands at the ends of the earth would know their Savior.

That night Mrs. Sheehy opened the bar and served Guinness to my brother and me, plus two new guests: Maria Obregon, a young woman from Mexico, and a man from Belgium who was also on vacation. We drank and talked in the dark kitchen under our landlady’s portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with its red light bulb flickering beneath. Maria told us she was a social worker in Mexico City, helping homeless teenagers. We traded social-work stories about stingy politicians and ungrateful clients.

The Belgian had an Irish Times with him. I noticed that the front page had a story about Jerzy Popieluszko, the Polish priest who had disappeared on October 19. Several of our refugees had been connected to him, as altar servers at his masses in Warsaw or as co-workers in his struggle with the military government. I asked the Belgian if I could see the paper.

Father Popieluszko’s body had been dragged out of a reservoir on October 30th, horribly beaten. No one had the slightest doubt that it was the ZOMO, Poland’s secret police, who had killed him for his work in the Solidarity movement. I was saddened by the revelation of torture, especially because it would cause pain to those among the refugees who knew him. He had been a great leader for them, and now he was gone.

I told Tim, Maria, and the Belgian about Father Jerzy. I explained that he had started his Masses for the Nation in the first days of the Solidarity movement, and continued with them even after the military takeover. I told them that my refugees had admired him greatly.

Maria said, “Then they should have stayed and fought. Their champion has been killed and they have run away. It reminds me of my own people, who will not stay to build a new Mexico, but run to the North, and forget all about us.”

This, too, reminded me of the struggles we had back home. Someone was always telling me that the refugees should have stayed and fought, or, on the contrary, that Solidarity was going too far and was going to bring Soviet tanks into the streets of Warsaw. These arguments went a long way toward explaining my burnout. I protested, “No, no. Don’t they send money home? Don’t they tell their story to the world? Don’t be too harsh with them.” I offered the long view -- the struggle goes on, the sons and daughters continue what their parents started, the generations are connected.  It is as true for Poland as it is for Ireland, or Mexico, for that matter. We talked of other things.

The next day was All Saint’s Day. I had breakfast with Mrs. Sheehy, who among her other talents made great soda bread, and then I left for Mass. Actually, I had no idea when it was; I figured there’d be several that day, and I could just show up at church and be sure of hitting a Mass sometime.

I was right. I got to church about fifteen minutes before Mass started, and had time to look around and admire the windows. They had been paid for, a sign read, by immigrants who sent home money from the New World. Well, there, Maria, I thought; you see they don’t forget their homeland.

Mass was in Gaelic. I was thrilled. I had never so much as heard it spoken before, except for the usual Erin go Bragh and Céad Mile Fáilte. Here was the whole Mass in the “language that the stranger does not know.” Not that I understood a word, of course. Still, I was able to follow the familiar ritual, and enjoy the hymns. I admit my mind wandered during the sermon, which left me totally at sea.

After the sermon and the Credo came the petitions, also in Gaelic, which I could read from the booklet in my pew. The priest read the petition, whatever it was, and ended with  A Thiarna éist linn. The people responded, A Thiarna bi ceansa agus éist linn. Lord hear our prayer, probably. And then in the middle of the long recital, I heard the words Jerzy Popieluszko. That wasn’t Gaelic. We were praying for the repose of the soul of the brave priest.

I considered what it meant that we were praying in this place, once considered the end of the world.  When I saw that the priest was using Eucharistic Prayer III, I remembered the words: “From age to age, you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made.”  

It seemed to me that I sensed the prayers of the saints of Dingle -- of Brendan and a multitude of others who had lived, fought, and starved there, and of those who had scattered around the world to make new lives. I knew that Pope John Paul was praying for his countryman, that churches everywhere echoed our prayers in the many languages of our faith. In Poland, in Mexico and Vietnam, all over Europe and Asia, Africa and the Americas, the same petition went up. That dark day, there was hope, buoyed up by the solidarity of all the faithful, living and dead. And new strength for me, a very minor member of the Communion of Saints.