Meeting God in Knockfierna: Monk reveals triple meaning of ‘Limerick’
AFTER penning 14 books since the turn of the century, the former Abbot of Glenstal, Fr Mark Patrick Hederman has oft been asked, “Why don’t you write something we can read?”
The Benedictine monk’s literary retort is Crimson and Gold: Life as a Limerick.
“Most people find them boring if not incomprehensible,” he candidly admits but “I hope this book is hilarious, at least in parts”.
“Nor do you have to be from Limerick to connect with this particular slice of humanity; anyone who has lived on this planet will be able to identify with the bewilderment of this one child finding his way through the second half of the twentieth century,” he continued.
Is this book as close to the autobiography of Mark Patrick Hederman as there will be?
“Although I am the narrator of this story, this is meant to be a portrait of County Limerick rather than a history of myself. County Limerick, as I remember it growing up, was one of the quaintest, craziest, most colourful, most outlandish sitcoms anyone could have been born into.
“I wanted to describe this as accurately as possible, doing justice to the hilarity of it, the exotic and endearing texture of it, the whole anachronistic misplacement of it, and the cast of characters who made it so exotic and extravagant. It was like growing up in some forgotten tribe cut out of the pages of a history book, or living as throwbacks from a previous chronological time-warp.”
Fr Hederman’s mother was American who came from Boston to study at Trinity College for a degree in Arts. Invited for a weekend to a farm in County Limerick, his father fell in love with her as she was getting out of the car.
“He knew that she was only staying the weekend, so he plucked up his courage and asked her to marry him. That is how and why I came to be born in Limerick on June 18, 1944.”
The future headmaster of Glenstal Abbey and abbot grew up in Ballyneale House – a seven bedroom mansion – in Ballingarry. Limerick is in the title of the book but what does Limerick mean to Fr Hederman?
“I don’t suppose anyone’s Limerick is the same. Mine is the most unusual collection of memories, experiences, personalities and realities, that I don’t imagine correspond with anyone else’s. We, each of us, create our own world.
“None of us is responsible for the location or the circumstances in which we land on this planet without our permission; although many of us spend the rest of our lives coming to terms with this happenstance. Some are dealt a royal flush; others draw a very short straw.
“I happened to arrive in County Limerick in 1944. Unlike Frank McCourt who came back to Limerick from America ten years before that in 1934, my Limerick was something of a paradise, a privileged place; his was the opposite, as he describes in Angela’s Ashes. Both of us have one thing in common, that we can tell the story with a sense of humour.”
Ireland was the most Catholic country in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century yet, very confusingly, for a child living on a stud farm in County Limerick was that it was, for the most part, “a Protestant enclave within a Catholic quantum”.
“Life with ‘The Limericks,’ for most of my father’s friends, meant foxhunting. The people in charge were Protestant. They had created for themselves a world of pageantry and excitement which gave meaning to their lives and filled their days. Perhaps they were escaping from a post-war Labour government in Britain and living in ways which would have been impossible under similar circumstances in the England of that time.
“They were a sublime assortment of oddity and eccentricity who formed an elite but not a clique. They invited any who lived around them, with the same interests, to join in the fray as spectators or as participants. If you owned or could borrow a horse or a pony, you were one of the ‘Limericks.’ Horses were the medium and horses the common denominator. And the assembly of riders and followers was as bizarre as Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.”
Fr Hederman tells the story of a man paralysed on one side of his whole body who had to be hoisted onto his horse each morning of the hunt. Sometimes the hoister misfired and he would career over the saddle and land on the other side. Undaunted, once he got in the saddle he would stay there until evening. In his will he left instructions that his body was to be fed to the hounds so that he might enjoy one more day’s hunting in the belly of a hound.
Similarly, an elderly blind lady could not be stopped from hunting. Riders in front would shout, ‘Duck to your left’ when there was an overhanging branch above the bank she was about to jump. Fr Hederman also addresses the rather controversial subject of the paternity of Eamon de Valera.
As he describes it in his book, Limerick has a triple meaning.
“As well as the ‘Limericks’ of foxhounds and the hunt, there is the city which is over a thousand years old, one of the oldest in Ireland going back to the Vikings of 922; it has a wealth of history and folklore.
“But ‘a Limerick’ can also mean poetry and especially a certain kind of witty and humorous poetry. Using the book by Matthew Potter, The Curious Story of the Limerick, which came out in 2017, I develop this theme of poetry as the language of memory, and the best way to convey the atmosphere of what John McGahern called ‘the weather of the times.’ It is through stories and poetry that we best convey the history we have lived. Facts and figures are, of course, vitally important, but they can’t convey the smell of day-to-day existence.”
But at the heart of Crimson and Gold: Life as a Limerick is a pact a young Mark Patrick made with God in a fairy fort at Knockfierna.
“It was in that place that I became aware of God as a reality in my life, as a person genuinely hoping for a relationship with me as a young boy. I have spent 65 years, more or less, trying to square this epiphany with the official teaching of the Catholic Church into which I was also born and baptised. Much of what I write is based on that search.
“This book is certainly in defence of that person I met on the mountainside. Whatever has happened to religion, to the Church, to ‘the faith’ of Ireland, this book makes a plea to not abandon our deep connection with our God who can be, and is, revealed to us in every corner of our country and at every moment of our lives. Is giorra cabhair Dé ná an doras.
“For me it was on Knockfierna, which became my ‘hill of truth,’ but there are so many other places where truth can be disclosed. I am sure that everyone has their own Mount Tabor or can identify their own particular burning bush.”
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