I just arrived home after a mighty night in Cassidy’s classic country pub on the high brow of the Burren at Carron in time for the departure for London of our Father Willie in his green velvet bag with the brown drawstring.
Father Willie is a century old now but, in fairness, he is always on the road or in the air. He just came back from Belgium last week after nearly three months there doing great work as always, and so there was hardly any respite at all before it is off to London and no knowing when he will be back.
We do miss him when he is gone. We miss him a lot, but sure we have got kinda used to the lifestyle by now and he always returns.
Some of you will be mystified by now, so I had better explain that the Father Willie I speak of is not a mortal human being, but a little brass crucifix once owned and used on the cruel battlefields of the Great War of 1914-1918 by the Dalkey-born Jesuit hero chaplain Father William Doyle, S.J., M.C.
I hear that he will probably soon be beatified by our new Pope, and that is the last step on the road to a saintly status which all sources say is richly deserved for his heroism in no man’s land between the dreadful man-killing trenches of the most bloody war of all time.
The same sources often claim that he should have been awarded a Victoria Cross instead of the somewhat lesser Military Cross, and his biographer explained this away by saying he would indeed have won a VCR were it not for the fact that he was not alone an Irishman and a priest, but also a Jesuit, and this represented an insuperable barrier back then.
After many narrow escapes whilst serving as beloved chaplain to the Irish Fusiliers and later the Dublin Fusiliers, he was eventually killed on the front in 1917.
My oblique connection arises from the friendship between my late mother Mary and a niece of Father Doyle when they were trainee teachers in Belfast about 10 years later. The niece had several crosses which Father Willie had used on the battlefields, and she presented one of them to my mother to mark a birthday.
It became one of Mary’s dearest possessions and, early on, she discovered that, in some mysterious way, the little crucifix brought at least serenity and peace to those whom she loaned it to during trying periods of their lives.
Remarkably, though there will never be hard proof of this I suppose, there were also many instances where even very severe illnesses and ailments were cured when the patient slept with the crucifix under their pillow for a time.
I am not a religious man at all. I am extremely skeptical and always have been about claims of miraculous cures and recoveries attributed to relics such as patches of cloth allegedly cut from the clothing of this or that saint or, dramatically in Ireland for example, the healings attributed to touching a glove once worn by the stigmatist Padre Pio.
But I have to admit to being impressed by some of the stories gently told to us all her life by our mother every time the little velvet bag returned home again from journeys all over both Europe and the U.S. and, I recall, even to Africa. As a young reporter I checked some of the early stories out as best I could, and it was tantalizing exercise for a number of reasons.
One Cavan man, for example, got up from his apparent deathbed a month after Father Willie arrived at his home. He made a complete recovery. A miracle!
But I discovered that he had been given the then new drug cortisone during the same period, and that somehow diminished the miracle for me. Life is like that, is it not?
After Mary went to heaven my late sister Maura took over the guardianship of the crucifix. When she passed away peacefully some years ago (with the little bag under her pillow) it fell to me as the next oldest member of the family to take over the duty.
And, frankly and honestly, despite my initial skepticism, I have been amazed at the experience. I will not go into detail but, even by the most stringent standards, there is the possibility of one nearly miraculous recovery from cancer since I became the keeper and, above all, even when there was no recovery for the ill person, Father Willie in his velvet bag brought a touching level of serenity and acceptance and peace to both the patient and the involved family circle.
And I am not talking here of merely superstitious folk being impressed. It is remarkable.
At the very least the little cross has become my own talisman in a way. I miss it when it is gone away on yet another errand of mercy, but we are also delighted to be the minders and keepers of a small fragment from the battlefields of hell a century ago which now emanates such a heavenly kind of peace.
During his time in London Father Willie will bring whatever it is he brings to the family of a very seriously ill 2-year old son of an Irish mother residing there. It could be a year or even more before the little green bag comes back to Clare again.
That does not matter at all because we in this family know by now that it always returns no matter how long the journey.