Nuala McCann: "I'm already all 'Poped-out"

By the time you read this, we shall be ‘all Poped out': I'll have been to Knock for the first time and, by the end of this week, I shall be in Lourdes too. “Don't be bringing me anything, I've a houseful of those plastic Our Ladies filled with holy water,” says a friend

Holy Water Bottles on sale in Knock, Co Mayo. Picture by Niall Carson

I THINK every Irish household has at least one bottle. And, somewhere in the attic, there will be a copy of the Papal blessing presented to a couple on their marriage – people don’t hang those in their hallways too often now.

By the time you read this, I shall have been present at two papal visits to Ireland. God may be trying to tell me something. He probably needs to shout. But my father would have been proud.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II’s visit was a huge deal. So major, that we had to be there. My sister had spent her summer weeding tulip fields in Holland. She slept in a tent on a campsite where moles dug hills all night long and all day long she weeded and weeded.

Back in Dublin she and her friend may have been going on to be doctors, but in the fields outside Amsterdam they were no such thing.

"You are my cows, now weed!", the man who owned the tulip fields told them.

It scarred her for life – she hasn’t the whiff of a green finger. But she flew home from the tulip fields on the day Pope John Paul II landed and nothing would do my father but she would take a trip to the Phoenix Park en route. "This is historic,” he told her.

As a young boy scout from west Belfast he had travelled to the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and developed a life-long devotion to Count John McCormack who sang Panis Angelicus on that occasion.

Dad would put the old vinyl LP on our big radiogram and waltz me around the living room to the Count singing The Salley Gardens and Down by the Green Bushes Where She Promised to Meet Me.

His big hands were soft and his hold was sure and true and I can never listen to the Green Bushes without crying, even though I don’t ever do tears.

In 1979, I remember warbling the Pope’s song, Totus Tuus in the old parochial house – it was long before the time of parish centres. I remember the bus ride through the middle of Ireland, the boys jumping out for a quick pee in the yellow gorse bushes in the middle of nowhere and a cold night on the hard floor of a school assembly hall. Hello, rigor mortis.

Chilled to the bone, we rose before the sun and stumbled on to Galway race course, shivering in the dawn and waiting for the first glance of the papal helicopter as Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary warmed up the crowd, chatting from the big stage waiting for His Holiness to arrive.

When the Pope said "yong people of Irland I lof you" – he had a guttural Polish twang – we all went crazy and cheered. Since then, I’ve been told that I do the best impression of that Pope.

"I was there," I tell my fans.

Back then, I was 18 years old. The next week I closed the door on my childhood and my parents drove me down to Dublin to university. My adult life began.

How very long ago it seems.

Since then, there have been the clerical sex abuse scandals, the institutional abuse, the Tuam babies – so much heartache and suffering and so many bitter tears.

The fact that Eamonn Casey and Michael Clery cheering in the Pope were both fathers in more than the clerical sense pales in significance in the face of the revelations which came later.

We’ve come a long way as a society. Modern Ireland is unrecognisable and rather beautiful. But I haven’t turned my back completely on my Catholic roots.

My people were Catholics and what they showed me was love and compassion. They worked in quiet ways to help anyone who in need.

A box of groceries left at a family’s back door; a hot dinner delivered every Sunday to an elderly woman. It was all done in private.

No-one can understate the horrors visited on vulnerable children by predators in clerical collars. But they were not all like that.

I still think of the good and holy priests and nuns who gave up their lives to shape ours. They shone with kindness and love.

How much of a debt we owe them.

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