This issue we bring the second of the joint prize winners in the inaugural Michael Ward Prize competition.
Submitted by Robert Dunlop from Brannockstown. Enjoy!
BREATHINGS OF A BREAKING HEART
Early twentieth century Ireland was a highly predictable place. The church dominated every area of life. Citizens where defined not only by loyalty to the institutions of the State but by faithfulness to the ecclesiastical system to which they gave their allegiance. Religious language permeated all the discourses of civil society. Long before clerical scandals had poisoned the church’s life, everything seemed so highly organised and secure. Each parish had its priest, each priest had his housekeeper. They were a breed apart. Almost universally admired, occasionally maligned and often misunderstood. No one knew how much they knew or if they kept what they knew to themselves. Long before C.V’s or modern recruitment processes, their terms of appointment were wrapped in secrecy. Had they taken a vow of confidentiality? Were they bound to silence if pressed for information? There was no way of knowing.
Sociologists still haven’t delivered an adequate portrait of these influential but somewhat elusive people. Back then in Irish parishes, the priest ruled like a monarch. His word was law, few dared to question his actions. The term “housekeeper” rightly described the domestic duties assigned to the lady of the presbytery. But what was not always obvious if he ruled like a monarch she often posed as a Queen. While her duties were clear - cooking, cleaning and welcoming visitors, she also acquired a status in the parochial house which gave her access to a whole mine of information. Sometimes she overheard conversations with parishioners about all sorts of feelings, problems and attitudes.
Callers to the presbytery kept her at a distance and treated her with cautious respect. Even the Bishop often kicked for touch when dealing with the lady of the parochial house. He knew only too well that she knew more about the man he was appointed to shepherd than he did.
It was generally accepted that priests’ housekeepers kept themselves to themselves and did their duties faithfully. It was never anticipated that they would say or write anything about their innermost feelings or their emotional needs.
This story visits the inner spirit of Bridget O’Loughlin and allows her to speak for herself. Her thoughts come to the surface unfiltered, uncensored and speak of the inner emotions of this strange, intriguing and elusive species of Irish womanhood. While retaining all the external appearance of faithfulness to duty, her disclosures also reveal her human frustrations and suggest that she was like her priestly mentor and master - a woman apart. But she was also a human being longing for love and fulfilment in pursuit of her womanly instincts.
Brigid shuffled slowly over the freshly mown grass which marked the site of Father Kavanagh’s last resting place. Slightly bent, her lean body had worn well and she was often told she had kept her youth better than most. She knelt quietly by the grave and prayerfully placed a tiny bunch of roses on top of the fresh soil.
The obsequies for the well liked parish priest had all gone according to plan. The bishop’s homily was well crafted and succeeded in praising the virtues of the deceased priest without either flowery language or excessive eulogising. “Yes”, she whispered in her heart as she sat alone in the second pew “that is the man I knew and respected for nearly thirty years”. She was more than satisfied with the send off. It was nice. In her book it had the ring of truth. He was a good man. Rest in peace, Father.
Somehow it dawned on her that she belonged to a dying breed – priests’ housekeepers. Looking back there were many things she wondered about. Now that her work at the Presbytery was over, her bags were packed and she was off to her tiny apartment just above O’Halloran’s Takeaway. Memories flooded in.
There was the rare day when her revered P.P. lost his cool and roared at her when dinner was a few minutes late. What on earth got into him, she mused at the time. She was shocked that such a quiet spoken, even going kind of man was capable of raising his voice. But she took it all in her stride and later thought to herself that some pressure was pressing on him which she had no right to query.
Most of the time he was courteousness personified.
For someone so close to churchly things and pious people she was surprisingly irreligious. Although she went regularly to Mass she had many misgivings but discreetly kept them all to herself. Almost as much was expected of her as of her mentor and employer. She had read stories of clerical housekeepers who had talked out of school and even spilled the beans about the weaknesses or excesses of the clergy they served. But they came from America or England. It was different here. Ireland demanded closed lips. It was always right to say nothing. Anyhow, she was seldom asked and she felt the parishoners knew the score.
One day she was sitting alone in the kitchen waiting for the potatoes to cook. Father Michael was out on a sick call. She let her mind wander. Who is this man with whom I share a home but little or nothing of my life. Does he ever feel like falling in love? How does he cope with his times of loneliness? At this moment she recalled how the Protestant rector’s wife once left an ICA meeting early saying that her husband had had a heavy day and she wanted to be there to welcome him home. For a Catholic priest no such comforting presence.
The list of questions about Father Kavanagh got longer. Could he possibly doubt his vocation or question his faith? Does he see me as his servant who is always at his beck and call or as a real friend who works for him? Good questions – but the potatoes boiled over before she could even guess at answers. Many years later she got light on the last question.
A sentence in his will said it all. “And to Brigid O’Loughlin, my devoted housekeeper whose integrity and sensitivity I have always admired I bequeath everything I own in appreciation of her kindness, generosity and understanding of my priestly vocation and public responsibilities”.
Although dressed in mild legal jargon she felt chuffed that he felt so well of her. She took it at face value. In all the years he was reserved in praising her but as far as she knew he was never critical either. Around the parish she was known, in his warm words “my trusted housekeeper”.
In the recesses of her mind Brigid wondered if her long years at the Presbytery had spoiled her own chances of marriage and bearing children. She was well past worrying but now that she had time to think it was difficult to put the maternal side of things out of her mind. Without being pious she settled in her spirit for the idea that in her own way she had fulfilled her vocation in caring for a faithful servant of the church. If there were going to be rewards handed out at the end she had no complaints and was prepared to wait and see.
While mulling things over, the celibacy issue raised its head. She had never agreed with the obligatory status attached to it but had always kept her views to herself. Why upset Father Kavanagh by questioning a church rule especially when she knew that only the Pope could allow married priests and there was no chance of that happening. Still, Brigid allowed her imagination to roam into “what if” mode. Ensconced with a cup of coffee in her tiny sitting room she thought out loud…”what if they dropped the stupid celibacy rule and allowed priests to marry if they wanted to. Would she have been in the running as the bride of the man of God?”. No, no, she told herself, ”such daydreaming is a waste of time – the last person a priest would be interested in, if allowed to marry would be his housekeeper”.
She had herself convinced that she belonged to a distinct breed and while thoroughly domesticated would not be in the running if the rule was lifted. She slumped into the easy chair and allowed a tear to trickle down her face. Her womanly instincts refused to confirm whether it was a tear of regret or contentment.
She had no way of knowing.
She never looked upon herself as sexually frustrated and regarded herself almost like a lay nun, married to the church and its ministrations. Once she noticed several books in the priest’s sitting room with titles like “Human Sexuality – fulfilment and frustration” and “The value of the Single state”. Not a doubt entered her head that these books were part of a clergyman’s professional library and were used for marriage preparation courses and counselling married couples. The idea that Father Kavanagh might be a sexual being with unfilled needs never entered her head. He lived by the rules, accepted the limitations and that was that.
Brigid had few plans for herself. Her job went when Father died. But at least she was not forgotten. The legacy would give her a roof over her head and along with the pension, enough to meet her needs. She would glide gently into the sunset and hope that when her turn came to depart there would be someone standing at the exit, even Father Michael’s angel. That would be more than enough.