The road sign at the junction with the road to Dowra in 1965.
In September 1965, I arrived in Blacklion as a student of the White Fathers, at St Augustine’s College. I had long wanted to join the White Fathers, for about 7 years, I think. I travelled up from Dublin with a second year student, Michael Wolohan. We reached Enniskillen at about 9 o’clock in the evening. It was dark, and I remember seeing an RUC man in the street with a rifle in his hands, a sub-machine gun slung across his shoulder, and a pistol in a holster on his belt. I thought, ‘he’s two hands and three guns, how can he manage them?’ Michael quickly told me that we wouldn’t see anything like that in Blacklion. Soon a car arrived to whisk me off over the border and to the life I had long wanted so much.
I was a ‘towny’ having lived all my life in cities or large towns, so the fact of being in open countryside was strange, but a pleasant novelty. That I should find myself in Co Cavan was somewhat exciting too, as my mother was born in Mullagh at the other ‘end’ of the county. She was confirmed by Bishop Austin Quinn, who was to come to St Augustine’s twice in 1966, to open and bless the new chapel, and to ordain three new White Father priests, Fr Eddie Brady, Fr Maurice Cunningham and Fr Joe Mullen. Being in Cavan meant that aunts, uncles and cousins from around Mullagh could call to see me from time to time, and they did. It was really funny at the start. They were not used to seeing me ‘dressed like a priest’ as they would say. They didn’t know what to call me at first. When I took my cassock and collar off, there I was, the same John they knew. They were really kind to me, and though I never experienced home sickness, it was always a joy to see them.
St Augustines College situated in the beautiful, rolling, north-west Cavan countryside
My mind was, of course, totally focused on my spiritual life and studies for the priesthood. Little by little, however, I began to experience the unexpected. I had thought that as clerical students we would have little contact with the ‘outside world.’ Happily as it turned out, this was not to be the case. I well remember my first evening, walking out along the road towards Glenfarne, dressed in a cassock and Roman collar, and feeling rather ‘out of place.’ There were always a group of us, (the White Fathers have a rule, always three, never two, seldom one), some who had already completed one of the two years of study, and ‘new boys’ followed their example. Feeling ‘out of place’ didn’t last long.
We met people along the way who were well used to seeing young men in clerical dress walking the roads. Some stopped to have a word or two, often asking how Brother Paddy was. Brother Paddy is one White Father who will never be forgotten, and rightly so. It was he who reached outwards from St Augustine’s through his enormous contribution to the local farming community. I have very fond memories of him both in Blacklion and later when he visited me several times at my home in Dublin. I remember one day, when we had just moved into our new house, Paddy looked at the garden, and the wall at the bottom with a green space behind. He told me to push the wall back and grow vegetables. If only I could have!
Brother Paddy’s haystacks in the college grounds
Thursdays were days when we didn’t have any study, it was a free day for a while. We would take off for Enniskillen or Sligo, or if the weather was good take a ramble in the countryside, take a boat out on Lough MacNean, or go to the Shannon Pot or the Marble Arch caves.
Boating on Lough MacNean
We always met local people while we were out and about. They were quick to let us know that we ‘blow-ins’ were welcome among them. Whether in local shops or just along the way, we were always treated with great courtesy and friendliness. One of my contemporaries has said that we had many of the privileges and few of the responsibilities of clergy. That may be true, but, everyone knew we were just ordinary lads who dressed in black (though not always). Those who met us showed respect to us for what we were, but it went deeper than that, they showed kindness to each of us.
Whenever we were in Blacklion village on such a day, we were drawn as if by a magnet to Greene’s Café. Bud Greene always welcomed us with tea and cakes and maybe a cigarette. To this day whenever I call on Bud her arms are wide open to give me, and I’m sure many like me, a hug. She was the ’mother’ the younger among us missed. As I have said elsewhere, “anyone who was in Blacklion and does not remember Bud Greene, was never there.”
She told me a couple of times recently how Fr Jack Maguire, then Superior of the college came to see her. After a bit of small talk, he seemed ill at ease, shuffling about, trying to raise something with her. Before long, Bud asked him what he had come to say. Fr Maguire told Bud that he didn’t want the students taking advantage of her generosity. Her reply was to tell him that if she had a young man who was studying away from home, she would like to think that there would be someone who showed him a little kindness. Knowing Fr Maguire as I obviously did, he was quite a disciplinarian in a charitable way, I would imagine he went away saying “well that told you!”
With Bud Greene 40 years on, in November 2005
As time went on the ‘new boys’ at St Augustine’s became ‘old hands.’ We began to get involved with our host community, or to tell it as I felt it was, our ‘host family.’ I was probably more fortunate than most in having a good deal of contact with the good people of Blacklion and its surroundings.
My first ‘duty’ to the White Fathers’ community was to take the post into Blacklion (for mail to Ireland) and to Belcoo (for mail for Britain). At first I walked, in the hope of getting a lift. Almost everyone who saw us on the road offered us a lift, but the local postman at the time in his Renault 4 van, whose name to my shame I can’t remember, was the most frequent. Later I cycled.
There was a problem at the border in the mid 1960’s, the customs were stopping everyone, and cars had to be ‘bonded’ showing a triangular disc on the windscreen. Many of the students came from England and were sent parcels, birthday presents and maybe clothes and the like from friends and family. There would be a delay in getting them if they were sent to the college, so someone made an arrangement with a very kind family in Belcoo, for them to be sent there, and if they weren’t too big the student who took the post would collect them. I remember for my 19th birthday my family in London sent me a small transistor radio, and I was the one who collected it. I got to know the customs men on both sides, and they always had a chat, especially in the tin hut on a rainy day on the Blacklion side. I was never asked what I had with me. Even if we were on a bus, they never bothered us. I suppose they knew that what little we had did no harm.
The customs’ sign in Blacklion in 1966
Apart from looking after the post, I was also in the Legion of Mary, and we sometimes went to Belcoo to the Praesidium there. There was a folk group in the college called “The Blacklions” which I was invited to join. That really brought its members into contact with the community. Lent was a great time for us. Dances were not allowed, but four or five singing clerical students, dressed in black suits, white shirts and black ties (though one sometimes wore an Aran sweater), were. We sang in Blacklion, Belcoo, Glangevlin, Derrygonnelly, Teemore, Manorhamilton and Enniskillen, as well as places I can’t remember. We even sang, a number of times, in The Rainbow Ballroom in Glenfarne (The Ballroom of Romance – but not for us, our minds were on higher things).
I revisited Blacklion and Belcoo and the surrounding area in the summer of 2007, accompanied by Joe McIntyre, a great friend from college days, and a fellow member of the Blacklions. One of the many things we talked about was the concerts we gave. All venues had their own memories for us. For me it was a young lady, I think her name is Mary McCorry, singing “Lovely Leitrim” in Glenfarne. It was the first time I had heard the song (after all, we lived a sheltered life), and I thought it was wonderful.
To this day, Larry Cunningham’s version is a firm favourite of mine, though I have to say I’d rather have the first version – such was the beauty of the way it was sung. En route to Blacklion from Sligo, we paused opposite the Rainbow Ballroom. We recalled a ‘forest’ of bicycles outside, the ‘Minerals Bar’ and the custom of lads on the right, lassies to the left. We also laughed as we remembered a story of a priest who was looking on at a dance, and telling couples to leave enough room for the Holy Spirit between them. I somehow don’t think he’d try that one today! Nor indeed would a bishop get away with insisting that dances in his diocese finish before midnight.
The Blacklions 1966 – 1967 (minus one - the photographer) as you never saw them,a non-dress rehearsal in the college.
Left to right, Pat McDermott, Joe McIntyre, Tony Ryan and Mike O’Callaghan.
One concert would be remembered by all of us. Mairéad O’Dolan from Belcoo, asked Fr Maguire if we could sing for the ’old folks’ in Silver Hill in Enniskillen in April 1966. April 1966, 50th Anniversary of the Easter Rising, and Mike O’Callaghan from the rebel county, a great man for giving a rendition of Clancy Brothers songs. Mike was our ‘front man’ everybody’s favourite, so I’m sure you can imagine what happened. We had our repertoire, and we stuck to it, much to the annoyance of the matron, who I found out later (40 years later), would not have shared Mike’s fondness for those songs. Ah well, the others seemed to enjoy them.
While speaking of Mairéad, I must also mention her sister Olivia and brother Charlie, who have made me most welcome every time I call. They are wonderful friends not just to me, but to anyone who was in St Augustine’s. Their cousin, and Bud Greene’s cousin, Fr Pat Harrity is a White Father, and in August 2007 with Joe McIntyre I had the pleasure to meet him. On the same occasion, Olivia presented Joe and myself with a hand-made figure, dressed in an Aran sweater and a Roman Collar around its neck, with a card saying “In Memory of your happy days at Blacklion in the 1960’s.” Happy days indeed, and happily remembered. Mike O’Callaghan was the Aran sweater man, but he didn’t manage to get to Blacklion while home from Canada in 2007, so Joe and I beat him to it, and he’ll have to come back in 2008, if he wants one (and he will, now that he’s been told). It’s funny in a way, how all these years on, some local people remember Mike by name, but the rest of us were his backing group. He was brilliant, and if that is how the Balcklions are remembered, it’s great. At least we must have done something useful for the local community.
Dear friends to all who were at St Augustine’s; Olivia O’Dolan, Bud Green (it’s not whiskey in the glass), and Mairéad O’Dolan. (November 2005)
Fr Pat Harrity M Afr, Mairéad and Olivia O’Dolan, Joe McIntyre and Bud Greene.
White Fathers’ students also taught catechism in local national schools. I taught in Barran, and in Tonyhinshina in Glenfarne. I have a couple of photographs, of Barran, neither of them brilliant, but here’s one from 1966.
John Byrne (the tallest one) and pupils from Barran National School 1966.
I could say a great deal more, and have done so in another context, which I will return to before I end this piece. There is one story which I have to retell here as it seems to me a perfect note on which to draw to a close.
On the staff at St Augustine’s from 1965 to 1969 was a priest from Limerick, Fr Christopher O’Doherty. Chris, and I call him Chris because we were good friends in recent years up until his “return to the Father” in 2004, was very involved in Blacklion Golf Club. I was told recently that a row of trees are known as ‘Father O’Doherty’s trees.’ He was a man of a great many talents, in truth he was a genius, he taught us philosophy but could turn his hand to almost anything. One of his first tasks was to lay footpaths around the newly opened college chapel (only to be ruined by Hannibal, Brother Paddy’s donkey).
Chris was also very interested in motor cars. He found an old Triumph Mayflower which was as we say ‘banjaxed.’ He spent many hours getting it going and looking presentable (you couldn’t drive a wreck of a car if you were a priest). He succeeded, of course. One day he was going to the golf course, I can’t remember whether it was to swing a pick or a golf club, and invited a couple of us, myself included, to go with him. The car had been off the road for years, and wasn’t taxed. He needed to have a form signed by the Gardaí to confirm this. Without a care in the world, he drove with us to the golf club. There he spotted Sergeant Mick O’Dwyer. “Mick” he called out “would you ever sign this for me saying that the car hasn’t been used?” Mick duly signed the document, resting on the still warm bonnet of the car. As they used to say of priests “Isn’t it them who have the power!”
I have deliberately left out all references to the history of the college and to life within the college itself, as it has been more than adequately dealt with in other articles by myself and others. These articles can be seen on the website of The Pelicans, an organisation set up by ex White Father students for friends of the White Fathers. The website address is www.thepelicans.co.uk – and there is a Blacklion icon on the homepage menu.
As I end this piece, I can truthfully say that the years I spent in Blacklion are among the happiest of my entire life. I later married a lady from Fermanagh, and so I have been very frequently back in the area. For many years my work meant that I had to travel the length and breadth of the 32 counties, and passed through Blacklion and Belcoo almost every fortnight. For 38 years I never stopped to call on anyone. I believed that no one would remember me or any of us White Father students, nor would they really want to. I believed that we were people who flew in, and two years later flew out again, without anyone really noticing. I believed that with the exception of Brother Paddy, who had the unenviable task of not forgetting to turn out the lights as he locked up the building for the last time in 1970, none of us had anything to be remembered for. The only sign that any of us priests or students ever existed in your midst is the sad but dignified grave in Killinagh Cemetery, of Peter McKenzie, a student whose life the waters of Lough MacNean claimed.
I ask myself now, how wrong could I have been? Bud Greene, Mairéad, Olivia and Charlie O’Dolan have proved just how affectionately those of us who stayed among you for a while are remembered. If you’ve enjoyed reading this piece, please do go on and browse the Pelicans’ website; www.thepelicans.co.uk and you’ll be surprised what is to be found there, especially under the Blacklion icon and in the Gallery - over 250 pages of photographs, all indexed, and many of Blacklion.
I will paraphrase what I have said elsewhere to make my last contribution. For any of us, students of the White Fathers from 1955 to 1970, who lived among you, the people of Blacklion, you and your village will always live on in our hearts as we remember those days long ago with fondness, respect and gratitude.
Recently I was asked “where’s Father so and so.” Fr Eugene Lewis is working in Belfast, Fr Kevin O’Mahoney is in Ethiopia. Fr Ian Buckmaster, with whom I studied, is Provincial of the Irish province.
Some have gone to their heavenly reward, or as White Fathers prefer to say ‘returned to the Father.’ Many of the White Fathers who worked in St Augustine’s, including Brother Paddy, now lie in peace, close to my son, in Bohernabreena Cemetery, Tallaght, Dublin; on a hillside overlooking Dublin Bay. Fr J J Byrne is buried in his native Co Louth, Fr Chris O’Doherty in his native Kilmallock and others including Fr Jack Maguire and Fr Danny McComiskey, in Kensal green in London. May they all rest in peace. Amen.