Blowin’ in the Wind…
Bob Dylan came into my life when I was fourteen. He was welcome, I was learning the guitar and doing bad at school. The Christian Brothers were not clicking with me, I didn’t like their style and they didn’t like mine. They had beaten religion into me and out again. I refused to get with their program and Brother Mahon called me “a scholarship brat.” But I’d heard Dylan’s ‘The Times They are a Changin’ and I knew his road was my road.
Bad school reports beget a hard home life and my father confined me to the kitchen so he could supervise my study and homework. He reckoned that if I was upstairs, I’d be playing the guitar and messing his head with songs about revolution and untasted love. One night while I wrestled with algebra at the kitchen table, there was a knock on the back door. Dad answered it and returned a few seconds later. He whispered,
“Roderick Burke and Pius Boyle want to talk to you.”
I thought I’d done something wrong. Roderick and Pius were pillars of the church and on a fast-track to heaven. In the dark they looked like mediaeval monks with their long dark coats, one tall and the other small. Pius muttered,
“God bless you, Edward. We are inviting you to join the junior branch of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society.”
Roderick handed me a devotional card and said in a low voice,
“Say this prayer for guidance and come to the church sacristy after Benediction on Friday night. And don’t tell any of your friends.”
“God bless you,” they bade and vanished into the night.
They left me feeling all creeped out, and I was light-headed when I came back to the kitchen. My father asked what they wanted and I said,
“They invited to join the Vincent de Paul.”
He looked confused and went to the bar and filled himself a pint.
At school, I didn’t mention to any of my pals about being door-stepped by the V de P, though I wondered had any of them been approached as well. On Friday evening, I went to Benediction and stayed at the bottom quarter of the church. Benny the Bang sat a few pews ahead of me, as did Stab Lucas and John Coughlan. Before the priest came to the altar, Pius and Roderick walked up the aisle and scoped out the attendance.
I spent most of Benediction in an existentialist crisis. Why was I here? Was I being lured into a secret society? Were the Christian Brothers in on this? Why me? Like the other worshipers, I rose and knelt, mumbled and bowed. When it was over, I knelt with my head in my hands as the congregation left the church. Then all was quiet. Squinting through my fingers I spotted Benny the Bang, Stab, Milo Courtney, Bernard Linnane and a few other heads were still present. Pius Boyle appeared at the altar rails and beckoned us towards the sacristy.
I tensed up on seeing Liam Goodblood and Harry Lahiff, two goody-goodies a few years older than me, flanking the doors of the room. They had sanctimonious faces and an air of righteousness about them as we filed past. When I saw who else had been invited to join the V de P, I figured that Pius and Roderick had either got it very wrong or they were enlisted to save us from the gates of hell. After all, Brother Mahon had accused me of being a ‘closet pagan’, and Stab, Benny and Milo were champion swearers who even boasted about their sinning capabilities.
Roderick closed the door, motioned us to sit on assembled chairs and welcomed us. He said he was happy that we had responded to Christ’s call to follow Vincent de Paul, in helping the poor, the sick, the oppressed and those in need. He got a bit carried away and I saw his eyes roll towards heaven. It was freaky and I switched attention to a large glass case in the corner which contained the brass mechanism of the church clock. I got lost in time and came too when my name was called by Goodblood.
“You’ll deliver the papers to Church Street, Creamery Road and Circular Road. Here’s a list of who gets the Catholic Standard and The Irish Catholic.”
I was a bit pissed off. I hadn’t asked for a job. Roderick said,
“The papers will be at the curate’s house on Saturday morning. Collect the price from all parties, and I mean all parties and bring the money back to Father Tom. You start tomorrow.”
Stab got the Main Street and Boland’s Lane run. Bang got Lahinch Road and Church Hill and Milo got New Road, Parliament Street and Monastery Lane. Linnane was given Clare Street, the Square and Bow Lane. We were advised to say the prayer for guidance every night before bed and then dismissed after a prayer by Goodblood.
Us new soldiers hurried from the church and didn’t say much until we crossed the bridge into town.
“Fuck this,” said Stab, “I wouldn’t have come if I knew Goodblood and Lahiff were involved.”
“They’re the president and vice-president,” Milo added, “we’re all fucking doomed. They’re complete dodos.”
“They’re two fuckin’ idiots,” Linnane said.
“I’m not going to be a paper boy for Jesus,” Bang said, “they press ganged us into this racket.”
It was a tough gig. It’s not easy to deliver papers and collect money from religious freaks. Mrs. Hunt told me about her visions. Hino Dolan showed me his altar to Saint Jeremiah, which took up the entire back wall of his livingroom. James Ring gave me a copybook of prayers he had composed himself and Annie Larkin let me see her wooden box of sacred relics. When I went back to the parochial house with the money, Father Tom counted it twice.
“You’re six pence short,” he said, “who didn’t pay?”
I didn’t know.
“Well, be on the ball next week. Nobody gets a free ride to heaven.”
I hurried home and got my guitar, went up to the attic and played Dylan’s ‘House of the Risin’ Sun’ until my fingers hurt.
The next week I was a shilling short and Father Tom was disgusted. He intimated that I was pocketing Christ’s pennies and that was a sure trip to hell.
“I can’t save you,” he sighed. “It’s out of my hands, Jesus knows who’s who.”
But bad and all as I was, others were worse. Bang strayed into the chipper during his round and dropped a few sixpences into the jukebox. Then he went home, leaving the bundle of papers behind, and Chrissy Hynes used them to wrap orders of fish and chips. Milo dipped into his take to buy a few cigarettes and told Father Tom there was a hole in his pocket. Stab didn’t deliver any papers, just brought them back to Father Tom and told him none of the readers were at home. Bernard Linnane didn’t even collect his papers.
An emergency meeting was called at the sacristy. Goodblood and Lahiff were very, very angry with us acolytes. Pius was disappointed and Roderick snorted in disgust.
“This is a travesty,” he said, “the church depends on foot soldiers like ye and doing Christ’s work in a sloppy way, only reflects badly on St. Vincent…reflects badly on all the saints, as a matter of fact.”
There was a strained silence and I stared at the clock mechanism in the corner.
“Excuse me,” said Linnane, “why can’t people just buy the Catholic Standard and Irish Catholic at the newspaper shop…kinda like when they’re there to get the Clare Champion?”
There were sighs of hopelessness from our holy elders. Their expressions had us poor paper-boys already consigned to the ‘House of the Risin’ Sun’. Maybe we’d meet Dylan there. I could tell him about Mrs. Hunt’s visions and Annie Larkin’s box of relics, Hino’s altar to Saint Jeramiah and James Ring’s prayerbook. He’d be interested in that sort of stuff, I thought. He might even fit it into a song.
Books by Eddie Stack on Amazon