Oh yes, I remember it well!

by John Byrne

(August 2005)


My first encounter with a White Father was in Holy Rood Primary School in Watford, Hertfordshire, when I would have been about 9 or 10 years old. I can’t remember who he was, but dressed in his habit he regaled us with stories of the life of a missionary. One in particular springs to mind, where he told of travelling around his ‘parish’ on a moped and was confronted by a village witch doctor who was doing his ‘thing.’ The witch doctor ended up standing in front of the priest who then slid his hand discreetly along the handle bar of the bike and as he touched the witch doctor’s head, he pressed the button for the horn – exit one witch doctor.

So taken was I by this first encounter that I began to think in terms of joining the White Fathers. I had already decided on the priesthood and had gone on vocations days to Westminster Cathedral. I was an altar server in my local parish of Bushey at the time (I think I was an altar server for about 10 years in total), and from time to time White Fathers from Totteridge came on supply. I wanted to go to St Columba’s in 1958 having completed my 11+, but my father had other ideas. Instead I went to Finchley Grammar School, where White Fathers from Totteridge and Sutton Coldfield came on promotional visits. I remember Fr Anthony Maguire, in the early years, but an ‘old boy’ of the school, Fr Pat Shanahan is particularly etched on my memory.

I attended a few ‘voc vacs’ in Totteridge, and made a good friend in Maurice Cunningham. I also attended an ordination of White Fathers in Whetstone, at which Fr Peter Wetz, whom I had also come to know, was ordained. I found it a very uplifting occasion, and so my mind was set on my future direction.


I arrived in Blacklion in September 1965, having travelled from London to Dublin by train and ship, then in the company of Michael Wolohan, by bus to Enniskillen, Mick was something of a ‘guardian angel’ during my initial weeks in St Augustine’s. The daily life of a seminarian did not come easy, but before long friendships were made, ever mindful of the ‘rule’ “semper tres, numquam duo, rare unum.” There were 16 of us who joined about a similar number who were then in their second and final year of Philosophy. As an ‘exile’ returned to Ireland I was pleased to be back in the ‘old sod’ and my days in Blacklion were happy. I recall being told once that one of the greatest challenges in life was getting along with one’s peers, especially when living in close proximity with one another. I think we all made a pretty good job of it.

As with everyone, the daily call to study, meditation and prayer was my main focus. I particularly enjoyed the monthly retreats and the ceremonies at Christmas, Holy Week and Easter. The ‘reveillons’ were also moments to savour. I fondly remember night prayers and community standing around the statue of Our Lady at the foot of the staircase, singing the ‘Salve Regina.’

These were privileged days to be in Blacklion, the new chapel and common room were completed in 1966, and officially blessed and opened by Dr Austin Quinn, Bishop of Kilmore. The ordination of Frs. Brady, Cunningham and Mullen was another memorable occasion, if I may say so especially for me, having known Maurice Cunningham since his days in Totteridge, I felt that I was there as a friend to share that momentous day. Other less spectacular events also come to mind.

We often had the opportunity to visit Enniskillen and Sligo on a Thursday from time to time, as well as making trips further afield to seminaries in Benburb, Donamon Castle and Dalgan Park, and of course there was the week in Dublin after Easter. Those of us who had relations or family could spend time with them, and this I duly did. I also received visits from family in Cavan and Meath from time to time. So life had its little diversions. Then there was teaching catechetics in local schools – a sobering experience at first, but something that was to do me a huge favour later in life.
I can’t remember if I volunteered or was volunteered to do the daily run by bike with the post to Blacklion and Belcoo. I do remember that some of my confrères used to get parcels delivered to an address in Belcoo, as customs controls on the border were then quite strict. I can never remember being stopped – maybe the Customs in Blacklion thought we were above smuggling; – but were we?

'The Blacklions'
(L-R) : Mick O'Callaghan, Joe McIntyre, Tony Ryan and Pat McDermott

I was also very fortunate that I liked ballad and pop music, and was invited by Joe McIntyre and Tony Ryan, who together with Mick O’Callaghan and Damien Duggan formed a group (which amazingly was named ‘The Blacklions’), to join. We were in demand especially during Lent by local groups, and in particular by Mairéad O’Dolan in Belcoo, to sing at events in the area, maybe it was because we were inexpensive (can’t say ‘cheap’), in fact we were ‘free.’ As long as we returned by 9pm, Fr. Jack Maguire seemed to be ever ready to respond to any request that we go off and sing. We even played in ‘The Rainbow Ballroom’ in Glanfarne, later the basis for a TV programme ‘The Ballroom of Romance.’ We were, of course, oblivious to all that.

The daily walks outside the grounds (weather permitting), including forays into the small shop adjacent to Killinagh Church remain fresh in my mind, especially if we were in the shop as the Angelus rang, and we were sternly reminded Mrs Keaney, “Prayers boys!” Whenever we found ourselves in Blacklion village, a call on Bud Greene was a real treat; she was always so very kind to each and every one of us. As I said recently, anyone who was in Blacklion, and does not remember Bud, was never there!

Bud Greene and
Caithe Fenelon
at the Dublin reunion 1997

I had worked for the summer before entering St Augustine’s on a mail boat named the ‘Cambria’ to ease the financial burden of my studies on my parents. I had done my boat drill training as a crewmember, so the lure of Lough Macnean and the boats was strong. That gave me an outlet for relaxation, as well as allowing me make a modest contribution to the community, as naturally l knew how to handle a boat. In time, I ‘developed’ an interest in the ‘darkroom’ and still have photographs I took and developed. Thanks to very amateurish developing and the passage of time, and not a little help from a leaking roof, some are just fit for the bin – I just can’t throw them out.

I recall the days off when we would take a boat out and ‘camp’ on an island in Lough Macnean. One particular day sticks in my mind, 2nd November 1966. We had gone into Glenfarne Bay, and were on an island, when the wind began to freshen. We packed up our gear, put the fire out and slid the boat back into the water. An overzealous confrère jumped onto the bow, bringing the plywood hull down onto a small jagged rock. Thank God we had some margarine, from which a ‘rivet’ was made, the cold brown lake water kept it hard – and the boat watertight. As we came into the main body of water, short steep waves threatened to come over the transom of the boat, so as ‘skipper’ I moved everybody forward, and zig-zagged the boat back and into the safety of the ‘harbour.’ I never rowed and prayed so hard in my life!

Life could be far from serious at times. Occasions like 1st April come to mind; the removal of the clapper from the bell that regulated our lives; the clock and the ‘regulator’s’ alarm clock being advanced by an hour (how the latter was done I never found out). None the less, the ‘Benedicamus Domino’ knock on the door was greeted by responses other than ‘deo gratias’. The poor unfortunate was confronted by Fr Jack Maguire while doing his rounds and told that it was 6am to which he replied, “Yes Father, I know,” and then continued merrily on his way. The day Fr Danny McComiskey’s liking for crispy bacon was catered for in the form of bacon flavoured crisps. There was never ending ‘leg pulling,’ but always in the spirit of ‘caritas.’

One evening a group of us were walking along the main road towards the junction with the road to Drumshanbo. Joe McIntyre slipped from the back of the back of the group, crossed the road and scurried ahead under cover of darkness, returning towards us with his cassock wrapped around his shoulders, and saying “night boys” in a fine north Cavan accent, everyone duly saying ‘goodnight’ - till they realised that they had been had! Did you ever wonder how fast a seminarian could run with cassock raised? – Joe found out!

There were the halcyon days working (at least that’s what it passed for) with Brother Paddy on the farm, making hay, planting and picking potatoes etc. One incident came to mind as I was writing the last few words. There was a ‘competition’ as to who could throw a potato (too small to bother picking), closest to Paddy on the tractor, it all came to an abrupt end when yours truly got Paddy on the ear. Yes, I did ask for forgiveness – he was cuter than a fox and could suss out a rogue. Then there was the day a neighbour’s cattle got out onto the main road and Paddy ‘rounded us up’ to ‘round up’ the cattle. One confrère had shorts on under his cassock and his long white legs made a comic sight as he ran hell for leather after one cow. The rest of us were incapable of running – we were fit – but tied up in fits of laughter.
There were also the ‘antics’ to which I made reference in my small piece following the death of Fr Christopher O’Doherty, no need to repeat them here. (see Fr O'Doherty's entry in the OBITUARIES section)

Perhaps a good note on which to end this lighthearted bit concerns the pilgrimage to Lough Derg in June 1967, just prior to our departure from Blacklion. There was Joe McIntyre‘s plastic fried egg, which he secreted on his person, and then placed on his plain toast in full view of everyone, causing utter consternation. The mutterings among us during the all night vigil – it was cold – no it was freezing! There was John Gould’s headgear designed to keep his head dry which he was told to remove by the Prior, Then as we were seen off from Station Island to the strains of ’Hail Glorious St Patrick’ someone who must remain nameless, but had a propensity for practical jokes (plastic fried egg) struck up with “it’s been a hard day’s night.” 12.01 midnight saw us devouring all before us in the refectory.

A few days later, our time at Blacklion came to an end, as we headed off on holiday, then on, some to Broome Hall, others to a new life. I went to Broome Hall, where I stayed until December 1967. There are a few stories I could tell about those months too! I went back to Blacklion while on holidays in 1969, two years after I had left the White Fathers and was made to feel like I’d never been away. Happy days indeed.

I still return to that neck of the woods from time to time, normally en route for the Yeats Country where I’m wont to go on short breaks. Taking the road from Dublin to Cavan then on to Blacklion, I go to Peter McKenzie’s last resting place, now marked with the Pelicans’ simple and very dignified headstone. I never knew Peter, but he was very much part of St Augustine’s College, Blacklion, and the sole physical evidence that any of us whether priests or laity ever sojourned there. As I drive past the former college, now a detention centre for young offenders, I can’t help but reflect on times past, but mostly on the people with whom I shared what were among the happiest days of my life. The road from there to Sligo is a trip down memory lane too.

‘The Black’ will live on in the hearts and minds of any and all of us who were privileged to have been there. My own principal recollection is that I went in a boy and came out a man, thanks to my confrères and the staff who guided us, charitably ‘knocking the rough edges off.’ I may not have reached the end of my intended road, but I shall be eternally grateful that I was there. Oh yes, I remember it well – and am utterly astounded at how looking again at photographs taken at the time, I can name all of my fellow students and the priests who mentored us well nigh 40 years later – they left a unique and indelible impression on me. God bless them all!

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