Oh yes, I remember it well!
by John Byrne
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 cant 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
doctors head, he pressed the button for the horn exit one
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 Columbas 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.
AND THIS IS WHERE THE STORY REALLY STARTS:
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 Augustines. 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 ones peers, especially when living
in close proximity with one another. I think we all made a pretty good
job of it.
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
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
I cant 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?
(L-R) : Mick O'Callaghan, Joe McIntyre, Tony Ryan and Pat McDermott
was also very fortunate that I liked ballad and pop music, and was invited
by Joe McIntyre and Tony Ryan, who together with Mick OCallaghan
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 ODolan
in Belcoo, to sing at events in the area, maybe it was because we were
inexpensive (cant 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
Bud Greene and Caithe
at the Dublin
had worked for the summer before entering St Augustines 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 cant 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 regulators 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 McComiskeys 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
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 thats 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 neighbours 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 ODoherty,
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 McIntyres 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 Goulds 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 its been a hard days
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 Id 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 Im wont to go on short breaks.
Taking the road from Dublin to Cavan then on to Blacklion, I go to
Peter McKenzies 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 Augustines 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 cant 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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