Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Frank O’Connor wrote many stories about priests. Some of his most iconic characters are men of the cloth, and few writers have portrayed the unique demands of the priesthood with as much empathy, honesty, and wit. This collection, edited and introduced by his widow, Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy, brings together the best of O’Connor’s short fiction on the subject.
From “An Act of Charity,” the ironically titled tale of church efforts to cover up a curate’s suicide, to “The Sentry,” an exquisite blend of drama and satire sparked by the British army’s invasion of a priest’s onion patch, these sixteen stories capture the full range of pressures visited on the Irish clergy. “Peasants” is a lesson in what happens when a man of God places law and order above compassion, while “Achilles’ Heel” reveals that even a bishop can be rendered powerless by his housekeeper. “The Frying-pan” and “The Wreath” are sad and lovely portraits of priests caught between their vows of celibacy and their natural desire for human connection.
In the rituals and contradictions of the priesthood, Frank O’Connor found one of his greatest motifs. The Collar showcases an artist at the peak of his powers and shines a brilliant light on a fascinating world too often hidden in shadow and sentiment.
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Stories of Irish Priests
By Frank O'Connor
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Harriet O'Donovan Sheehy
All rights reserved.
Spring had only come and already he was tired. He was tired of the city, tired of his job, tired of himself. He had come up from the country intending to become a great man, but he was as far as ever from that. Lucky if he could carry on with his teaching, be at school each morning at half nine and satisfy his halfwitted principal.
He lived in a small house in Rathmines. His window looked down on a little oblong of garden. The trams clanged up and down outside it. The house was kept by a middle-aged brother and sister who had been left a bit of money and decided to end their days enjoying themselves in the city. They did not enjoy themselves and regretted having sold their little farm in Kerry. Sometimes about midnight Finegan woke up to the fact that another day was passing, and sat at the piano and played through Moore's Irish Melodies with one finger. Miss Finegan did not even play. 'Ah, Mr Keating,' she said with a sad smile, 'you will always be happy. You have your dreams.'
Keating felt that now he had little else. He was a slow, cumbrous young man with dark eyes and a lock of dark hair which kept tumbling into them. When he spoke he stammered and kept running his big hand slowly through his hair. He had always been dreamy and serious. Farming had meant nothing to him. Sometimes on market day he could be seen for hours in Nolan's little shop among the bags of meal, stepping from one foot to another as he turned over the pages of a book. After his elder brother Tom had decided to enter the Church there had been a fight between himself and his father about the teaching. His father had not helped him. Nor even his mother, who felt that in some way he intended it as a slight on Tom. And Tom himself, no book-lover, joined in the conspiracy. With an obstinate, almost despairing determination he had fought his way through the training college to the city, and the city had failed him. In the evening he might still be seen before the bookstalls on the quays, drooped, powerfully built, shambling; obviously a country lad, but no longer seeking a certain path to glory.
It had all seemed so clear! But he had not counted on his own temper. He was popular enough, but popular because of how many concessions to others, from the children up! He was hesitant, gentle, slow to see round a thing and slow to contradict. He felt that he was constantly underestimating his own powers, but he could not straighten out his confused and passionate thoughts.
And ideals! He had enough to set up a federation of states but they were all at war with his slow, cautious, country wits. Gentle, submissive, suspecting everyone, he was glad if he could create a momentary good impression, no matter what it might cost afterwards in loss of self-esteem. He did not drink, smoked little and saw dangers and losses everywhere. He accused himself of avarice and cowardice. His favourite story was of the country man and the pillar-box. 'What a fool I am! Put me letther in a pump!'
He had only one real friend, a nurse in Vincent's Hospital, a bright, flighty, vivacious girl. He was fond of her, but something – shyness or caution – kept him from going farther. Sometimes he planned excursions beside the usual evening walk, but they never came off.
He no longer knew what had brought him to the city but it was not the prospect of his solitary bed-sitting room in Rathmines, the shelf of books beside the window or the occasional visit to the pictures with Nora Delea; the long evenings of rain, the solitary musings. To live, that wasn't enough. He would have liked to leave it all and go off to Glasgow or New York as a labourer, and it was not the romantic quality of the gesture which appealed to him; it was the feeling that only when he had not a roof to his head, only when he had to cadge a bite to eat, would he see what all his ideals and emotions meant and where he could fit them in. When he thought of this he looked at his hands. They were huge, powerful hands, which could pull a heavy boat or hold a plough in the straight.
But no sooner did he set out for school next morning than the fancy took flight. He wouldn't do it. Put his letter in a pump, indeed! He would continue to be submissive and count his salary and wonder how much he could save. And his nature would continue to contract about him till in ten years' time it would tie him hand and foot.
Tom wrote, suggesting that they should go home together for the long weekend, and he agreed. Tom was a curate in a small country parish.
He arrived on Friday night and on Saturday morning they set off in his old Ford. It was Easter weather, pearly and cold. Tom stopped at several hotels on the way and called for whiskeys in which Ned, in an expansive mood, joined him. He had never quite grown used to his brother, partly because of old days when he felt Tom was getting the education he should have got, partly because he was a priest. Tom's ordination seemed in some strange way to have shut him off from the rest of the family; even his parents, who liked him far better than Ned, found themselves ill at ease with him.
He was very different from Ned, lighter in colour of hair and skin, fat, fresh-complexioned, autocratic, a great hand with girls or a gun, an irascible, humorous, energetic man, well liked by his flock who knew him for a zealous priest and a good friend in time of trouble. Listening to his breezy, worldly talk, watching his way with men in garages and maids in hotels, Ned envied him. He was lavish and frank with some, pugnacious and exacting with others, differentiating as if by instinct between those who were honest and those who tried to cheat.
It was nightfall when they reached home. Their father was at the gate to greet them, and immediately their mother came rushing out. The lamp was standing in the window. Brigid, the little girl who helped their mother, stood by the door, looking up every few minutes, and when her eye caught theirs, instantly looking down again.
Nothing was changed in the tall bare kitchen. The harness hung still in the same place, the rosary on the same nail within the fireplace, by the stool where their mother sat; table under the window, churn against the back door, stair mounting straight without banisters to the attic door that yawned in the wall; all seemed as unchanging as the sea outside. Their mother was back on to the creepy, her coloured shawl tied about her head, tall, thin and wasted. Their father, stocky and broken-bottomed, stood with one hand on the dresser, looking out the door, while Brigid bustled round him, preparing the tea.
'I said ye'd be late,' he exclaimed. 'Didn't I, Brigid? Didn't I keep on saying they'd be late?'
'You did so.'
'I did indeed. I knew ye'd be making halts on the road. But damn me, if I didn't run out to meet Thady Lahy's car going east the road!'
'Was that Thady Lahy's car?' asked his wife with interest.
"Twas. He must have gone into town without our knowing it.'
'There now, didn't I tell you?' said Brigid.
'I thought 'twas the Master's by the shape of it,' said their mother wonderingly, pulling at the tassels of her shawl.
'I'd know the rattle of Thady Lahy's car a mile off,' said Brigid.
It seemed to Ned that he was interrupting a conversation which had been going on ever since his last visit.
'Wisha, I never asked ye if ye'd take a drop!' said old Tomas with sudden vexation. Ned knew to his sorrow that his father could be prudent, silent and calculating; he knew too well the sudden cock of the head, the narrowing of the eyes. But as well as that he loved an innocent excitement. He revelled in scenes of passion about nothing.
'Is it whiskey?' asked Tom with the roguish twinkle of his father.
'There's whiskey there as well.'
'I'll have it.'
'The whiskey is it?'
Tomas chuckled and rubbed his hands.
'Ah, you're not as big a fool as you look! There's fine heating in it.'
'Who made it?'
'Coleen is it? Didn't they catch that string of misery yet?'
'Yerra, what catch! There's nothing on legs would catch Coleen without you cut off his own. But, listen here to me! The priest preached a terrible sermon against him!'
'Is old Fahy on the warpath still?'
'Oh, my sorrow!' Their father threw his hands to heaven and strode to and fro, his bucket-bottom wagging. 'Such a flaking and scouring was never heard! Never heard! Never heard! How Coleen was able to raise his head after it! And where that man got all the words from! Tom, my son, my treasure, you'll never have the like of them.'
'I'd spare my breath to cool my porridge. I dare say you gave up your own still so?'
'My still, is it? Musha, the drop that I make, 'twouldn't harm a Christian. Only a drop at Christmas and Easter.'
The lamp was back in its old place on the rere wall and made a circle of brightness on the fresh whitewash. Their mother was leaning forward over the fire with joined hands. The front door was still open, and their father walked to and from it, each time warming his broken seat at the fire. Someone passed up the road. Ned covered his eyes with his hands and felt that everything was still as it had been years before. When he closed his eyes he could hear the noise on the strand as a sort of background to the voices.
'God be with you, Tomas,' said the passer-by.
'God and Mary be with you, Taige,' shouted Tomas. 'What way are you?'
'Well, honour and praise be to God. 'Tis a fine night.'
"Tis, 'tis so, thank God, a grand night.'
'Musha, who is it?' asked their mother looking up.
"Tis young Taige.'
'Shamus's young Taige, is it?'
"Tis, of course.'
'Where would he be going at this hour?'
'Up to the uncle's, I suppose.'
'Is it Ned Willie?'
'He's sleeping at Ned Willie's,' said Brigid in her high timid voice. "Tis since the young teacher came.'
Between his hands Ned smiled. The only unfamiliar voice, Brigid's, seemed the most familiar of all.
Tom said first Mass next morning and the whole household, excepting Brigid, went. The chapel was a good distance away. They drove, and Tomas, sitting in front with his son, shouted greetings to all they met. Many of the neighbours were there to greet Tom in the sacristy. The chapel was perched high up from the road. Outside the morning was grey; beyond the windy edge of the hill was the bay. The wind blew straight in, setting petticoats and cloaks flying.
After dinner Ned and he went for a walk into the village. Tom halted to speak to everyone he met. They were late in coming back for tea. Tomas had come out to meet them. He was very pleased about something.
'Well,' he said when they were seated, 'I arranged a grand little outing for ye, thanks be to God.'
To mark the source of the inspiration he searched at the back of his neck for the peak of his cap and raised it solemnly.
'Musha, what outing are you talking about?' asked their mother angrily. Clearly, she and Tomas had had words about it.
'I arranged for us to go over the bay to the O'Donnells.'
'Can't you leave the poor boys alone?' bawled Maura. 'Haven't they only the one day?
Isn't it for the rest they came?'
'Even so, even so, even so,' said Tomas with mounting passion. 'Aren't their own cousins to be left put an eye on them?'
'I was there last summer,' said Tom.
'Yes, but Ned wasn't, and I wasn't.'
"Tisn't us you're thinking of at all,' said Tom. 'Over for a good drinking bout you're going.'
'Oh –' Tomas fished for the peak of his cap once more, 'that I might be struck dead –!'
'Be quiet, you heathen!' crowed Maura. 'That's the truth of it, Tom, my pulse. Plenty of poteen is what he wants, where he wouldn't be under my eye. Leave ye stop at home.'
'I can't stop at home, woman,' shouted Tomas. 'Why do you be always picking at me? Don't you know well I must go?'
'Why must you?'
'Because I warned Red Patrick and Dempsey. And the woman from the island is coming as well. And what's more I borrowed Cassidy's boat, and he lent it at great inconvenience to himself, and it would be very bad manners in me now to turn his kindness back on him.'
'Oh, we'll go, we'll go,' said Tom.
It blew hard all night, and Tomas was out at the break of day, all anxiety, watching the white tops on the water. While they were breakfasting he came in and, leaning upon the table, announced that it was a beautiful day, thank God, a perfect day with a moist gentle little bit of a breezheen blowing, but Maura nagged and scolded so much that he stamped out again in fury, and sat on the wall chewing his pipe. He had dressed in his best clothes, that is to say, he had turned his cap almost right way around so that the peak covered his right ear; he wore a respectable blue coat cut very long and with the suspicion of a tail and pale grey trousers with but one patch on it.
He was all over the boat like a boy. Dempsey took the helm, a haggard, melancholy man with a soprano voice of astounding penetration, and Red Patrick took charge of the sail. Then Tomas clambered into the bows and stood there, leaning forward with one foot raised. The island woman was perched upon the ballast with her Rosary in her hands and her shawl drawn over her eyes to avoid the sight of the waves.
The cumbrous old boat took the sail lightly enough.
'She's laughing,' said their father delightedly when her bows ran white.
'Whose boat is that, Dempsey?' he asked as another brown sail tilted ahead of them.
"Tis the island boat,' shrieked Dempsey.
"Tis not, Dempsey, 'tis not, my love. That's not the island boat.'
'Whose boat is it then?'
"Tis some boat from Carriganassa.'
"Tis the island boat I tell you.'
'Ah, why will you be contradicting me, Dempsey, my treasure? It is not the island boat. The island boat has a dark brown sail; 'tis only a month or so since 'twas tarred, and that's an old tarred sail, and what's more, Dempsey, and what proves it out and out, the island boat sail has a patch in the corner.'
Tomas was leaning well out over the bow, elbow resting on his knee, looking back at them, his brown face lashed with the spray and shining with the accumulated flickerings of the water. Ned half closed his eyes and watched sky and sea mount and subside behind the red-brown sail and the poised and eager figure.
'Tom!' shouted the voice from the bow, and the battered old face peered at them from under the sail.
'You were right last night, Tom, my boy. My treasure, my son, you were right. 'Twas for the sake of the drink I came.'
'I know damn well it was.'
"Twas for the sake of the drink. 'Twas so, my darling. They were always decent people, your mother's people, and 'tis her knowing the decency of her own family that makes her so suspicious. She's a good woman, a fine woman, your poor mother, may the Almighty God bless her and keep her and watch over her.'
'Amen, O Lord!' chorused Tom ironically as his father shook his headgear piously towards the spring sky.
'But Tom! Are you listening to me, Tom?'
'Well? What is it now?'
'I had another reason too.'
'Had you now?'
"Twas taking pride out of the pair of ye,' shrieked Dempsey from the helm, the wind whipping the shrill notes from his lips and scattering them like scraps of paper.
"Twas so, Dempsey, 'twas so. You're right, man. You're always right. God's blessing on you, Dempsey, for you always had the true word.' Tomas's leprechaun countenance gleamed under the bellying chocolate-coloured sail, fierce and wild and full of humour, and his powerful voice beat Dempsey's down. 'And would you blame me?'
'The O'Donnells haven't the beating of them in their own flock.'
'Thanks be to the Almighty God for all his goodness and mercy,' shouted the old man, raising his cap once more. 'They have not. They have not so, Dempsey. The O'Donnells are a good family and an old family and a kind family, but they haven't the like of my two clever sons.'
'And they were stiff enough to you when you came for their daughter.'
'They were. They were, Dempsey. They were stiff. They were so. You wouldn't blame them, Dempsey. They were an old family. I was nothing but a landless man and like a landless man they treated me.' The old man dragged his cap still farther over his ear, gave his moustache a tug and leaned at a still more precarious angle over the bows, his blue eyes dancing with triumph. 'But I had the gumption, Dempsey. I had the gumption, my love.'
The bare mountainsides drew closer, the islands slipped past, the gulf of water narrowed and grew calmer, and white cottages could be seen scattered about under the tall ungainly church which seemed identical with what they had left behind. It was a wild and rugged coast; the tide was only just beginning to fall, and they had to pull in as best they could among the rocks. Red Patrick leaped lightly on shore and drew them in. The others stepped after him into five or six inches of water, and Red Patrick, himself precariously poised, held them from slipping. Rather shamefastly Tom and Ned began to unlace their shoes.
'Don't do that!' shrieked their father. 'We'll carry you up! Ah, your poor feet! Your poor feet!'
'Shut your clob!' said Tom angrily, as he took Red Patrick's hand, and clambered up the slimy rocks. Then the whole party set out across the fields. As they entered a little winding lane they were met by the Caheraghs, who insisted on their coming in for a few minutes. Old Caheragh had a red beard and a pleasant, smiling face. His daughter was tall and good-looking. After they had given their customary greetings and promises to return they resumed their way up the hill to the O'Donnells.
Excerpted from The Collar by Frank O'Connor. Copyright © 1993 Harriet O'Donovan Sheehy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- Introduction by Harriet O’Donovan Sheehy
- News for the Church
- The Sentry
- The Old Faith
- The Miracle
- Achilles’ Heel
- The Shepherds
- Song without Words
- Lost Fatherlands
- A Mother’s Warning
- The Frying-pan
- The Teacher’s Mass
- The Wreath
- An Act of Charity
- The Mass Island
- About the Author
- Copyright Page