St. Enda’s Church, Killanny
Sunday, 14 October 2012, 7.00pm.
My dear friends,
I recently read a biographical piece written by an American of Irish descent who was born in London. It was an interesting story in so many ways. It described a way of life and a setting which is no longer part of our landscape and in various ways it challenged a lot of the values and practices which form the basis of the way most of us now live. I think retelling his story will give us food for thought and reflection.
Martin was born in London. His parents were from the West of Ireland. His father did not have the freedom or opportunity to go beyond sixth class in the National School. His mother had not met her father until she was almost nine years of age, as he had to work on the undergrounds in both New York and Boston to get funds to send home to keep his wife and two daughters alive, while at the same time save some money to be able to purchase enough land to enable him to stay home when he came home. When he returned to Ireland West for Christmas 1933, he bought a total of 40 acres then and over the next few years. He never left Ireland again to travel to England between that and his death in 1981.
What a contrast with the pattern of life of a comparable man of the West of Ireland in today’s world. He would not be so restricted in terms of educational opportunity. It would be difficult to find a family cut off from the father of the house for economic reasons for a period of nine years. Few families would be without a foreign trip or foreign holiday for a period of almost fifty years. How many people of our time would wear a Pioneer pin in his jacket for over fifty years, as did Martin’s grandfather?
Martin’s mother was fortunate that her National Schoolteacher had the generosity and freedom to work with her individually after class. This enabled her to obtain a scholarship to a Presentation Secondary School at the beginning of the Second World War. After she went to boarding school at the age of thirteen, she never lived in her parental home again. She went to live and work in three countries after receiving what she described as a first rate subsidised education from the nuns. She too wore a Pioneer pin not in a spirit of arrogance or self-righteousness, but out of fear of the effects of indulgence in alcohol. She obtained a position in the Civil Service, working in the G.P.O., for nine years before moving to England and later to Chicago. While settled in the U.S., Ireland was always referred to as “home”.
Work outside the classroom is now a commercial transaction and referred to as a grind. There are few boarding schools for girls, fewer nuns in education, and consequently no educational places subsidised by the extra work and salaries of religious who taught in these schools. The Civil Service rarely recruits now and London and Chicago have been replaced as favourite destinations by Sydney and Toronto. There is little fear of alcohol but plenty of evidence of alcohol indulgence and addiction. The first reading of our Mass was something of a hymn of praise for understanding and a spirit of wisdom. Many people would contend that these are still spoken of in Confirmation answers but not found as commonly in modern concrete or synthetic ware as they were in the more natural soil of yesteryear.
Martin himself took the pledge during one of his trips home at the age of twenty-one. He was not pressurised, he says, by his family to do so. He had seen for himself at that stage that alcohol was a powerful drug which could cause havoc in family life. As a criminal defence attorney working in the Chicagoarea, Martin has interviewed dozens of men and women who have beaten people senseless, or have themselves been hospitalised from beatings due to alcohol. He has in the course of his work met hundreds of clients over the years charged with driving under the influence who have described prolonged memory lapses, dizziness, hangovers, their inability to see clearly, to think clearly, to even speak without slurring their speech or to walk a straight line without staggering. The second reading from Hebrews in today’s Mass reminds us that “everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves”.
Martin says that, as a lawyer and university lecturer in the U.S., he has often been asked to explain why he cannot drink on social occasions. While the Pioneer movement is by and large unknown outside the Irish-American community, his explanation has often been received by reactions ranging from incredulous to admiring, but he has never been condemned or mocked. The only nasty reaction he met with was from an Irish Times reporter who snickered at the wearing of the pin and made fun of him in front of others at a dinner inDublin. On the other hand, he never felt prouder than when a twenty-one-year-old fatherless Protestant boy in Chicago, whom he had known for six years, took the Pioneer pledge and received the emblem. He represented the embodiment of the Pioneer prayer “to give good example”.
If we were to ask ourselves what kind of example we, in our generation, give to our young people our answer, if truthful, might be embarrassing. If we were asked to give away everything we owned and follow the Lord so as to inherit eternal life, our face might fall and we might turn away like the rich young man in the Gospel reading. We have indulged ourselves. We have used borrowed money to pay for our educational and health services, we have borrowed more to provide ourselves with wages, welfare allowances, pensions, bonuses and extras of different kinds which we did not have the money to pay for. And now our credit cards are acting up and we are fearful and stressed. Many people are feeling like the camel trying to squeeze through the eye of the needle.
Martin, in his autobiographical piece, comes across as a rather contented man at peace with himself and his world. He helps as a volunteer at the baths in Lourdes and describes it as the place where he feels God’s presence more strongly than anywhere on earth. The joy which he sees the invalids experience with their often disfigured, emaciated and no longer supple bodies makes him reflect on life in a manner he rarely does anywhere else. His Pioneer pin is a very rich and meaningful symbol for him as it is for many. The allure of riches is strong and enticing, hard to resist and we can find it easy to convince ourselves that we deserve a little bit of comfort. The pin can give us a jolt and remind us that there is more joy in giving than in receiving and that in making sacrifices we are usually repaid a hundred times over and, in the process, we inherit eternal life. We also feed our young on a more wholesome diet.
+Liam S. MacDaid