The lovely west Clare seaside holiday town of Kilrush (next stop America) looks a lot bleaker on a freezing cold November night, and as we were driving to it the voice of Ralph Mc Tell kept singing in my head –“Oh it’s a long long way from Clare to here…”
We travelled a few lonely, winding roads that dark evening so it was a great surprise to me that over 700 people had travelled along many similar roads for almost nine weeks to make the Matt Talbot Novena. It was organized by the Pioneer Association in Clare, in the beautiful St Senan’s Church, Kilrush, and I was the guest speaker on the second last night.
I’d been invited by Fr Tom Ryan the parish priest of Shannon and family friend who had been sent to my native Derry to help out some years ago. Whilst there he married my parents not long before they died. No – don’t re-read that sentence – you got it right – and don’t think scandalous thoughts about my mum or my dad (who, God rest him, had Alzheimer’s). One particularly bad day he got very agitated and wanted my mother to leave the house as he couldn’t remember marrying her and thought they were living in sin. She was at the end of her tether when Fr. Tom just dropped in for a visit. I asked him to marry them with a blessing, which, knowing the situation, he duly did, and daddy was happily settled for another while.
Anyway, that night I was deeply moved as I heard petitions to Matt Talbot read out. Heartfelt requests for people sick, in trouble, or alcoholic. One petition really touched me. ‘Dear Matt Talbot, please help me and my wife to stop drinking so much.’ I thought about their children and I spoke about alcoholism and how it affects families. I have direct experience of the disease which is a physical, mental and spiritual one, and I’m aware that whilst there is great help for the alcoholic it’s often family members who are traumatized, wounded by the illness, and indeed sick themselves, and who are totally neglected.
I don’t think I have ever spoken to a more receptive group. There was an incredible silence in the Church for the 20 minutes of my talk. Lovely, gentle people came up to me after to tell me their own stories, and each used the same phrase, that they would have heard a pin drop as I spoke. Nothing to do with me, but a lot to do with the reality of alcoholism in Ireland today and the painful tentacles the illness sends out to all who come in contact with it.
I am not a pioneer myself and would really miss my glass of wine, but I am deeply grateful to the pioneers for their generosity in giving up alcohol altogether as a spiritual gift to help those addicted and those suffering from the alcoholic’s behaviour. And as AA and AL-Anon (the twelve-step group for anybody affected by another’s drinking which has helped me greatly) will tell you, real and healthy recovery from the effects of the disease of alcoholism requires a spiritual dimension.
From Kilrush to Shannon, same novena, same talk, different people – 400 of them – many families and many young people. But similar petitions and the same great faith in Matt Talbot and a God who would hear their prayers. More people to talk to afterwards, more pain, more hope.
The whole experience was very moving. Fr. Tom, his parishioners and the people of West Clare were warm and welcoming. As he drove me to Limerick to catch the train for Dublin in the wee small foggy hours of Wednesday morning we talked of the importance of the novena, the people and the Pioneers.
“Well you’re from the Jesuit Communication Centre,” he said, “and the Pioneers in Kilrush and Ennis and further afield are the Jesuit link with Clare.” And it was great to have been with them. I have lovely memories as I write this at my computer in the JCC, still humming that lovely song but knowing it’s really not so long a way from Clare to here!