Tuesday 17 March 2015

AWAKING THE DAWN - Clare Island Lighthouse

AWAKING THE DAWN - Clare Island Lighthouse

"Awake my soul, awake lyre and harp! I will awake the dawn!" 
(Psalm 58)

March 12, 2015

This is pilgrim weather! As it was at the beginning of the Camino, so it is now - lashing rain as I drive past Croagh Patrick which is veiled like Moses, keeping the radiance of yesterday hidden. Glory be to God!

Moses and St. Patrick are my unseen companions on the journey. Moses spent a long time on the mountain speaking with God face to face as one speaks with a friend and he didn’t know at first that his face was radiant from the encounter. So intense was the brightness that the people asked him to cover his face with a veil. Only in the presence of God was he able to take off the veil and that is surely how it is - that only in God’s presence can we be fully unveiled.

Patrick’s prayer is mine too - I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity, the power of God to hold and lead. Christ behind and before me, within and around me, in every one and in every thing, in all that has been and is to come.

By happy coincidence Rose and Maura B were staying in Westport last night so I joined them for a really lovely evening. We are long-time friends, going back to our infancy; we are at ease together, always finding something to make us laugh. A good tonic!

Before meeting them I checked out Roonagh pier so that I would know where to go and not get lost in the morning. A fabulous evening with Croagh Patrick at its very best and the sea, though heavy, was beautiful.

There is concern that the swell might be too great today, so the sailing is brought forward to 9.30 am. I’m the only passenger on the Clew Bay Queen, the only other thing taken on board is a large skip.

The crossing to Clare Island brings me closer to the fulfillment of a childhood dream. In Aran I developed a fascination with lighthouses - the beautiful white one on Straw Island which was still manned when I was a boy and I loved when the uniformed Captain Keeper of the lighthouse would come ashore in his small boat to get provisions and have a pint in Ti Jo Mac’s. And I had a great desire to be in that lighthouse, to be in any lighthouse. The one in Bungowla at the other end of the island is also very fascinating in its exposure to strong seas and storms.

When I turned 60 in January my family gave me a voucher for two nights in Clare Island Lighthouse which has been turned into a guest house. They had heard and understood my desire and it’s a most exciting gift for me.

Whatever it is that the sea does to me, it does it now. A sense of completeness on this heaving mass of bottle green waves frothing white. It’s a perfect crossing and I’m met by Richard at the pier on the other side of this brand new moment in my life. He takes me in a Pajero to the other end of the island where our destination lies. Everything from here on is fresh, a first.

Because Aran is my ideal island I have to adjust to the fact that this place is very different - higher, much softer looking, yet more desolate. It’s strikes me as being a big brown lump and I have to make a clear decision to let it be what it is and not want it to be something else.

Richard comes from Blackrock in Dublin but says he has been gradually moving westwards for many years.  He and his wife had a restaurant in Navan which they ran for many years before moving to open another one in Louisburgh, Co. Mayo. Now they have moved on from that to Clare Island Lighthouse where he is chef and she is Bean an Ti. She is Trisha.

The Lighthouse is in its own remote rectangular enclosure with a few small buildings painted white with red doors and windows. Trisha shows me to my room which is named after Jackie O’Grady, the last Keeper, and then takes me on a tour of the place - up to the top of the tower, pointing to a small door that one can crawl through to get on to the outer gantry - a railed platform surrounding the tower.

They make it clear that I’m welcome in the kitchen at any time and now offer me tea and homemade scones at the large wooden table. Conversation is easy and it includes things of faith which is spoken in a natural way that gives me some comfort. They know I’m a priest before I say anything about it.

The elements have lifted so I head out for a trek that last four hours. It is a very solitary time, my only companions being the sheep and the strong wind that blows their long fleeces. The sound of rushing fresh water is everywhere. This is a very wet and soggy land.

Leaving behind the road on which I walk, I go up the sheep trail that leads to the cliffs. The sun breaks through and it is a stunning sight. There is majesty in this place! My sight is set on the steep incline to the highest point but, as I venture up I am met by a most powerful wind pushing down against me. So strong it caused me to lose my balance, leaving me on the flat of my back in the mud. That put an end to that part of the adventure.

Soaking wet all down my back I began to feel the bitterness of the wind but there was nothing for it but to keep going and eventually, after another couple of hours,  I dried out.

The road brought me down to the coast where the church, school and an old monastery are located. Both churches are closed.

A man in a red van stops to give me a lift the 3km to the pier. “You had a bit of a fall” he said, noting the dried muck down my back. “I did” I said, “but it was a soft landing!”

He is Sean, a native of the island who is married to a woman from Mountbellew. She’s down there are the moment and keeps a car at the pier in Roonagh for getting around the mainland. Sean is a part-time farmer and fisherman, a content looking man who is happy with the simple things in life.

His flame haired daughter aged about 6 is in the back of the van playing with a load of fake spiders and without the slightest inhibition she shows them to me and starts running them up and down my arm. She’s very at ease and happy.

Before reaching the pier Sean stops the car at the gateway to a house and point to a green van parked outside another house. “A woman died there last night. She was 83.”

I got out to resume my walk back to base, passing the pier, the strand and in the distance Croagh Patrick beginning to emerge through the veil. Further on up the road a flock of sheep came running to me from both sides. Surprising because sheep usually run away but maybe they saw the mud on me, thought I was a farmer with something to give them.

Back in the remote Lighthouse is where I want to be, where I belong right now. After showering off the mud and in fresher clothes I go to  the kitchen where Trisha gives me tea with brown bread and ham. She bakes the bread herself and the ham. Both are lovely. She has lit the fire in the living room and it’s smoking a lot but I don’t mind because I like the smell of it and it feels kind of authentic!

The sun is bright now and I make my way to the tower which trembles in the wind that pounds it without pause, sounding like thunder. Despite the strength I crawl out the narrow door onto the gantry where I’m given the full force of the wind. Breath of heaven! So powerful that it leaves the crashing sea silent below the cliff on which we are built.

I have found here a treasure that neither time nor death can steal. Back inside the tower I sit with eyes closed - listening.

A young couple have arrived - young, with infectious enthusiasm. Jeff is from Clara, Co. Offaly living for the past 15 years or so in Finland having lost none of his accent, a real honest-to-God kind of guy. Tuire, who likes to be called Fin, is a native of Finland and the three of us got on like a house on fire over dinner which went on well over two hours.  Fin explained a lot of things about her culture - one thing being how they like to keep their distance. They literally keep each other at arms length and to illustrate it Jeff showed me a photo of a bus queue where a long line of people stand waiting at a distance from each other. Fin says it’s because they are so few people in such a large country. Jeff is a keen and very good photographer.

March 13

At 6.00am I got out of bed, pulled my jacket on over my pyjamas and went walking in the dawn seeking sunrise. The sky is clear with a band of red light stretching over Achill right across the horizon to Croagh but the sun itself didn’t break through. Got back into bed again at 7.00 and slept till 9.30!

It’s turned out to be a spectacular day. Jeff and Fin went off walking early looking fit as two fiddles, leaving the place to me as the only guest. The morning was very relaxed - reading and wandering about. Richard and Trisha invited me to the kitchen where we we talk in a very relaxed manner over tea and scones in the kitchen. They are relaxed, even though they are constantly working - baking bread, preparing food for the evening, lighting fires. It’s a long day that begins around 7.00am and doesn’t end till around 11.00pm.  

Brendan, who looks after maintenance, is also having a cup of tea. He’s heading away to get his van ready for the funeral of the 83 year old woman. She had asked that he would take her remains to the church in his van.

In the living room here there’s a lovely book written by Jackie O’Grady, the last keeper - “The Green Road to the Lighthouse – Memoirs of Clare Island and the Lighthouse Service.” In it he writes of the night his mother was dying and he was a small boy. Many people, including the local priest,  had gathered in the house to keep vigil. The nurse came out from the bedroom to tell the father that it was time to go in to his wife because her end was near. The priest took young Jackie with him on his bicycle down to the church in the darkness and he offered Mass there for her recovery. She recovered and lived for many more years to come.

I spent a good bit of time up in the tower where I celebrated Mass alone in the place where the beacon used to be and it struck me at the elevation at the consecration that, though the light that was there shines no more, the light of Christ is present and perpetual. Afterwards I went out onto the gantry where I sat, eyes closed, listening to the sea below with the sun warming my face. Pure beauty, almost monastic!

In the afternoon it was warm enough  to go out walking without a jacket. The land, that yesterday looked all brown, is now a pleasant shade of green in the sunlight. It was a leisurely two hour stroll but the lighthouse pulls me back to itself, draws me up to the tower.

There’s a strong sense of being drawn upwards here. It’s a spiritual movement in which I feel the words of Jesus echo within me, a constant refrain in the wind, in the waves of the sea crashing below, the soft crashing sea -  “when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all things to myself!” All things, all people! It is God’s desire to lift us up, enfold us in His Love that is elemental, vibrant, strong as the mountains to my left and Achill to my right, the great Atlantic before me and the unveiled mountain of Croagh Patrick behind me.

And now it’s the stars that capture me in a night sky  that seems to pulsate with life as well as light. Plenty of shooting stars. Not since my days in Makiungu have I witnessed such a sky at night. There is no pollution so that the stars seem to reach down to me as I reach up to them.

Jeff comes out to photo the night. He has the camera to do justice to this amazing scene and he shows me how he does it. This is my last night and I’m reluctant to let any of it end.

The veil of Moses was removed when he turned to the Lord and “all of us reflect the glory of the Lord with uncovered faces; and that same glory transforms us into His likeness in an ever greater degree of glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)


My search for sunrise was rewarded at precisely 6.57am when, after waiting 40 minutes or so in bitter cold,  the sun first peeped over the horizon, rising with majestic brightness into this new and last day. It was preceded by spectacular colours. Sadly my camera batteries gave up the ghost and I was left with my humble little phone to capture for others a sense of what took place out there. It’s exciting to be alone in the face of such a happening and, like a child there’s a part of me that thinks - in some sense knows -  God is putting on this display for me. But such experiences also need to be shared.

Jeff and Fin left for the early boat and I had breakfast with Edeltrude and Kurt who arrived yesterday evening. She has done the Camino so it gave us lots to talk about.

Another member of staff - Maggie - arrived for the weekend. While we were all having mid-morning tea she told me she had two uncles priests and an aunt a nun. This sounded awfully familiar to me and I asked, “was your aunt Margaret O’Connor?” “How did you know that?” she asked with surprise. “We were in Makiungu, Tanzania at the same time and your cousin Joe is a friend of mine." He was also there in Makiungu when we were a lot younger! Small, small world!

Back to the tower, to the gantry! I think of all the men who laboured in this place, maintaining the light for ships in the night, guiding them to safe harbour. “These men have seen the Lord’s deeds, the wonders he does in the deep. He stilled the storm to a whisper and led them to the haven they desired.” (Psalm 107) Am I not also a keeper of the Light?

A touching thing for me was to be asked by Richard and Trisha to bless the Lighthouse. We gathered in the kitchen with Maggie and I blessed water and thanked God for the sacredness of their hospitality, quoting the words of Jesus, “whoever receives you receives me and whoever receives me receives the One who sent me.” And we travelled through the whole place blessing with holy water each room, entrance and the little cottages in the compound. It was a special thing to bless the tower and pray for the peace and safety of all who would come there.
And it was time to go then. Richard was going back to the mainland for a couple of days and Trisha drove us to the boat which was boarded by  a large crowd of mourners from the funeral.

I look back at the island and the mist rising on its shore and I see it with different eyes now - a place of great beauty and grace, the place that became the fulfillment of my boyhood dream.

Click on the image above for slideshow of Clare Island Lighthouse

Sunday 1 March 2015


A few years ago I celebrated Mass in a school classroom – the group who made their First Holy Communion last year. A lovely experience. After Communion a few of the children knelt down to pray and I noticed the others watching them so I asked, “do you know why these knelt down?” And plenty of answers were given, many of the children having a clear sense of when it is necessary to kneel in prayer – like you kneel down if you are praying for someone who is very sick.

One lad put up his hand and said “you would kneel in front of a king!” and with this answer he showed an understanding of who Jesus is and the honour that He deserves, an honour that is His as the Son of God, an interior movement of the Holy Spirit in prayer. I then invited the children to kneel. We all knelt together and, with hands joined and eyes closed, we spent a brief silence listening to Jesus speak His love for us. And we spoke our love for Him!

It’s quite a common gesture in the Bible; people frequently kneel in front of Jesus when making a request. This is not something that He demands but it is an inherent instinct in the human soul, a good instinct, an instinct that opens us up to an experience of God that is quite profound and transforming. It is the invitation of Psalm 96 which prays, “come in let us bow and bend low, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker, for He is our God.”

Sports people kneel in victory and in loss; adults kneel before children; the addict, the depressed, the distressed and the worst of sinners kneel before Jesus in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and there is no contradiction in this because in my brokenness I need it. Kneeling in prayer is not an indication of  holiness, it doesn’t mean that I have it all together. I kneel to plead from the depths of my struggle and I kneel to adore from the depths of that same struggle.

Jesus takes His friends “up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves” and in their presence He was transfigured. For Him it must have been the most beautiful ecstasy; for His friends it was a mixed experience. It was good for them to be there, so good that they wanted to remain, but it was also an experience of cloud and confusion, shadow and fear.

And it is from the cloud rather than the brightness that the central message is given to the three friends – “this is my Son the Beloved. Listen to Him!” It’s not said in the text but I feel they must have been on their knees in the face of this experience.

The core of our faith is that Jesus is the Son of God. The response asked of us is that we should “listen to Him” – recognise who He is and listen to Him, not only on my knees but in my waking in the morning, in the washing of my face, the eating of my meals, in going about the ordinary things of the day, in my encounters with other people, in my falling and in my rising. In all of this I am called to recognise Jesus as the Son of God and in recognising Him to listen to Him.

The question for each of us is – do I know who Jesus really is and do I really listen to Him? Or do I listen more to other voices, are my opinions and decisions formed more by the voice of culture and media than they are by Jesus?

As I was leaving the school that morning, feeling rather pleased, I was brought back to earth by a conversation in which a woman of faith challenged me nicely and firmly about the way I and we recite the Creed at Mass. Basically we rattle it off, giving little or no thought to its meaning.

So on this Sunday I would like to pay deliberate attention to some of the words that refer to Jesus in the Nicene Creed – I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.

I pause before the mystery of who Jesus is. I bow and kneel before Him in love. I listen to Him and surrender my whole life to Him. This gesture of faith is expressed beautifully in the following verse:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

“Only he who sees takes off his shoes!” The one who sees! Kneeling, taking off our shoes in response to what we have seen is one and the same instinct and if I cannot do it physically, I can still do it with my soul.

“…the place where you are standing is holy ground.”