1979 seems a little while ago!


Thirty years seems a relatively short time but a lot has changed in Ireland since 1979 – the year Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, a year after he was elected pope. Even as I reflect on that year, I know that at least one new generation of Irish people has grown up since.

During that summer, I was working in our local creamery at Hawthorn, between Drimoleague and Skibbereen (which along with most of the local creameries is now closed). Many of the farmers were still bringing the milk to the creamery in churns. Some arrived with horse drawn carts and seemed to hold out against the passing of time. The level two farmers arrived with tractor and trailer, with room on the trailer to take home the animal rations as well. Another level up, the ambitious ones arrived with the milk in a tank on wheels, with bonus points available if it was too heavy to be pulled by the car! Even as they lined up alongside the creamery, the obvious lines of class distinction were clearly marked. The death-knell for the local creamery was ringing faintly as talk of tanks on lorries collecting milk from the farmer’s yard began to drift around the creamery. The grief was eased somewhat by discussion about how much of a grant might be available. Grants, it seems, were to then what counselling is to now.

Towards the end of the summer, John Joe answered the phone on the creamery counter and took a message from Farranferris for me. The P&T lines had not yet wound their way up the road to my home and the fact that I had an appointment with Bishop Lucey the following day made its way to me through the local creamery. The bishop’s message travelled on the same phone line that earlier in the day had been ordering day-old chicks from a woman in Ballineen, buying pet bonhams in Caheragh, ordering a sheet of silage plastic from the wholesale in Drinagh and booking a late call from the AI man for a cow that had been ‘noticed’ that morning. The word from the bishop had become flesh when John Joe told me I had better take the following day off.

On Wednesday, I took the bus to Cork and had my only ever formal meeting with Bishop Cornelius Lucey, who had administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to me several years earlier. Today, however, it was just him and me across what I thought was the biggest and shiniest table in the world. “Do you have a passport,” was the bishop’s second question. He had arranged a place for me at a college in the south-west corner of Spain and the college opened for classes on the following Wednesday. The pope was coming to Ireland at the weekend and he wanted me to attend the papal Mass in Dublin on my way, along with the four other students from Cork who were being despatched to Spain that autumn. And because he already knew the answer to his second question, he had phoned the passport office in Dublin and arranged for me to get a passport on Friday if I turned up with a photo and Garda form in hand. This was an era when passports for vocations were easily available and long before passports for horse-breeding sheiks took precedence! The gracious bishop wished me well as I left to walk down to the city.

Next stop Woolworths. That’s where the machine for taking the passport photos was. Next aisle, a suitcase and a few pairs of new pyjamas to be bought. Then the bus back home to get to the Garda station before it closed to get the form stamped. Then home to tell my parents that I couldn’t go to the creamery to work the following day because the bishop was sending me to Badajoz. The bishop had given me the airline tickets, with the return date marked for the following June. My bed and board at the college in Spain would be paid for by the diocese. My parents met the bulk of the remaining costs by going back to the creamery the following day and for several days, weeks and years more. Meanwhile I converted potatoes to pesetas and eagerly awaited letters from home at a time when the average travel time for a letter to Spain from west Cork was close to three weeks.

We arrived in Madrid on Sunday night and took a taxi to a hostel where previous students from Cork & Ross had lodged during their twentieth century wild geese flights! The following day, we dispersed to take trains to the many corners of a country that only a few years earlier had started to emerge from Franco’s halters.  A world unknown to us awaited each of us. For the next two years we were to get acquainted with garlic, chorizo, cured (but uncooked) ham, Spanish wine, bread without butter, tea without milk, days waiting for Spanish banks to cash an Irish cheque, and a language and culture that bore very little resemblance to anything at home. In hindsight, for those of us who survived the bouts of homesickness and self-questioning, it was a life-changing introduction to a new perspective on so many things.

Recently, I discovered that I could flash back to those days using the Internet because the college in Badajoz now has a website. I can also email some of my former classmates in seconds. Last year, I managed a conversation on a mobile phone with one of my Spanish classmates who is priesting on the missions in Africa. We have just elected a group of people to formally represent us in planning a cooperative future with our fellow Europeans. And today, the place where I had lunch in Bandon was serving lentils and Spanish chorizo sausage.

By 2039 will farmers in west Cork be producing milk? Will we still need passports to travel around Europe? What changes will have taken place in church live and disciplines? Advances in education, transport and technology have fundamentally changed our lives in the last 30 years. I wonder what forces will propel us through the next thirty?

— This article was written for The Southern Star newspaper.

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