Tuesday, March 26, 2013



Horace is a friend who has tapped into a mother lode of tales about his youth in working-class England.

"The Art of Stealing Bikes," which I ran last December, was a Christmas story. As soon as I read this one, I told Horace, "This is an Easter story!"

Here it is.


by Horace Martin

If you look on a map of Ireland just north of Dublin, you will see a small village called Finglas. If you look just north of Finglas you will see Cappagh Hospital, where my grandparents Hilda and John Martin lived. My grandfather was the caretaker there for many years. As a lad I would love to visit their house, which was set in the grounds of the hospital. What a wonderful sight those grounds were.

As you entered through the large gates with stone walls, each side on top of one wall in wrought iron was the name Cappagh Hospital. The first thing you saw on the right was my grandfather’s house, the lodge and in front of you the drive up to the hospital on your left, an open field with cows and donkeys and then just past the lodge on your right were trees; great big trees and grass all around them. They lined the drive all the way to the hospital and you could, as a five year old boy, wander around in those trees for hours.

Sometimes I would find myself at the tennis courts that were hidden away in there. Other times I would come out near the farm were sister Rosey would be killing chickens. In fact, it was watching sister Rosey one day as she went about the job of killing chickens, that I asked my first question about life. Sister Rosey was knocking off chickens left and right dropping their heads under a broom head, standing on the broom head, giving the chicken’s body a good pull and twist, then letting go so the chicken would run around, not quite with its head off, as I watched the joy in sister Rosey’s face amongst the dust and flying feathers, I thought: Is this good? It doesn’t seem good.

That was it. My question. I was always afraid of asking questions because the grown up, or the priest or whoever you were asking at the time, would give a little shake of their head and a little smile, then proceed to tell you how absolutely wrong you were and how absolutely right they were, and follow it all up with, "But not to worry, you are young and will learn soon enough." It seemed I was getting an awful lot of telling and very little explaining.

My granddad was a big tall man and loved his horses. He was from a place called the Curragh and everyone from there loved horses. My grandmother was a nice lady except when I would ask for more custard on my dessert after dinner, then she would look at me like I had two heads and granddad would make a joke and say, “No more custard,” very slowly, like it was the saddest thing in the world and we would all laugh. If they knew everyone loved custard why didn’t they just make a whole lot more? But I knew better than to ask because I would just hear a whole lot of telling.

Once I heard my mum telling an aunt about grandma. Apparently grandma was a protestant and was going to hell and because granddad married her, he was going to hell as well. Also, Uncle Joe lived up the lane. He was granddad’s brother and he had vowed never to talk to him again because he married grandma. Grandma’s family (who were all going to hell as well), well they wouldn’t talk to her either. When I asked mom, she got so mad at me she gave me a crack around the head and told me never to talk about it again. I was only thinking that if granddad and grandma were going to hell shouldn’t someone tell them so they could put things right?

In the summer and when the days were nice, warm and sunny, there would be an outside mass at the hospital. It was then that the priest would serve mass from a raised platform. It was round and way up in the air and on top there were glass panels so you could see him saying mass. He even had a microphone so you could hear him all over the place. It looked like a rocket ready to fly off into the sky and there was steps that went up the side and you could walk up them very easily. The steps wrapped around the side of the platform to the glass-enclosed top. The way they did it was quiet clever, that’s what my dad said. And all the patients would be brought outside and gathered all around the dome in a big circle. It was at one of these masses I slipped away from my parents and went discovering. I was fascinated by the dome and made my way towards it, drawn in like it was a great big magnet. I looked around for my Mum and Dad, but they were nowhere to be seen. Good.

I saw this as a sign to carry on with my adventure. When I was at the bottom of the steps to the dome, things seemed to be going fine so far. No shouts of, “Hey get away from there, “or “Horace what the hell do you think you’re doing,” so why not have a little walk up the steps? I didn’t think the priest would mind and Mum was nowhere to be seen, so up the steps I went, not rushing or running, just a lad out for a stroll. When I got to the top of the steps there was the priest right enough and his altar boys, looking very smart in their robes. Of course, I knew not to go running around up there, after all, mass was being said. So I kept to the side and made my way round so I could get a good look at the priest and the crowd.

Oh and what a good view it was. I could see as far as my granddad’s lodge and all the people saying their prayers. Some were on beds, some in wheel chairs, others with crutches and walking sticks, nurses and nuns, and people just like my Mum and Dad, who didn’t have a thing wrong with them. It was then that the priest saw me. He looked, then looked away, and then looked back really quickly. I could tell he was quite surprised to see me. He just stood there for a moment a bit puzzled, looking in my eyes and me looking back at him. Well, I thought I had better do something so I did what I had seen my Dad do when he met people. I smiled, gave a little nod of my head and put my thumb up in the air. Whenever my dad did those three things it always got a good response from the other fella. And true to course, it worked on the priest too. He smiled back and made a “ha-ha” sound quite loud, so as not to be any trouble I sat down well out of the way and the priest carried on as if nothing happened.

I was just thinking this was a great day and things were going just grand, when the edge of a very dark cloud began to appear at the back of my mind. If I could see all the people at the mass then all the people could see me. My Mum and Dad were standing with all the people so there was a very good chance that my Mum and Dad had been watching this whole thing with me and the priest and if that’s so I am in big trouble.

Now I had to check to see if they did really see me, but I didn’t want to scare the priest again so I crawled across the floor to the windows, on my belly, but the priest did see me and was looking at me again, so I did the same thing as last time; a quick nod of the head, a smile and the thumbs up, except this time I was laying flat rather than standing and right enough, he smiled again. When I got to the window, got on my knees and peeked up over the ledge, the dark cloud was well and truly here, and it was about to rain, for there was my Mother looking very red in the face and making very sharp hand signals. I didn’t need a Red Indian to tell me what she meant by her hand signals. Big squaw was heap mad at small brave and small brave was going to get a good larruping. Well, there was no way was I doing any more crawling or nodding and thumbs up and smiling. I was staying put till mass was over then I would go down and meet Mum and Dad and take the larruping that was coming,

So the mass finished and the priest turned to me and said, “Hello young fellow, you gave me quite a start there during mass.” “Sorry Father,” I said, “I was just wanting to see.” “And tell me what is your name?” “Horace, Father.” All this was said as we descended the steps, “that’s me Dad’s name as well,” I said, “and a grand name it is,” said the priest. “I think this is your Mother and Father, Horace,” and he was right. There stood Mum and Dad, Dad with a little smile on his face and Mum with her head ready to fly off her shoulders, it was so red. My Mother then said, “Father, I’m Mrs. Martin and I am so sorry, very embarrassed, he just slipped away. He’s just a terror like that and it won’t happen again Father.”

The priest then put up his hand to stop my Mum talking, “It’s all right Mrs. Martin,” said the priest. "It was quite a surprise to be sure but we can’t blame the lad for wanting to get closer to God, can we?" And with that he went off wishing us all a great day. I could have kissed him. Those golden words from that priest saved me from a good hiding, that was for sure. How could I now get punished for wanting to get closer to God? This, I said to myself, is a grand old day. I nearly told me Dad about the trick with the smile and the nod and all, but Mum was not looking too happy so I kept me mouth shut.

The thing I really loved to do was, if you faced my granddad’s house, or the lodge as it was called, there, just to the left of the lodge was what looked like a driveway. You could tell it was concrete only just, there was an awful lot of moss growing on it and if you then followed the drive with your eye you would see it just stopped as it ran into bushes. But if you persevered and you were like me, you would walk right up to those bushes and look into them. Then you would just be able to see two wrought iron gates and of course the gates were chained and locked. But as the adventurist that I was, this would not stop me so I crawled into the bushes and climbed the gate and there was a marvelous place altogether, the driveway, which was actually a pathway continued, each side of the path were huge big trees.

I’m not sure of the names of the trees. I was never any good at naming trees but I’m sure there were a few oaks in there. As you walked up the path every fifty feet or so there was little huts that had a bench in them that you could sit on. I figured out after a while that they were the Stations of the Cross and in each hut there would be a picture of Jesus at different stages of his crucifixion. Well I didn’t know anything about all that stuff so it was all very confusing to me. When I asked my Dad he said it was all pretty confusing to him as well.

Sometimes as I would wander up the rosary as it was called, I would see a Nun, or just some man or woman walking along with their rosary beads. Let me tell you, they were praying very hard, they usually had their eyes squeezed shut like they were thinking really hard about their prayers, so I never said a word to them. I did a fair bit of hard praying myself and I know I would not want some fella coming up to me saying, “How are you today Horace,” and me talking to God asking for a new football or something. No, that wouldn’t do at all, so I said nothing to them.

Some days I would sit in one of those little huts and wonder, that’s all, just sit there. One day a squirrel hopped into the middle of the path and saw me, and then he kind of sat back a bit and looked at me. He stayed there for the longest time, me looking at him and him looking at me. I don’t think I had ever felt so happy just sitting looking at a squirrel. Huh.

At the top of the rosary walk there were some cottages. Uncle Joe, my granddad's brother, lived in one of the cottages. I once asked him why he wouldn’t talk to granddad. He said I was young and wouldn’t understand. I said, “Uncle Joe, you would be surprised how often I hear that,” and he roared with laughter. Past the cottages there was a delivery entrance for the hospital then just around the corner from that there was a small little church.

I liked to go into that church because no one ever went in there. It was always very quiet. I would sit in one of the pews and swing my legs back and forth taking a good look around. I was on my way up there on this day and I had been thinking about one of the stained glass windows. There was a fella holding a lamb, well he was supposed to holding the lamb, but if you looked he wasn’t holding the lamb at all. The lamb was just floating near his chest because the fella had his arms stretched in front of him. I was thinking I would mention it to the priest, I mean, did he know about this big mistake? As I walked into the church I stopped in my tracks. Somebody was lying on the marble alter down the front and the person was covered in a sheet. Well this will take some inspecting I said to myself so I stood there just inside the church doorway for the longest time. I saw the stained glass window with the eerie floating lamb, outside it was warm and sunny and inside the church it was very cool, very quiet and I could smell incense like they used in the mass sometimes.

It was so quiet it felt like the very air was being quiet. Slowly I made my way down to the person on the marble alter, looking around every now and again to see if anyone was watching me, but no it was just me and whoever it was lying up there. By the time I was half way down the aisle I could see it was a child on the altar and the sheet was not a sheet. It was like gauze and you could nearly see through it and the child was a little girl, and she was dead.

At first I thought about running away but then I said to myself, “Am I frightened?” And I said well no I’m not frightened at all, I just want to see. So very quietly and slowly, I went over to where the little girl was lying. I stood there looking at her for the longest time, I could tell she had her hands resting on top of each other on her body just below her chest.

I got very close to her face and looked really hard at her. Then I stood back. I knew I had to lift the sheet thing covering her face and I did, and oh how she was so beautiful, so perfect, like she was just full of happiness and was sleeping. I wanted to touch her face, just to see, but I knew that I mustn’t.

I just knelt down and said a prayer. I didn’t know why I did. I didn’t even know what I was praying for, I just did. And I didn’t have to ask is this good. I knew.



  1. This was absolutely, delightfully, WONDERFUL! I grew up in the U.S. during the 50's and 60's. My Mom was Irish-American Catholic and my Dad was a Catholic convert which did not sit well with his family AT ALL. Oh, I identified so much, Horace! Brought me right back to that time as a child and also being told that I wouldn't understand. I am giggling. Thank you!

  2. Dear Heather,
    For whatever reason I was awake again in the wee hours. I booted the smartphone and read this post. I drifted back to sleep with thoughts from the story. I don't recall how you connected with Hector but we, your readers, are glad you did.

    Hector reminds me somewhat, for the child's voice and mischief and mystery of adult world - for the connection with horses (though County Connaught not Capppagh) - for the Irish lilt - for the simple lines that tell an idea whole - for the name beginning with H, of Hugo Hamilton whose autobiography "The Speckled People" I recently completed reading. Mom is reading it now. Oh, dear God, for more Catholic and catholic writing like this online.

  3. exactly, the best kind of "Catholic" story, which is to say a story about life and death and resurrection and beauty and humor and the child-like wonder about God. The very best part may be that Horace is not REMOTELY a churchgoer...

  4. Dear Heather,
    if there was a 'like' button or a '+' button I would have clicked it for your comment above but in lieu of that I leave this little additional affirmation.

  5. Heather,

    WOW!!! Just went back and re-read your two other posts about Horace. It struck me that the first one (http://shirtofflame.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-real-presence.html) is the perfect read for today, being Holy Thursday- about the Real Presence.

    Please keep getting us more stories from Horace. Beautifully told. My favorite line: "It seemed I was getting an awful lot of telling and very little explaining."

    And please send Horace my appreciation and admiration for his words.

  6. You said it Heather, this IS the best kind of "Catholic Story"...one of the many reasons I'm a convert. There is no other faith that could "or" would have this story.


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