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The Bright Flames of May
by Cormac MacConnell
It was a May Day that I remember well, a long time ago now, and I was wearing a pair of short trousers and the warm wood of the First Class desk was warm against the backs of my thighs and the Mahon twins were standing in front of the teacher, Miss Rooney. Oona was in floods of tears. Hughie was defiant, arms folded across his small gansied chest, but the tears were not too far away either. In between huge sucking kind of sobs Oona was looking deeply into her mothers cloth shopping bag.
To me it seemed to be filled with wadded pages of the local newspaper, The Fermanagh Herald, but everybody in the class already knew what was down in there and the terrible thing that had happened ten minutes earlier at Keenans Cross beside the school.
"What ails you Oona at all?" asked Miss Rooney, tall, gentle, spinsterish, cardiganed, permed, and in her final year in the school as the Assistant Teacher. Oona was quite unable to answer. She looked deeply into the bag again and what she saw made her shudder all the way down to her wee sandals and the tears pattered down on the wadded newspaper.
"Our Oona was running fast because we were late for school", said Hughie," and the Holy Lady just kinda jumped out of the bag by Herself and now the head is broken clean off Her and Oona thinks shes going to Hell and thats why shes crying". And, as the whole class gasped, on that last May Day of Miss Rooneys teacherhood, I still remember how she hugged the little girl and soothed her. And gave Hughie his space, though patting him on the head for telling the truth. And how she took away the balled up Fermanagh Herald and took out the poor headless Holy Lady, Mother Mary, The Blessed Virgin, that was always the centrepiece of the May Altar in the big window of the First Class room.
The Holy Lady looked dreadful without Her Head. Deeply patterned Catholic children that we were, it was almost awesomely horrific to look at Her, beheaded, with the poor noseless plaster head in Miss Rooneys long cool hand. And Her golden crown broken away at the back as well.
"She hopped out of the bag", explained Hughie, "And She crashed down on Her face and eyes. Shes destroyed altogether so She is". And I am deliberately using capital letters because that is the way the "She" was said.
And I remember to this day how magnificent Miss Rooney was. She had a pot of glue for Art and she produced it. In a couple of minutes, as we all held our breaths in the little classroom, the Holy Lady was equipped with her head again. Then Miss Rooney got a tiny piece of white plasticene that the Infants used for modelling ducks and snakes and suchlike. And she rebuilt the nose. And then she got one of the six paintboxes we used for our Painting and she crafted a new golden crown on the Head of the Holy Lady. Maybe it was more yellow than gold but sure it looked so beautiful that even Oona stopped crying.
And the Holy Lady was placed by Miss Rooney on the wide white timber inside windowsill. "Now children", she said, for the last time too, "Bring me up the flowers you brought in for our May Altar".
And she sighed, as for forty-three years Im sure, looking back now, as the big raw Dolan lads, as they always did, came marching up with great true-golden fistfuls of Dandelions, that we called Piss The Beds. Their father had done it too, snatching the wild flowers at the last minute from the ditches outside the school.
And Mickie Crawford had four Red Hot Pokers from the banks of the river that he was forbidden to go anywhere near. But they went up behind the Holy Lady with their blanched stems in the two pound jam jars which the McArdles always brought by tradition.
And Mena Donoghue had a thousand daisies that had been plucked before their faces opened up for the day. And they went beside the feet.
And the Keenans had primroses from their sheltery front garden where the first primroses always sprang in the parish.
And I had a bunch of daffodils, the last daffodils of the Spring, and everybody knew, at some level, that they were Protestant daffodils (so maybe they should not be there at all!) but they came from the lovely garden of the Protestant lady that lived next door and always gave flowers to the MacConnells.
And Phyllis, the wee Blitz girl from Belfast, she had daisies too, a bag of them, but sure she was from the city and she had plucked only the heads, no stems at all.
Alright, said Miss Rooney, we will use them for strewing all around Her feet. And it was done too.
And the Queenans had a branch of whitethorn, the blossoms falling by the confetti cloud.
And somebody had a yellow branch from a hardy whin bush. Donal, that would be dead after being hit by the milk truck before next May, he had brought the great gift of a potted tropical plant in a brown poteen that got the place of honour.
And more Piss The Beds, a lot of them from the boys, and wildflowers like buttercups that grew in the swampy fields beside the school. And more Piss The Beds, all placed behind the Holy Ladys back until they were half-way up the two lower panes of the quartered window looking out on the river. And Giants Parsnip with its hollow stem, great stockscented white florets upon it.
And Jimmie Murphy brought a length of wiry ivy that Miss Rooney tastefully threaded in and out through all the display.
"Oona" she said, at the end, "will light the candles for the Prayer to Our Lady". Two household white candles on small saucers. I see Oona still, that had been close to Hell an hour earlier, so very carefully holding the match to the two new wicks.
Bright flames of May.
And then, with only one month or so to go to her retirement, Miss Rooney stood us all up to say our Prayers to Our Lady in our own May Altar. And we prayed there, treble voices magically in tune to the Hail Marys, to Our Lady of the Piss-The-Beds, Our Lady of the Two Pound Jam jars, Our Lady of the Murdered Daisies, of the Whin Bush, of the Giants Parsnip, Our Lady of the Falling Whitethorn, Our Lady of the Buttercups, of the Wild Ivy, of the Primroses.
Our Lady of the Broken Neck
Our Lady of the Plasticene Nose
Our Lady of the Protestant Daffodils.
Images: Flowers picked & arranged by Bridget (before the boy next door cut the grass). The Statue of Mary from her musicbox collection.
Reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, Cormac MacConnell. He's one of our favorite writers/journalists/columnists, and if you'd like to read more, he's a regular with the Irish Emigrant.
In his own words: "I was born in Fermanagh and survived that. I worked for the Fermanagh Herald as a cub reporter and survived that. The Roscommon Herald and the Munster Express and the Irish Press Group and a magazine called This Week most enjoyably stole away the years of my prime. I actually killed The Irish Press in the end! Then I went freelance. I write for everybody that thought I would be dead long ago, from The Irish Examiner through Ireland of The Welcomes and Ireland America magazine to The Irish Emigrant. Irish Emigrant Publications is the first organisation I ever wrote for where everything is high-tech and electronic and for that reason it's probably the most enjoyable of all. Nice readers are constantly e-mailing me from all over the world. I've written a football novel called Final Moments and songs which include Silent Night-Christmas In The Trenches and The Leaving. I also sing my own songs in dark pubs and for this reason they are seldom appreciated! I now live ten minutes away from Shannon Airport in County Clare. In my time as a hack I've probably slept at least one night in every town and village in Ireland except Dowra in County Cavan. And that's another story . . . "
Wed, Mar 22, 2017
The Galway Hooker
This unique vessel, with its distinctive curved lines and bright red sails, originated in the village of Claddagh. During the 19th century, hookers supported a significant fishing industry and also carried goods, livestock and fuel. Seán Rainey is remembered for building the last of the original boats, the Truelight, for Martin Oliver who was to become the last king of the Claddagh; as king, he was entitled to white sails on his boat. Since the mid seventies, many of the old sailing craft which were on the verge of extinction have been lovingly restored and new ones have been built. During the summer months they can be seen at festivals such a Cruinniú na mBád - the Gathering of the Boats - in Kinvara.
Click for More Culture Corner.
A compilation of some of the best of his weekly columns in the Irish Voice and other publications, Cormac offers an often wickedly accurate insight on life in the west of Ireland. Alternately witty, funny, and sometimes achingly sad, it's an absorbing collection that we promise will be hard to put down.
Click here for Cormac - UK and here for Cormac - USA.