In our continuing ‘Countdown to Christmas’ , The Kilkenny Observer is delighted to welcome Joe Kearney as our second contributor in our Christmas short story section. Enjoy
by Joe Kearney
I have a great love for old church interiors and sacred music. The seeds of this passion were sown in Callan. My grandmother was a woman who saw nothing wrong with attending two masses on a Sunday. She insisted that her grandson accompany her and sit quietly by her side throughout the 10 O’clock and the 11 O’clock services. Spending the best part of two hours inside Callan’s famous Big Chapel offered little stimulus to my boyhood imagination. However within those hours I examined each crevice, crack and image in that church interior. Even now, many decades later, I can recall those details as clearly as if I viewed them only yesterday.
Back in the 1950s I sat and knelt in patterns of light passing through the stained glass windows. I watched it bathe the paintings, murals and statues in sacred light. Christmas time was special. New colours decorated the space. Incense smells competed with the woody scent of pine branches .Plaster farm animals stood mutely in the crib. I listened to the wheeze of the church organ as it soared and bellowed, drowning out in the process, the reedy warble of our local choir. There were and are two vast paintings on either side of the main altar. The one on the left depicts the Flight into Egypt. It was painted by an Augustinian priest, Father Foran and shows Joseph leading a donkey through a rough, rural landscape. On the donkey’s back sits Mary with the Infant Jesus in her arms. I still know every feature of this depiction.
The painting is dominant, and a focal point for the congregation. Due to his position at the keyboards, our then, organist, a rotund, apple-cheeked man called Charlie Hayden, spent most of his time with his back to the images. He did so as he applied himself to the complexity of stops, pedals and keys of his chosen instrument, all the while seeking to rein in his ragged choristers with facial and body gestures. As I sat beside my grandmother, listening to Charlie and the Christmas choir, inhaling incense and dazzled by fractured light, I fanaticized that Heaven would be like this, with one exception you could run about at will and not be required to sit still for two hours.
When commissioned to paint the work, Father Foran wished to use live models. Surely there would be suitable candidates within the community? He quickly found a perfect study for Mary. The donkey was provided by a local man, Shelton Walsh. When Mr Walsh hauled the reluctant animal for his first sitting the artist was so taken by the tableau, he immediately recruited him as the model he would use for Joseph. So, there they are, captured in oils, beside the altar in the Big Chapel, in continuous flight into Egypt. But what of the baby Jesus, who was He based upon? On close inspection, this appears to be the one great weakness in the painting. Something is not quite right with the infant. The story locally is that the artist looked for a convenient baby to act as model. Ours is a town of somewhat sporadic population spurts and at that particular time only one suitable candidate presented a possibility. Charlie Hayden, who would later become our organist, had recently entered the world as a baby. But he was so well loved and nourished by his mother, the artist considered him too cherubic for the role, so instead he used a porcelain doll. A lost opportunity for Charlie’s immortality that might have explained why the man sat so comfortably with his back to the alter..
He was our resident organist for many years. But something other than the painting caused a souring of his relationship with the Big Chapel. One Sunday the organ sat silent. The choir wobbled valiantly on but without his guidance from the keyboard.
I heard my grandmother speak of his defection to the Friary chapel, down in Mill Street, not far from the place where Shelton and his entourage once resided. Charlie never returned to the Big Chapel. He literally turned his back on the church, the Flight into Egypt, the porcelain Infant and Shelton Walsh’s ass. In spite of valiant attempts by a convent nun, no one was able to squeeze the sweetness from those dusty pipes like Charlie Hayden.
My grandmother, and many like her, followed him to the Friary. Although the Friary church was less ornate, I was pleased enough that he transferred his business. You see there were no successive masses there and I had only to sit through one. This Christmas I’ll kneel in one of the worn pews of the Big Chapel, remember my grandmother and see Shelton Walsh’s ass once again carry the Infant Jesus safely into Egypt.
Joe Kearney is originally from Callan and his work has appeared in various publications over the years.
Joe was recently approached to assemble a collection of memoirs and essays for publication next year.
He was also invited to contribute a piece to the newly launched GAA collection ‘Grassroots’, which is currently in bookshops..
Joe will feature in the ‘Christmas Sunday Miscellany’ programme with RTE in the National Concert Hall on 5th of Dec. This will be recorded live for their Christmas offering.