BY JOHN FITZGERALD
Last week I recounted how the Callan PP Dr. Doyle took a tough line against the buying and selling of sins. Far more serious, from a theological and doctrinal point of view, than sin swapping was the conduct of the Poet Ryan, who in the war years took to hearing confessions in Callan parish, first in Coolagh church and then at the Big Chapel.
The Poet, who gets a well-deserved mention earlier in my chapter on country folk during the Emergency, was a man of rare natural wisdom and psychological insights.
Whilst not terribly religious himself, though he would pray and have his own words with God now and then, he embarked upon a strange and high risk apostolic adventure, beginning shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939.
Noticing how the absence of a priest to hear confession sometimes led to long queues of penitents standing or kneeling in Coolagh Church, and occasionally lines of people waiting outside this rustic House of God, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
On a day when the priest was out on an urgent house call, and had been due to hear confessions, the Poet slipped quietly and unseen into the Coolagh confessional and knocked at the door for the first penitents to enter. Within seconds, two people were kneeling, one to his rear and the other in front of him, both unable to see him owing to the screen that prevented clear identification of penitents.
His first “customer”, as he would call the penitents, was a local farmer who confessed to having cursed a dozen times and thrown his pipe at a sheepdog in anger, as well as having been a minute late for Sunday Mass.
The Poet forgave him, mumbled something that sounded like Latin but wasn’t, and instructed the farmer to say one Hail Mary and a “Glory Be”. Delighted to get off so lightly, the man went on his way to pray.
The other shutter slid open. A woman confessed to having gone overboard on the gossiping and admitted to impure and lustful thoughts about a Callan butcher who always smiled lasciviously at her, she confided, whenever she called in for sausages. The Poet gave her the same penance and she exited the box reasonably content, her soul cleansed.
Over the next four years, the Poet filled in occasionally for the priest, without telling the Man of God or anyone else about his amateur priestly activities. He knew he risked excommunication if word got to the Parish Priest or the Bishop.
How he managed to keep up this astonishing act of deception for so long remains a mystery. The tendency of penitents to be completely wrapped up in their own thoughts and concerns may have played into his hands. This was his theory at any rate. They didn’t pay too much attention to the “priest”, he observed. They just wanted to get sins off their chests.
Still, there were dark and persistent murmurings in the parish about the “strange priest” who never said mass but now and again heard confessions. But nobody seems to have mentioned this to the real curate who celebrated mass in Coolagh.
The Poet slipped up one day in the Coolagh confessional. The penitent whose sins he was about to forgive asked him if he were all right after hearing the “priest” hiccupping loudly. The Poet said he was fine, but the penitent thought he could see, in the shadowy gloom of the box, a half naggin of whiskey in the confessor’s hand.
The penitent was told he must have been imagining things when he recounted this story later in a Callan pub.
Tired of hearing confessions in Coolagh, The Poet opted in the autumn of 1944 to forgive sins in Callan. With his customary “Scarlet Pimpernel” precision and dexterity, he waited for his chance.
He noticed that there were three confessionals in the chapel and that some days there wouldn’t be a priest in one of them. So he slipped into an empty box, dressed in a cassock he had obtained second-hand in Thomastown…
To be continued…
(Extract from my book Are We Invaded Yet?)