Blowin’ In: Joy in Peace
By Susan Mangan
Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking:
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle . . .
My child poet picked out the letter
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of the frosty air. . .”
(“A Christmas Childhood” by Patrick Kavanagh)
Just before midnight on Christmas Eve, the lights in my childhood church were dimmed nearly to the point of utter darkness. The flicker of white light dancing off so many candles lit the church like the night sky of Bethlehem.
Not a sound was heard. Children nestled into the comfort of their parents’ arms, while our community of parishioners held their breath in collective awe as a young woman sat at the keys of a black grand piano and began to play Silent Night.
My mother would host a small dinner for our family and close relations. We dined on homemade Italian ravioli and trays of antipasti. For dessert we enjoyed dried figs and oranges, hard-shelled hazelnuts and almonds.
After eggnog, coffee, and strawberry trifle, my mother would clean the kitchen and tuck us into her bed. Christmas might have been dawning the next day, but as a nurse, my mother knew there was no holiday for the sick.
My cousin Rita, more of a favorite aunt than cousin, and I would walk the short distance through my small Chicago neighborhood to midnight mass at St. Ferdinand Church. Here we sat in silent camaraderie, thanking God for yet another Christmas and the blessings of family.
After the pianist stopped playing, the lights rose, ushering in the dawn of Christmas and the promise of a new day. My cousin and I would walk slowly through the side streets, enjoying the briskness of the midnight air and the delicate shower of snowflakes as they settled on our woolen coats and dotted the curls in our hair. When we returned home, the house was quiet, but the tree in the living room was still lit. Rita stayed the night, tucked into thick blankets on the couch across from the tree.
We drank hot chocolate and ate my mother’s buttery spritz cookies, talking and laughing far into the night. The magic of Christmas is not in the mayhem and frenzy of this season, but in the peace of a moment spent in church or during a long walk with a loved one, embracing the beauty of this fleeting time.
I asked my mother-in-law if she had any special Christmas memories of her beloved St. Patrick’s Church in Newport, County Mayo, Ireland. Her large brown eyes lit up with the first hint of memory.
Throughout the year, the children would walk to mass through the neighboring villages and down the winding rocky roads into town. On Christmas Day, the town’s hackney driver would make many a special trek up to the family homes in her village of Buckagh, collecting the parish families for mass; there were three masses.
Being that it was Christmas, the church was filled with villagers, friends, and family. Some folks stayed right through each mass to enjoy the beauty of the candles and illuminated lights. The choir resounded with gorgeous carols and hymns that filled the church. Yes, there is a simple peace in the joy of a world untouched by extravagance.
Again, I asked my mother-in-law if she would have ever dreamt that she would celebrate Christmas Eve mass at St. Patrick’s Church with her three young American grandchildren many years into the future. She just smiled at the thought.
A few years ago when my children were young, we spent Christmas in Newport. It was a magical holiday. On Christmas Eve, the streets were dark and quiet, lit by dim streetlights and the translucent glow of mist falling on the wet pavement. Inside St. Patrick’s Church, a lighted tree, boughs of holly, and a crèche decorated the altar. Children processed up the aisle in Communion dresses, angels delivering gifts to the Baby Jesus. My children sat still nestled between their grandmother, father, and me, probably wondering if Santa knew they were in Ireland. I look back at this time and the innocence of our children, thanking God for my family.
I have been blessed with the friendship and love of many fine women in my life. They have taught me the values of kindness, perseverance, humility, and joy. One lovely woman who has touched my heart is Bridgie Conway. No matter the rains that fall, she will always see the rainbow. Truly, Bridgie understands the peace of family and the comfort of home.
She shared with me her love for her native town of Doona, Ballycroy, County Mayo, Ireland. With laughing eyes and a joyful heart, she told me about the church in Ballycroy. Interestingly, I can so relate with the daughters and sons of Ireland who identify their childhood homes with their parish. In Chicago, we would always ask new friends from different neighborhoods to which parish they belonged.
Bridgie shared with me interesting photos and knowledge of her childhood church, Holy Family, and the ruins of Fahy Church, which dates back to the 12th or 13th century; it rests on the sweeping coast of the Atlantic Ocean, the nearest point to America.
Legend has it that a fierce gale swept over the parish on the 6th of January in 1839, literally raising the thatched roof of the church and setting it to rest on what would become the exact spot of Holy Family Church. Building of this church commenced in 1845, but was delayed by the Famine and financial hardship. It finally opened in 1853.
In my research, I uncovered an interesting aside that testifies to the deep faith of the people of Ballycroy. During the Penal times, mass was celebrated along the shores of Loch an Aifreann. A person held watch at a rock known as Clogh an Aifreann, so the devout could worship in peace. To me, this signifies that a church is not just a construct, but rather a treasured symbol for community, faith, and family that does not necessarily reside between the confines of four walls, but rather in the chambers of one’s heart.
Truly, this notion of family is what struck me most during my conversations with Bridgie Conway. Her heart lies with her family and the simple memories of her mother’s homemade Irish bread and hand-churned butter. Her love lies with her husband, brothers, sister, children, grandchildren, and her many friends. Her laughter rings in the hearts of all who know Bridgie and her enthusiasm for life, its challenges and joys.
This Christmas remember that there is truth in the sadness which tugs at our heartstrings, fondness in memories, and hope in the promise of a new year. As long as we have hearts that feel, tales to tell, and songs to sing, we will never be far from the simple joy in peace.
*Sources Consulted: Ballycroy: A Walk Through Time, copyright 2019.
Diocese of Killala: Vineyard, Issue 56, Easter 2017.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at su*******@ya***.com.