Did you ever have a member of your family either a priest or nun? I did. My Auntie Betty was a Convent of Mercy nun known as Sr Francis. She died many years ago, but one of the things I loved about her was that she dared to be different.
She couldn’t wait to drop the veil and wear ‘civilian’ clothes, was passionate about gardening and education, and had a heart of gold. She wrote out longhand how-to guides for gardening, complete with pictures she attached to pages, and always tried to help people whenever she could. she had very little money, but never complained.
One of the annoying habits she had was always talking over any TV show you tried to watch. Mind you, she also kept asking me when I was going to find a girlfriend – much to my annoyance and embarrassment! But she meant well, and I was very fond of her. Trish was also very happy when she came to stay as she minded the children when they were small, something young Daire didn’t like as she could be firm. But it meant that as a young couple Trish and I could get out for a few nights when she was around, something we always appreciated.
Sadly, in the space of a few weeks we lost Betty and my grandmother Sarah, a double blow that I took a long time to accept.
So why am I talking about Betty now? Well, one of the best moments in my young life were the family trips to faraway Clogheen in Tipperary to visit Betty back in the 1960s. If you’ve never been to Clogheen, back then the Sister of Mercy lived in a convent, taught in the local school and ran the hospital. It was a very small community then, and those visits always stood out because we were treated like royal visitors. The parlour would be laid out with lovely China cups and saucers, a big pot of tea, and lots of gorgeous brown bread, jam, and cakes. To this day I get little tingles thinking about what awaited us when we drove into the driveway.
Time changed, and Betty moved on to Waterford and finally Cahir, where she taught in their school and kept on eye on my niece Andrea. Unfortunately, that way of life is gone now. Clogheen Convent was sold off a few years back and so was Cahir, but I always had a half-formed plan to return to Clogheen some day, just for old times sake. And on Sunday last I did just that.
So off we set as the sun shone and we took the exit from Mitchelstown to Clogheen (and the Vee, which Trish had never seen). As we entered Clogheen I realised that we (my parents and I) had never come from this direction before as we always avoided the village, which slightly disoriented me. And there it was on the right-hand side, a lovely stone building now called The Old Convent (www.theoldconvent.ie), which is now an upmarket B&B and fancy restaurant.
The building itself was unmistakeably the same place, and while I looked around the grounds I could see the little path that we used to take to the hospital. Happy days. There was just one car parked by the ex-convent, so I found myself ringing the doorbell expectantly. A cleaner answered, and when I explained why I was there, she called the co-owner. I stood in the hallway soaking in the surroundings, rattling my brain to try and remember long lost images.
I was to be disappointed when Christine Gannon arrived and, having heard my story, didn’t give me a quick tour. Instead, she said some of the nuns were living nearby if I wanted to call on them. Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether I should impose myself on the now retired nuns or not. I was about to head off to the Vee when an inner voice told me not to be a fool and call in, which I did.
Imagine my surprise when Aine opened the door. Once I explained my appearance, she said she remembered Betty, and so did the other nuns. She invited Trish and I inside, explaining they were about to have their dinner, and steering us into the sitting room. About 15 minutes later two other elderly nuns appeared, Claire, and Elsie, although those are not their religious names.
Over the next 45 minutes or so, over cups of lovely coffee and desserts (what a reminder they were of those visits to Clogheen back in the Swinging Sixties!) we talked about Betty’s great qualities, the connections Trish’s late sister Robbie had with one, the disappearance of religious orders from small Irish towns, etc.
My curiosity sated, we thanked the nuns and departed for the Vee. After the earlier excitement, I was less than overwhelmed by the beautiful scenery which Trish loved. Instead all I could think about was the company of those former colleagues of Auntie Betty, and the memory of that gorgeous dessert.