Tuesday 19 November 2019

The week I finally lit a candle for Sister Columba and honoured a promise made many years ago

BACK in the day when I started out as a cub reporter with the 'Tuam Herald', I badly needed some tuition to fine-tune my doubtful skills in the use of that now distant art which was Pitman shorthand.

But where to go? Somebody suggested that the local Mercy Convent ran a secretarial course which trained girls to become what was then known as a 'shorthand typist'. Maybe I could join some evening class?

So one afternoon I trooped along to the slightly foreboding convent building which housed the Sisters of Mercy, who had first come to the town in the famine year of 1846.

Having explained my predicament to a nun at the front door, I was ushered into a prototype convent 'parlour' of the time, with pristine polished table and chairs, gazed upon by a range of religious iconography.

Soon, a quite elderly nun entered the room and introduced herself as Sister Columba. As I told her my problem, she suddenly stopped me in mid-sentence to say: "I will give you one-to-one tuition twice a week and we'll get you up to speed in the shorthand. There's no question of payment or anything."

So for about nine months, on Wednesday and Thursday nights, Sister Columba and I sat at the pristine polished table as she put me through my paces on the squiggles and shapes that make up the Pitman world.

In retrospect, I think the only payment she demanded was some low-level tittle-tattle on what was happening around the town. It was all fairly non-malicious and lightweight stuff and I was glad to provide it in return for her time – and, most of all, her patience.

On some occasions my 'homework' was not as complete as it should have been. But her gracious sense of humour never faltered. She eventually hustled me through some London City & Guilds examination and finally all was well on the shorthand front.

Within a few months, I had decided to leave Tuam to move to another newspaper in a different town. Shortly before departing, I went to the convent to say a thankful goodbye to Sister Columba in what would prove to be my last visit to the pristine polished parlour.

I offered a book token by way of thanks for her efforts and forbearance over all those months, but she steadfastly refused to accept it.

"I don't need it. Keep it for yourself or give it to somebody else,'' she said to me.

I assured her that I would keep in touch and would call in for a chat whenever I happened to be in Tuam in the future. "Make sure you do,'' she said. I knew she meant it. "Light a candle for me now and then,'' she said by way of farewell.

But I never did call or see Sister Columba again. Time passed, and over the years, much water flowed under various bridges. On the odd occasion I was in the town, I never quite got round to revisiting that parlour I had come to know so well.

But distant memories of that particular Sister of Mercy stirred in my subconscious this week, as the Magdalene Laundries drama continued to play out its searing tale of shattered lives. Despite the understandable goodwill on all sides for the victims, there remains something seriously disquieting about the still many unanswered questions that this scandal has unleashed.

This is primarily because nuns from the orders implicated in the scandal insist on maintaining a sullen and studied silence.

There is surely a moral obligation on these religious orders, and the current leadership of the Catholic Church in Ireland, to try and put what happened in those sad times into some kind of historical and religious context.

Everybody knows that while the government of the day was legally and technically in charge, the de facto management of these institutions rested with the Catholic Church.

GIVEN the social norms that existed over many decades, interference by the State or its officials was nigh impossible. Consequently, the continuing intellectual inertia of the Irish church, even since the Enda Kenny apology, has been appalling.

This non-contribution has frustrated attempts to try and contextualise what happened to certain victims. For example, in a number of cases the psychological legacy of their time in the Magdalenes was very much secondary to the effects of a dysfunctional family background, complicated by dire and unrelenting poverty.

But for my part this week, I did light a belated candle for Sister Columba. Its flickering flames brought me back through the years to at least one Sister of Mercy – albeit a world away from the nightmare regime in the laundries – who was a woman generous of spirit.

The tragedy is that this singular quality seems to have been lacking in too many of her fellow nuns. They were the ones charged with caring for the broken and the displaced during their most vulnerable years.

Irish Independent

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