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The fog lifted. The island was there. The visitor walked to the end of the disused pier and saw it across three miles of ocean, riding the sea like an overturned fishing boat. Morning sunlight moved along a keel of mountain, above valleys black as tarred boat sides.
He thought of Rome. Surprisingly, the order itself had little descriptive information. In the Lungotevere Vaticano he had been handed an out-of-print book: Weir's Guide to Religious Monuments.
Muck Abbey, Kerry, Ireland. On a small island off the rocky panoramic coastline of the Atlantic Ocean known as "The Ring of Kerry." The monastery, (Albanesian order), founded 1216, rebuilt 1400–1470, has a dependency, or cell, on the mainland, the priory of Holy Cross, at Mount Coom near the village of Cahirciveen. This priory, sacked by Cromwelliantroops, was, in Penal times, a site for clandestine Mass, conducted in the open air on a "Mass rock" altar. The abbey itself (on Muck Island) escaped Cromwellian despoliation and sits on the western slope of the island overlooking a splendor of sea. From the abbey tower the visitor looks down on gray waves that curl on barren rock. The monks fish and gather kelp.
He had telephoned again before breakfast. The pretty girl at the desk in his hotel cranked up an incredibly old-fashioned device to call exchange. "We're wanting Muck Island. No, Sheilagh, it's all right, it's for that priest who spoke to the island last night.
"There now, Father." He took the receiver. A bell rang and rang.
"Muck Island One," said a crackly voice, out in the Atlantic.
The visitor gave his name. He said he had been asked to call and check on the weather.
"What was your name again, now?"
"Kinsella. Father James Kinsella." He had learned his lesson.
"Ah, Father Kinsella. We'll send a boat for you, to be sure. Go down to the pier now, and Padraig will be along shortly."
Gulls, searching the remains of fish, skimmed overhead, dipped to the brackish waters beneath. Behind him, at the end of the road that led to the pier, were three roofless concrete boat sheds, floored with weeds, smelling of urine and sheep droppings. A very old car, which he had thought abandoned, sat in one of the sheds. Yesterday, when he first drove down here searching the fog for a sight of the island, he had looked in at the car. A purple silk stole lay on the front seat. At the hotel, after dinner, he asked who had built this pier. No, the monks had not built it, the Irish government built it, years ago, before the fishing became polluted. At that time, there were some twenty families living on the island. "They've nearly all come out since. Scattered now, to the four ends of the world."
"Polluted. Does that mean the monks don't fish anymore?"
"Ah, no, the fishing is grand again. The water was cleaned up, a while back. The trouble is, it was done too late for the people of Muck. There do be only four families left on the island. And the monks."
The old car he had seen in the boat shed, was it the monastery car?
"It is, indeed. The monks do use it to drive to Cahirciveen of a Sunday. It's twenty miles, Father."
"But, what if the sea is rough, or if there's a fog, and a boat can't come over from the island?"
"Then no Mass is said at Cahirciveen."
No Mass? Yesterday's sights filled his mind; the streets of this Kerry village, gray nineteenth-century facades, market square, gray Gothic church, streets built before, and impassable to, today's traffic. Now existing in permanent confusion, cars, buses, trucks, campers, vans, moving in an endless clogged procession in and out of the narrow streets, while on the outskirts more vehicles were bogged in the muddy confusion of improvised car parks and tent villages. And everywhere in Cahirciveen, jammed into the shops and pubs, herded into the main square like beasts on a fair day, the pilgrims. No one knew how many they were on any given weekend, but for months there had not been a room or a bed to rent for fifty miles around. They were Irish, of course, but there seemed an almost equal number from England and Scotland. Others came by car ferry and charter plane from the continent; an emphasis of French, but also many Germans and even some pilgrims from Rome itself. The Americans had flown in two charter groups, many of them old souls who had never crossed the Atlantic before. They came, it seemed, simply to hear at least one Mass, say the rosary, and leave. The uncomfortable local accommodations did not encourage a long stay. It was a phenomenon, even in the history of pilgrimage. There were no miracles, there was no hysteria, there was not even a special fervor. The mood was nostalgic. The pilgrims rose early on Sunday, went in buses and cars to the foot of Mount Coom, five miles from the village. There, they ascended the mountain, on foot, to kneel on muddied grassy slopes, or on shelves of rock, often in the unyielding Irish rain. Most could see the Mass rock and the priest only from a distance, but all heard the Latin, thundering from loudspeakers rigged up by the townsfolk. Latin. The communion bell. Monks as altar boys saying the Latin responses. Incense. The old way.
"No Mass?" he said to the hotelkeeper. "But when they've come all this way, what do they do if there's no Mass?"
"Ah, now, Father, that's a grand thing to see. The pilgrims just stay there, kneeling and saying the rosary. They stay all day, waiting and praying."
"But don't some of them try to go out to the island itself?"
The hotelkeeper laughed, showing gap teeth. "No fear! No boat can land on Muck that doesn't know the trick of it. And the island boats will land nobody without the abbot's permission. Besides," the hotelkeeper said, serious again, "these pilgrims do be good people. When the abbot put up a sign in the church here in Cahirciveen saying 'Parishioners Only for Confession,' most of the pilgrims stopped bothering the monks. Mind you, the lines are still long. After Mass, on a Sunday, there do be three monks, hard at it in the church until it's time for them to take the boat back."
"But why do the confessions take so long?"
"We still have private confessions. One person at a time in the box."
Private confessions. This was not known in Rome. "What about public confessions?"
"Public confessions, Father?"
"Where the whole congregation stands before Mass and says an act of contrition?"
"Ah, that never took here."
Anger, sudden and cold, made Kinsella say: "It took everywhere else!" Ashamed, he saw the hotelkeeper bob his head, obedient, rebuked, but unconvinced.
Yesterday when he first arrived by car from Shannon, Kinsella had carried a paramilitary dispatch case, a musette bag, and was wearing gray-green denim fatigues. At the desk of Hern's Hotel, the girl was curt. The hotel was full, there was a two-month waiting list, no reservations had been made for days. "But you took my reservation," he said. "You confirmed it, and the confirmation was telexed from Dublin to Amsterdam Ecumenical Center. This is Hern's Hotel, isn't it?"
"What was your name again, sir?"
"James Kinsella. Catholic priest," he said, in the Ecumenical manner.
"Oh, Father Kinsella. Oh, excuse me, Father. We have a room for you, certainly."
Father. In the crowded hotel lobby, every available seat was occupied. Standees circled disconsolately around racks of seaside postcards and shelves of paperback books. Father. Sun-reddened faces turned to stare, supercilious of his American accent, his ecumenical clothes. Most of these pilgrims were older than he, old enough to remember the Latin Mass. But there were young ones too, former Catholic Pentecostals, now eager for experience as the penitentes of the day. Their scorn toward him, his own scorn in reverse, met him as he went toward the stairs and the privileged bedroom. His friend Visher, a behaviorist, had made a study of current Catholic attitudes toward their clergy. "People are sheep," Visher said. "They haven't changed. They want those old parish priests and those old family doctors. Sheep need authoritarian sheepdogs nipping at their heels from birth to funeral. People don't want truth or social justice, they don't want this ecumenical tolerance. They want certainties. The old parish priest promised that. You can't, Jim."
Waves lapped the slimed boat steps. A new sound entered Kinsella's ear, the pulse of an engine. He looked at the sea but saw no boat. Sound, preceding vision, carrying clear over the whitecapped waves. Pulsing. Coming, coming; the painful confrontation. He and the abbot of Muck.
"This will not be your first visit to Ireland," father general said, looking up from the file. It was a statement, not a question, but he felt he should answer it.
"No, sir. In my last year at Harvard, I went over there to attend a summer school. The Yeats school, in Sligo. My ancestors were Irish. They came from County Mayo, I believe. It's in the West, where this abbey is."
"William Butler Yeats." The general smiled his faint, Prussian smile. "'What rough beast, its hour come round at last.' Appropriate. I want you to bury this beast. And I think the way to do that is for me to give you plenipotentiary status. Emissaries who must report back to headquarters, especially young ones, would seem to these old mastodons to be mere novices. I will make clear to this abbot that you are me. What you decide will be the order's final edict."
"What about the father provincial in Dublin, sir?"
The general sighed. "It seems that he and the abbot of Muck have a disagreement going back as far as the Pauline papacy. As you know, since Vatican IV, bishops are no longer bound by the orders of provincials. These Irish abbots are mitred and of episcopal rank. Each is a prelatus nullius, belonging to no one. This one has chosen to ignore the provincial's recommendations. However, he cannot ignore mine." Father general picked up a xerox sheet, a facsimile of an old chapter house record book, microfilmed, its original now destroyed. "The recalcitrant abbot of Muck," the general said. "Let's see. He is one Tomás O'Malley, now in his sixty-ninth year, the son of a greengrocer. What is a greengrocer, I wonder?"
"A seller of vegetables, sir."
"Ah. The abbot is the product of an Irish seminary, a place called Kilcoole. Prizewinner, Latin, oh, lala! Doctorate in — can't read this script, must be uncial — doesn't matter. Four years at Buckmore Abbey in Kent. Then, Ireland, Dublin, hmm, hmm, and appointed abbot of Muck. Cast down on some remote little island and abandoned at a relatively early age, it would seem the order had no great hopes of him. Subsequent life of poverty, thirty monks, fishermen all, income from kelp and dulse, whatever that is, and manure sales — well, that's quite enough of that. You can look this over at your leisure." The general picked up an order fact form. "Now, this gives the age of the abbey, details of grants, et cetera. I think I see why the media people are interested, sick as we all are nowadays for a past we never knew. The monastery was founded in 1216." The general lolled in his Eames chair and looked out of the tall windows of his office. Below was the new pedestrian mall of the Lungotevere Vaticano and, beyond it, the dull, muddy flow of the Tiber. The general's eye moved left to fix on the roofs of the Vatican, and the dome of St. Peter's, immense, even at a distance. "The year twelve hundred and sixteen. Think of it. The fourth Lateran council had just closed. Innocent the Third was in the chair of Peter. And that great monstrosity down the road there was three hundred years away from being built."
He looked again at the fact form. "In the beginning the abbey was not ours. It was founded by some local king, at the behest of Patrick, an Irish bishop saint. The Albanesians petitioned to take over in 1406. Within a couple of hundred years they owned half the lands of Kerry, which is why they have this priory on the mainland. The abbot of Muck has always had the right to appoint the prior of the cell of Holy Cross at Cahirciveen."
"I believe there is no prior there now, sir."
"That's right, yes." The general consulted the fact form. "There are nearby parishes, of course, but the monks still cross to the mainland to say Mass and perform sacerdotal duties. And the changes that have taken place elsewhere in our time have simply been bypassed at Cahirciveen. Our Irish provincial has made 'suggestions' on four differing occasions, but this abbot remains blind and dumb. I wonder how long it would have gone on, if it had not been for the tourists? Anyway, it was a BBC crew that did the damage. Latin Mass. Imagine that," the general said, and smiled. "I'd rather like to see one again, wouldn't you?"
"I don't really remember it, sir."
"Backs to the congregation, vestments, introibo ad altare dei. And the bell! The Sanctus! Oh, lala, how one forgets. And now it's packing them in. Listen to this. Ferry tours from Liverpool and Fishguard, charter flights from Leeds, Boston, New York — pilgrimage from France — even bella Italia." The general's amusement turned to a fit of sneezing. He used a nasal inhaler, then stared again at the brownish waters of the Tiber. "It is cliché to say it was to be expected. Even Vatican IV can't bury two thousand years in a few decades. But, I'd have thought Spain. Or, perhaps, some former Portuguese possession." The general sighed. "We are so infallibly fallible, aren't we? Wasn't it Chesterton who said something about a thing being too big to be seen? Ireland. Of course! Well, here you are. Take the file. Let my secretary have your itinerary. I'd suggest you hop a supersonic tonight and go straight to Amsterdam. It's a formality, of course, but in an affair of this kind everything should be strictly kosher." He smiled. "I'll alert the council that you are my plenipotentiary. After Amsterdam, get straight over to Ireland. Remember, I want this settled by the end of the month."
"Get that old fool down off that mountain, James. And if he gives you any trouble — bite him!"
A fishing boat was instantly in sight, bashing through the tops of the whitecaps, as though in the moment Kinsella had looked away, some Brobdingnagian hand had painted it into the seascape. A diesel-engined ten-tonner, it was built to scramble up and over these gray walls of waves. The wind force increased, sending a great slap of water over the edge of the pier. A black storm cloud filled the edge of the horizon. As the fishing boat approached across the strait, Kinsella picked up his dispatch case, which contained the general's letter and an order plenipotentiary, signed in Amsterdam by the four current members of the World Ecumen Council. He walked to the stone steps as the boat cut its engines and drifted outside the bar. A man in a tweed hat appeared and moved about in the bow. Another stood in the wheelhouse, a stout young fellow in a white turtleneck sweater. Not monks, as he had expected, but islanders, the few fisher families still living on the abbot's domain. The man in the tweed hat untied a black curragh, which floated light as a mussel shell at the stern of the ten-tonner. Pulling it close, he jumped in, raised long oars, and rowed strongly toward the pier, the curragh swinging up like an amusement park gondola to hang on the white-tipped peaks, then fall, dizzyingly, into the trough of waves. The mother boat heeled. With a rattle, an anchor spilled like entrails from its bow, falling deep into the sea. The stout youth came out of the wheelhouse and stood at the side, staring across the water at Kinsella. With his curling red hair, freckled skin, snub nose, and white fisherman's sweater he looked like Dylan Thomas.
The curragh, stroked easily now that it had passed into the shelter of the pier, came toward the steps where Kinsella waited. The rower had his back to the steps. Skillful, he shipped the oars as he glided alongside, his hand, with the blind touch of practice, finding the solitary iron bollard at the foot of the steps.
As the tweed-hatted rower turned to look back at the pier, a smile rose on Kinsella's face, an American smile, the currency of greeting. But the rower's eyes moved past him as though he were some idle seabird come to rest on the pier. Eyes swept the pier, the sheds, the road beyond, then, reluctantly, came back to him. "Morning," the boatman said.
"Hello, there." Kinsella, smiling, moved confidently down the last slimed steps toward the curragh. But the boatman shook his head, warning him not to board. The boatman was young, vulpine, with a wild cub's grace. His gray eyes stared, as the eyes of an animal stare from a zoo cage.
"I'm James Kinsella, Catholic priest," Kinsella said, from Ecumenical habit.
Excerpted from "Catholics"
Copyright © 1972 Brian Moore.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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