By Paul Breen
On the way home for Christmas in Ireland, I passed through the western outpost of Craggy Island. There’s a bitter wind coming in off the sea at this time of year, and there’s not a great deal for the locals to do except watch television or pray. Lately, though, I’m told that church attendances haven’t been that good.
The Bishop says it’s only 2% that are missing services, but that’s not what the people - and even the papers - are saying. There’s a stiff breeze of discontent adding to the already awful weather conditions. But for all its shortcomings in forms of entertainment, Craggy Island’s not a bad place to visit. You’re usually greeted with a lovely cup of tea when you go up to the parochial house to chat with the three priests. I like these men, you see, because everything’s black and white with them. Long before it became fashionable in my adopted home of SE7, these guys were seen about town in just two simple colours – black robes and white collars, like walking pints of Guinness.
So there was me in my wellington boots, big coat and black and white protest scarf getting up to the house. It was so cold by now that I was looking forward to a brew from the housekeeper Mrs Doyle. In fact, if I didn’t get a decent cup of tea from the good woman of the house, I’d have to call the local NHS centre, which thankfully has now relocated itself to The Valley.
But I was in for a great shock from Mrs Doyle when I finally got past the dogs, and the chickens, and the wild mountain goats that hang around Craggy Island parochial house.
“A cup o’ your finest,” I said, as Mrs Doyle took me coat.
“That’ll be two pounds fifty,” she answered. “And if you don’t like it, you can go to the next restaurant from here, which is in Galway.’”
“You’re the quare one, Mrs Doyle,” said I. “Pulling me leg and me hardly fit to walk after that auld slog up through the muck. Sure Galway’s fifty miles away, and I’d rather have tea with my good friends in the black and white.”
“I’m pulling nobody’s leg,” she says. “It’s the Bishop’s orders. No more free tea and coffee, nor biscuits neither, regardless of whether you’re in black and white or claret and blue. And if you want chips we’re doing eight for three pounds, but don’t be expecting big ones.”
“I’ll just have a cup o’ tea.” I kicked off my boots at the door, for I wasn’t going to turn back having passed through the valley and up the mountainside like I was walking inside a Daniel O’Donnell song. He’s a frequent visitor to Craggy Island too, coming from just up the road in Donegal when he’s not appearing in Strictly Come Dancing, where they go through contestants nearly as quick as Charlton goes through managers these days. At least with Daniel you know there’s going to be a happy ending to every story that he tells.
Anyway, back to the story. Going inside in my sock soles, I noticed a plush new carpet underfoot. This must have been what the two pound fifty teas were paying for, I thought as I tracked down the three Fathers in the living room. Personally, I’d have rather had the auld carpet if they’d kept the welcoming atmosphere as before.
Once I got inside, the famous Father Jack was in the corner cursing the lack of good beer, and the fact that the Bishop said he was getting too old to live on the island. Once you’re past 40 you’ve no future on this new Craggy Island. The Bishop, you see, was only interested in the young ones nowdays – in a purely platonic sense, I should add, for fear of any more misunderstanding creeping into the picture.
Ted and Dougal though were glued to the television, watching a young woman on the screen with the kind of eyeing up you don’t expect from a pair of priests.
To be fair to Dougal, though, he was looking on with a different kind of glaze to his gaze. He just assumed that the Dublin Web Summit of 2015 was something to do with Spiderman. Instead, he found himself listening to a woman dressed in so much black she seemed to be heading for a funeral, or a role in a Johnny Cash video. And there was no sign of Peter Parker or his alter ego at all.
Wherever the woman in black was going, she had stopped off to talk about an English team breaking out of football’s second tier. He couldn’t see the corpse, but he’d heard of Charlton once or twice he said. When he was a younger fellow in the seminary, he kept his natural urges at bay with Panini sticker albums to pass the time and he remembered getting stuck to the superglue when he was adding Mark Kinsella to the Charlton page because nobody told him you had to peel the backs off. Lord, there was an awful commotion. The ambulance had to be called to Maynooth and it was a Sunday, too.
Anyway, just as they were cutting the fingers off Kinsella, Father Ted turns round and tells us to shut up about our stupid sticker album stories. He says there’s something more interesting on the box.
“Has Spiderman turned up?” Dougal got all excited of a sudden.
“No,” says Ted. “This woman’s talking great sense.”
The lady in black was suggesting that her team was going to take supporters away from other clubs in London and the Premier League.
“That’s it,”says Ted. “The solution to our attendance troubles.”
Thus started a whole day’s activity, in which I had no choice but to join, putting on my wellington boots and working for Craggy Island Catholic Church, free of charge, without even a bloody cup of tea. Off we went around all the other Cchurches and tried to steal their members – the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Dippers, the Baptists, the Anarchists, the Paisleyites, and the post-Paisleyites. Unfortunately, for all our tramping through the mud, not a one was to be had, and not a soul to be saved and sent across to Craggy Island Catholic Church.
“There’s still West Amish,” Ted reminded us. Yes, there was, but God I wished there wasn’t. The small island parish of West Amish is even further off the coast of the wild and ragged mainland than Craggy Island. Long ago, some religious folks from Pennyslvania got a boat on the United States east coast for a trip up to Canada, but got badly lost on a storm-swept sea and ended up on rocks thousands of miles from their natural hinterland.
The Irish government then gave them millions to build a sparkling new church on the condition they took care of the deserted island they’d landed on. From that point on the island of West Amish flourished, even though technically it was east of where the original Amish people came from. Of course it’s also important to remember that the whole event’s such a secret it’s not recorded in history books or maps or anything. The inhabitants of West Amish just sit there merrily fishing and hunting and living a good life, and the story goes that they don’t even have to pay tax to the government.
“Sure, why would they come to Craggy Island Ted?” Dougal asked along the way as we made our way up towards their spanking new church that seemed to be getting fuller and fuller every week.
“Because that woman said so,” Ted explained. “And if they had her on the television, she must be what they call a guru.”
“A guru!” exclaimed Dougal. “I thought they were Indians.”
“Not at all,” said Ted. “Some can be cowboys too.”
“Christ almighty,” said Dougal. “You learn something every day. I’m picking up more new words than in an episode of Mrs Brown’s boys, which Father Jack translates for me.”
But they were giving no lessons out on the island of West Amish and all our efforts translated to nothing except for fits of laughter when we suggested their congregation comes back with us to the uncertain winds of Craggy Island.
Turning our backs on them, we sailed for home across the water, through the valley, and up the mountainside to the dogs, the chickens, the mountain goats, and Mrs Doyle’s two pound fifty tea.
“Maybe,” said Dougal, “these gurus don’t know everything after all.”
“Remember what the Bishop says,” Ted spoke with rare sarcasm. “We’ll be saving on the tea even if the chapel’s empty.”
Father Jack just sat in the corner and said feck. It would have been time for another whiskey, but there was nothing left in the parish but cheap beer, bags of eight chips, and cups of two pound fifty tea.
“Merry Christmas,” says I. “And a happy new year.”
“Suppose we’ll see you at the service,” answered Ted.
“You will,” I agreed. “I never miss the Craggy Christmas service. I love it when the Covered End choir on the north side o’ the chapel does their Craggy Island version of that Paul McCartney song.”
“Oh no, I didn’t mean the service here,” Ted admitted, and all of a sudden there was such an awkward silence in the room we could hear the ghosts whispering from here to the ghost islands in the Aran.
“Sure, we’re going over to West Amish this year with the rest o’ them. It’s warmer there and they’re doing cups of tea for free.”
PAUL BREEN’S book The Charlton Men is available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X