St. Patrick’s Day morning follows the same yearly routine. I shave carefully and iron my best shirt and pants. I root out my “special occasion” shoes—they are hard and uncomfortable—and take them outside for polishing. Our urban garden in Dublin can’t compare to the wildness of Báile Mhúirne, Co. Cork, where I grew up, but it does enough to remind me of home. This year, the day is wet so I polish my shoes in the garden shed, hearing music in the rustling of the leaves and the pitter-patter of raindrops on the felt roof. Music is my most tangible connection to home, especially the hymns of the ‘O’Riada Mass’ and, in particular, ‘Ag Críost an Síol,’ believed written by a Father Mícheál Ó Síocháin, and set to music by the composer Seán Ó Riada as the offertory hymn in his 1968 mass.
To Christ the seed, to Christ the harvest,
Into Christ’s barn may we be brought.
To Christ the sea, to Christ the fish,
In the nets of Christ, may we be caught.
From birth to age, and from age to death,
May your two arms, O Christ, be around us.
From birth to the end, not the end but re-growth,
In the grace of paradise, may we be.
Humming to myself, I pull the hood of my coat tight and set off for my local church: St. Peter’s. The second line of the hymn, with its reference to “Christ’s barn,” triggers a childhood memory of our pet cat. When Holly got very old, she crawled into a neighbor’s garden shed, curled up on the empty coal sacks, and was found dead the following week. “She went in there to die. It was time for her,” our elderly neighbor said. His simple explanation had made sense to me back then. Despite my loss, I was in no doubt that Holly had gone peacefully to her place of rest.
I walk along the Royal Canal towpath, liking the bit where the landscape opens out to the breeze and the water is helped along. I pass a man fishing but it’s hard to get excited about canal fishing. I grew up near an Solán—a tempestuous tributary of the River Lee that regularly broke its banks. The rougher it got the more the fish liked it. I can recall landing trout, racing to remove the hook, and holding them steady in the water until they found the wherewithal to swim away. Gradually, it became less about entrapment and more about deliverance. I was catching fish in order to set them free.
I turn right into Phibsborough Village—it’s lively as always—then right again at Doyle’s Corner. In the distance, the steeple of St. Peter’s rises two hundred feet into the air, the cross at the top like a welcoming embrace. A strong urge to be inside the church wells up in me. With that, I’m across the road, briefly admiring the church’s ornate batten doors before pushing on into the chilly porch with its characteristic aroma of damp stone and furniture polish. Gazing up into the furthest reaches of the vaulted ceiling makes me feel pleasantly inconsequential. I can see dust motes suspended in the reddish-green light passing through the stained glass windows.
My usual seat is free, on the right hand side, four pews from the front. The church is tastefully decorated with traditional emblems of Saint Patrick. Many of the congregation are wearing shamrock. When it comes to the offertory, a tall woman, whom I know as Mary, takes her place on the altar. The piano sounds and she steps forward. Three hundred people hold their breath. As Mary begins to sing, everything is stripped away. I close my eyes and see a vision of myself caught in a fishing net deep beneath the sea. A peculiar sight, but I’m not afraid and I make no attempt to escape. I yearn to go deeper, and I do, by coming here each year, each time finding more.
Cover image by Jeremy Bishop.