The man from Del Monte was one of our own
I’ve just published my new book, A Priest’s Diary. Not so much a diary as a series of 60 reflections on incidents and experiences after almost half a century of priesting in seven parishes. Musings, you could say, on the bits and pieces of a priest’s life, in which (in case anyone takes them literally) names have been changed, situations camouflaged and analogous experiences conflated and occasionally embellished to ensure an appropriate degree of privacy. Fictional personae are sometimes assumed for the same reason.
I call what follows, ‘Roses’, and if you read on, you’ll see why.
Sometime in the 1980s Bobby came home. Advances in psychiatric care had coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s cutbacks and those left in mental institutions in Britain found themselves tumbled out into the street. Bobby, who had left Ireland in the Fifties, was the recipient of an unexpected bonus from Her Majesty’s creaking national health service, a ticket home to Ireland.
He arrived back in Kilgarvin, delighted with himself, though with no more to show for his years in England than a cardboard box which contained his few possessions and with the words Del Monte written on the side. It was the time when an advertising campaign for tinned fruit had conferred a certain notoriety on The Man from Del Monte. Thus, Bobby was christened and he delighted in the name. Indeed, sometimes at Mass, at the sign of peace, he would smile his great smile at unsuspecting strangers and introduce himself as The Man from Del Monte. It often had a disconcerting effect.
Bobby had moved into the old home and when it was eventually condemned the County Council built him a small prefabricated house. He kept it like a palace, his obsessive tidiness the result of long years in institutional care. You could, people said, eat your dinner off the floor.
The people minded Bobby for years. A caring but unintrusive presence surrounded him. Neighbours looked out for him. Children waved at him as he wobbled along the road on his low-sized bicycle and he kept getting off to wave back. All his dole money he gave to Biddy in the local post office. She was his unpaid accountant, deciding how the money was spent. So much on food, so much left aside ‘for again’ and so much pocket-money, which invariably was spent on sweets for the neighbouring children. When the money left aside achieved a certain weight, Biddy and himself would take off to town and purchase something substantial. A new suit. Or a hat with a feather in the side. Or a microwave. Or the television that fed his many fantasies.
In recent years he decided he didn’t want to be The Man from Del Monte anymore. For some reason he came to the conclusion that Move Over Butter was more him. We never took to it. It didn’t seem to fit. It wasn’t Bobby. But in any case Biddy discouraged it, especially after Bobby explained some fantasy he had arising out of the advert on television. Biddy told him it wasn’t to be mentioned again. And it wasn’t. After that when children called him Move Over Butter, he would look around nervously in case Biddy was within hearing distance and he’d put his finger conspiratorially to his lips. Say no more.
We indulged his other fantasies. During the Olympics he imagined he was representing Ireland in the Slow Bicycle Race and spent hours practising. But they never sent for him and Biddy explained to him that his particular discipline had been cancelled for that year but that ‘there would be again in it’. On his annual visit to Knock Biddy has to temper his great fondness for Padre Pio’s rosary beads and the smell of the roses he got from them. On the bus he would insist that people would smell the beads and confirm that they could get the scent of the roses. Now, he’d say, with a quiet satisfaction. And, inevitably, he brought enough Knock Holy Water home to bless half the parish.
Bobby exhausted our capacity for being surprised yet he fitted snugly into our lives. A great arm of protection and care surrounded him. He was an accepted part of the parish scene. A neighbour brought him to Mass and Bobby waved his arms in greeting as the cars speed past.
Biddy sent messages from the shop with whoever was passing. If a strange car stopped close to his house, a neighbour materialised to check it out. People listened respectfully when he explained that the television newsreader, Anne Doyle, was a distant cousin of his late mother, though Biddy could often be heard tut-tutting in the background. We tried him out as a collector at Mass but it wasn’t a great success. He had an unnerving habit of watching what people gave and smiling or sometimes frowning at the contribution.
The morning he died people knew something was wrong when the smoke didn’t rise from his chimney before 8 o’clock. The dog whimpered around me as I said the prayers over him. The table was set for breakfast. The clods of turf neatly heaped in preparation for the morning’s fire. The mantelpiece was lined with statues from Knock like soldiers at a parade. A huge plastic bottle of Knock Holy water was on his bedside locker. Biddy was crying silently at the door. The neighbours shuffled around sympathising with no one in particular.
In that respectful Irish phrase Bobby was duine le Dia, someone close to God. And there’s no doubt about that. Sometimes he could be heard crying or howling, an elemental cry that rose from somewhere deep within him but most of the time there was an almost unnerving stillness about him. And when we buried him in Drumsna on a beautiful summer’s day, there was, people said, a great scent of the roses that lifted from around his coffin and filled the valley all the way to Knocknareagh.
Copies of ‘A Priest’s Diary’ are now available at €15 from all local bookshops in Mayo or online from www.knockshrine.ie/bookshop
Also available from the following bookshops:
- Castle St Bookshop, Castlebar… www.mayobooks.ie
- McLoughlin’s Bookshop, Westport…www.mcloughlin’sbookshop.com
- Knock Shrine Bookshop…..www.knockshrine.ie/bookshop
- Séamus Duffy’s Bookshop, Westport, Ph 098-26816
- Smyth’s Newsagents, Claremorris.
- Pastoral Centre in the Cathedral, Ballina.
- Easons Bookshop, Ballina.
- Carey’s Bookshop, Belmullet.
- Milo’s Newsagency, Enniscrone.