The Word made flesh on Claragh's Hill
In his column Let the Busy World Be Hushed, Fr Jason Murphy remembers a visit to a particular house on Christmas Eve some years ago...
“I thought be the way they were talking, you were going to be taller and better looking than what you are.” Those were the words that greeted me when I first turned the knob on the back door of the imposing house on top of the brae in the townland of Claragh near Treehoo cross, in the half parish of Redhills. It was the first time I had entered into the kitchen of Eileen McGuinness on my communion calls in the late afternoon one Christmas Eve. I sat down on the chair ‘neath the window just inside the kitchen door, as she returned the poker to the top of the Stanley range after stoking the flames.
Sitting down on her chair fornent the range she turned to face me, putting on her glasses to take a closer look at the figure of the priest that sat before her but even with the nearer vantage point, her opinion didn’t change.
“Ah you’re just as small as your father” who had been her postman for some years before. “So I suppose you couldn’t miss but I hope you’re not as gabby as him for he’s an odious man to talk.”
I smiled and nodded nervously but, to let me know she wasn’t joking, Eileen finished up with “and that’s just that!”.
Minnie the cat who was scarce of hair didn’t stir upon the chair opposite me as her state of the nation speech continued without interruption, imbuing the heat that emanated from the open door of the range as the flames roared up the chimney on that dark Christmas Eve. She talked on her relations from Knockbride and Mrs Moore from Scothouse and a Teasie from up the road, names that rolled off her tongue without explanation or context, all of whom she expected that I should know and, when I once foolishly stopped her mid flow to ask who some of these people were, names she used with wild abandon, she retorted: ‘You’re long enough around this parish to know who these people are.”
So quickly I learned to keep my mouth shut and add and subtract as I went along.
Five Brennans’ pan loaves sat upon the table unopened just delivered that day by Kenny Condell on his bread round to keep her going for the evening tea over the Christmas days ahead. Slowly as she got up to move the kettle on to the boil, I enquired would she be going anywhere for the dinner the following day.
“Indeed I could go many’s the place as severals have asked me and I used to go indeed but I decided the year to stay put... Sure what would take me and me like this (pointing to the walking aid) getting in and out of cars and all that fuss. So I said to meself, I’d stay where I was, at home beside the fire and…. sure that’s just that!”
“And will you have anyone to keep company?” I naively asked.
“Sure what company would I want with meself and Minnie here by the fire and they’ll be over with the dinner and I’m sure the neighbours will call up.”
And like a bull in a china shop, I ploughed on: “Did you have anyone last year for the Christmas?”
“I did of course…” she replied, pausing before continuing... ‘But the dog died since… and that’s just that.”
The clocked ticked on as she talked and talked and I sipped tea, the red winter’s sun setting behind the Cuilcagh mountains far in the west, the moments having passed so quickly by I knew it would soon be time for Christmas evening mass. I reached for the pyx that I had left on the window sill and, recognising the gesture, she left down the cup and with her head bent low she recited in quiet tones the Act of Contrition followed by the Our Father and, there in the silence of her kitchen, the glow of the red embers of the open range transforming her face, she put forward her hands, one bearing the other and there received, the Word made flesh who in that kitchen in the quiet of that Christmas Eve had come to dwell among us.
And so, as I drove over the road to Killoughter Cross watching the remains of the dying sun reddening the mid winter’s sky, I felt I had come to know in the presence of this woman, who like the shepherds dwelt on the hills outside of David’s town, why it was that God had become incarnate in the form of a helpless child, to touch the hearts of ordinary people amongst whom He dwelt on that Christmas Eve fado, fado, far from Claragh’s Hill.
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