Rev Joseph Guinan, The Curate of Kilcloon (Dublin: Talbot Press 1912)


Father Mervill, newly ordained, is appointed curate in a poor Co. Clare parish at the request of the holy old PP who baptised him. An accomplished scholar and graduate of Dunboyne in Rome, his pride is at first hurt by the appointment. He is charmed by the simple piety of the peasant parishioners, as well as the goodness of the Parish Priest, Fr. Dempsey. He becomes an ardent nationalist. His sister marries the local Dr. O’Kelly, his friend, and he finds himself suspected of match-making. Later, he is under a shadow when his father is accused of land-grabbing. In this instance, he is gloriously acquitted. After some years of exemplary devotion to his parishioners, he contracts rheumatic fever going to a death-bed. On recovery, he is removed to the Presidency of the Diocesan Seminary, but returns to Kilcloon as PP, where he is last shown a chronic invalid attending the parochial needs of the ‘kindly people’ who were ‘his first love.’

Chap. V asserts that it is a ‘veracious parochial history,’ and throughout it has the shape of autobiography. The events are determined by selection rather than design. It is really as a discourse on the relationship between nationalism and religion that it is chiefly interesting. It is marked throughout by a resolute puritanism which not only prevents the author from discussing the realities of domestic life with any insight - but prevents Fr. Melvill too from speak to his parishioners in anything like a convincingly sympathetic way.

Fr. Melvill is the son of a ‘middle-class’ Irish farmer [1] - one of the ‘strong farmers and graziers’ of the early Land Acts period [216] who later comes under attack from the League for suspicion of land-grabbing. The priest is a sort of rural aristocrat, and the book asserts that - innocent of social snobbery - the peasants (as they are inveterately called) revere him almost as a divinity. In this relation to their priests, Guinan locates the essential holiness of the Irish character. Viewed in another light, the story is a valorisation of the native nobility - the aristocracy which Joyce said had taken over.

Fr Melvill’s brother Hugh acquires the local Protestant Big House, Dereen Manor. His sister comes to be such a person that no lady of fashion could despise her; Dr. O’Kelly is a man whom any family in the land would be glad to be related to. The language that the priest speaks is arch and superior, though he violently assails West-Britonism in several passages (i.e., the School Inspection and the Lecture). An unresolved dynamic of class is at work, and the spate of nationalist eloquence in his lecture does nothing to resolve it. What is missing, of course, is a real politics of class and culture. In converting the shopkeeper D’Alton to nationalism, Melvill in effect heralds the advent of the Cosgrave class.

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[The hero’s father, Melvill:] ‘a good type of the respectable middle-class Irish farmer of the old school, stern-featured, serious and plodding … simple-minded and God-fearing. [2] The ambition of his laborious life was about to be realised: he would see his son a priest. [4] See also death-scene: ‘The hard, honest man, the industrious, successful farmer, the silent persevering bread-winner, the good husband and father ..’ [233]

[Mrs Melvill:] ‘younger than her husband by many years [2] … his gentle helpmate … [3] … your good mother, the best and kindest woman I ever knew [Dempsey, 31] … the honour due, and ever accorded to the mother of a priest [6]’

[Canon Moore:] ‘their beloved Parish Priest’ [4]

Ordination: ‘All were bidden to the joyous marriage feast to celebrate the espousal of the young priest with his peerless bride without spot or blemish, Holy Church, to whom h would plight his troth for ever and aye.’ [7] ..

‘As for that, alanna machree,’ [Mrs Melvill] replied, ’now you’re a priest of God we look on every penny spent on you as invested in the bank of heaven. And, if every penny was a jewel or a diamond, I’d give them all to die the mother of a priest.’

And he, the heir of all the ages, the finished product of advanced education, listened in reverent wonder to the simple, unlearned Irish mother, who gave him a grander and nobler idea of the priesthood than treatise or professor could. Aware, as he was, of the popular notion in rural Ireland, which invests the mother of a priest with something of a sacred character, he felt convinced that she had acquired a new title to his veneration which made her dearer and holier in his eyes than ever before.’ [15]

[Father Mark Dempsey, Kilcloon P.P:] ‘the very beau ideal of the Irish soggarth aroon. [27] From time to time he raised his eyes towards the Tabernacle in a rapt, seraphic gaze, like one who saw a vision … His edifying demeanour made a deep and lasting impression on the young priest … never forgotten … never failed to do him good ..’ [30]

‘What a loveable picture that venerable soggarth presented as he knelt there in the hushed silence, only broken by the whispering of prayer … aroused … such feelings of reverence and awe that [Fr Melvill] could well imagine himself in the presence of some old saint of the ages of faith, returned to life.

‘The rapt Culdee!,’ Father Melvill again said to himself, with his customary proneness to literary associations.’

‘He was much edified by the old priest’s manner of life. It was a priestly life in the highest sense of the word. [37] … the only happiness worth having, the happiness of doing good, the happiness of being in peace with God, with himself, and with his neighbour.’ [38]

‘[M was] an accomplished young priest, full to overflowing with sacred and profuse learning, a thoroughly trained and well-equipped soldier of the Gospel.’ [42]

‘As to whether he [M] was a profound theologian, or only a man of average knowledge, of gentle or plebeian birth, they knew not and cared not, for in their eyes the grace of ordination had sealed and signed him as God’s vice-regent, even as the prophet’s anointing had ennobled David, the shepard boy, and raised him to the throne of a nation. When the Curate of Kilcloon began to realise the grand and sublime ideals which the people have formed of their priests, he thought pityingly of the Dunboyne dons ..’ [44]

‘[M hoped] to grapple with a real live Rationalist, or Agnostic, and prove against them the strength and superiority of those keen-edged scholastic weapons, in the use of which he had been so carefully and systematically trained.’ [45]

‘sectarian shibboleth: “To h... with the Pope!”’ [47]

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Chap. V - Peter’s Pence Collection
Jerry Raftery is slow to pay Peter’s Pence. Father Mervill explains that, with the loss of his temporal domains, the Pope is as badly situated as the Parish Priest and as dependent on the faithful. Jerry says impertinently, ’any of ye has a better situation than I have ... .’ When Mervill takes clerical umbrage, Jerry backs down and coughs up:

‘Would you insult our Holy Father, the Supreme Head of the Church by speaking of him in such a manner?’ said the priest warmly. ’I don’t mind an insult to myself, but I’m horrified to hear an Irishman insulting the Pope. Oh, shame on you Jerry! Shame on you!’

‘Is it me to insult the Pope?’ he replied indignantly, his Catholic instincts aroused by the taunt, ’or the priest aither? … Ah, no … I’d cut out my tongue before I’d do it. … I didn’t main any harm by it - God knows I didn’t, your Reverence.’

Father Mervill is able to reply:

‘I’m quite sure you didn’t mean anything disrespectful to the Holy Father, or to the clergy, … The bad word only ‘slipped on you,’ no doubt. The Pope has no more faithful children in the whole world than in holy Ireland, thanks be to God! … I believe you’d fight for him yourself, Jerry?’

‘Oh, wouldn’t I, you Reverence,’ he said, brandishing his stick. [51]

Finally, when they unite in considering how the people of Ireland would rejoice if the Pope ever came to visit them: ’I’d give him my last shilling … I’d give him up my little place, fond and all as I’m of it, and go beg the world after for a crust … .’ Guinan concludes: ’From this profession of faith, it was pretty plain that there was very little, if any, of the anti-clerical disposition in poor Jerry.’ [53]

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Chap. VI - Simplicities of Irish Life
Focuses on Irish piety in good earnest. The arguments are analogous to those of the Literary Revival.

‘There is a mysterious, intuitive perception of the deep things of God in the faith of the Irish peasant, which few know so well as his own Soggarth Aroon; a strange, subtle power, or clairvoyance, begotten of simplicity and purity of soul, which realises the profoundest mysteries of religion, as if the veil were drawn aside. It calmly contemplates the sublimities of the world unseen, even as the eyes of the eagle &c. Truly, simple Irish faith is a mystery in itself, and can only be understood by one nurtured and fed on it from childhood, with ideals distilled in the alembic of congenial simplicity of soul.’ [55-56]

‘the grandeur of the people’s faith’ [56]

The priest should not repudiate the requests of the ignorant peasants who have come to believe that he has the power to heal animals: ’What more natural than that, when human remedies fail … they should have recourse to the priest, the Lord’s minister ..? ’ [60]

‘spoke in his wheel’ - G. misuses the expression diametrically. [62]

The local Protestant minister [Mr. Desmond] - a good friend - has been shaken in his bona fides by reading Cardinal Newman … ‘the Catholic atmosphere in which he lives has also its effect on his mind.’ [64] Later, he is converted.

Note err. pranacea - err. for panacea.

Letter to Dunboyne dons: ‘I was not long among the good people of this parish until I became convinced that a study of their daily lives offers a far more convincing argument for the truth of our holy religion than I, with all my scholastic learning, can give.’ [65; note Dunboyne for Maynooth]

‘“We couldn’t make enough of our priests, God bless them! Sure, when all comes t’all, we have on one else to stand to us.” ... They cannot for a moment forget that I am divinely commissioned to stand at the altar to offer the August Sacrifice ..’ [67]

‘Non-Catholics in Ireland … are sorely puzzled for the wonderful hold the priest has over his people … Some attribute it to the tyranny and domineering spirit of the clergy, others to the ignorance of the peasantry … But let bigotry say what it will against us, the priest is loved, revered, and honoured as no other man in the parish is. ... the place which the priest holds in the hearts of the people has not been won by tyranny or domineering … but by honest services, the unselfish sacrifices, the high character and personal holiness of the Soggarth aroon - the fondest title in any language for the Lord’s Anointed.’ [71]

Guinan points out that the word parson, unlike priest, is avoided as being quasi-ironical. [71]

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Chap. VII - Parish of Kilcloon
Under the care of the parish, he grows more ’robustic’ every week. [75]

‘The child of parents not far removed in social standing from themselves, he was in a position to understand and appreciate them. Although his education raised him far above them … yet was he still a peasant’s son in temperament, sympathy, and inclination. … This was the secret of the warm, personal attachment which grew up between this loveable people and their new Curate … There is a mixture of familiarity and respect, of independence and deference, of audacity and reverence in the Irish peasant’s manner of treating his priest, which language cannot describe. There is a freemasonry in their relations only known to themselves.’ [78]

Failure of the Kilcloon Peat Co. [82-85]

Father Mervill writes for Irish and American papers, ‘on the white wings of the Catholic press to the four corners of the world.’ A peasant girl tells him how moved she is to read a story - not knowing it be his - which she has from her sister in America. [103]

‘The line in which he specialised was the short story with a moral, such as the one here reproduced [104].’ The story is about a the making of a nun, of a gentleman-farmer family. ‘It is ever so with many of the best and bravest of the daughters of Erin, the fairest flowers of her noble womanhood. They will bury themselves in the cloister, and hide their beauty and their accomplishments under the nun’s veil, ere speck of earthly blemish has yet fallen on the white robe of their baptismal innocence. God bless our Kathleen O’Carrolls! God bless them!’ [107]

‘.. her father was 20 years her mother’s senior, and in declining health’ [109]. The elder sister becomes a nun on the African missions. When she returns many years later, the younger, in a pneumonia fever, imagines she sees her drowning. In reality, the elder is narrowly saved from a ‘watery grave’ in a storm. She arrives home in time to see the younger, beautiful and still ’pure’ girl, laid out in death: ’Lord, Thy Will Be Done.’

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Chap. XII - Among the Innocents
‘like all good men - an infatuated lover of little children, whose sweet simplicity had an inexpressible charm … [120] ’I like best the delightful irresponsibles who have not yet attained the fateful years of discretion.’‘ [121]

‘However, even in his most familiar relations with his child friends, he noticed that they instinctively remembered that he was not as the rest of men, but one above them and apart from them in a sublimity all his own.’ [125]

[School manager] ‘Mr Cusack married at 50 the young and attractive mistress of the Girls’ School. … A more happy couple could not be imagined.’

Little Jimmie miraculously restored to health when Nonie write to ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus in Heaven’ [130]. Young Nonie then dies of scarletina.

The School Inspection: through quickwittedness of priest and teacher, snobbish inspector is foiled in attempt to expose pupils as ignorant and slovenly. ‘Had [he] called next day, he would undoubtedly have been shocked at the contrast … tatterdemalions … most of them having already worked 3 or 4 hours.’ [143]

There is an air of authenticity about this incident and the report, and the indictment of the Education Board tends to stick. The date is c 1880.

The Inspector was a dandified young man with an English accent … bored expression of countenance … castle official class of moderate means and unlimited gentility and pretensions [157] [expecting] to encounter the wild Irish, pure and undefiled. [137] … [for examination] takes his favourite subject, the British Isles. [141]

Melvill’s father visits a recommends changes in the priest’s holding:

‘’Bedad, then, avic, machree,’ he replied, ’I must be a Hercules, so, for I did all that and more on my own place, chiefly with my own two hands; and the only reward I got for my trouble was to have my rent raised. But thank God, I have my own farm bought out now, and I’m payin’ less than halfth’ ould rack rent.’

[...] There was as note of triumph in the old farmer’s voice, as he made the latter statement, a note of jubilation over his unexpected deliverance from landlord bondage. And, as for the Herculean labours he boasted of having performed in his day, his horny hands, rugged, weather-beaten brow and bent frame bore eloquent testimony to them.’ [150]

IRISH IRELANDER: ‘Irish Ireland movement … he fully believed destined to bring a new soul into Erin’ [170] Melvill addresses in public lecture Martin D’Alton ad hominem, ‘the principle shopkeeper in the parish … a notorious opponent of the Gaelic League.’

contempt for golf [186, et passim] ‘semi-indecent waltz’ [187] stamp out vile publications of the London gutter-press [187] the usurious Jew’ [178]

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Fr MELVILL’s LECTURE [Pt. I]: ’.. and Irishman should be a genuine, honest Irishman, and not an imitation Englishman, or West Briton, as we say. … The religious atmosphere of our homes, the surroundings and associations of youthful days, the traditions, hopes, fears, and aspirations we have been fed on, all contribute to make us what we are, Irish of the Irish, and, speaking for the great mass of the population, Catholic of the Catholics … [176] … a proper pride of race … founded on an intelligent knowledge of our history [180] … [not] setting back the hands of civilisation’ [181] compares Albert Edward de Morphy of Windsor Villa with Shaun O’Flaherty of the Inishmaan.

‘‘Look on this picture and on that.’’ Which of these two, I ask, is the nobler type of Irishman - the well-groomed pigmy, the poor mean imitator of everything English, or the young Aran giant, an unshorn Nazarite glorying in his strength, the living embodiment of the proud traditions of his heroic race? … he is no savage to be stared at by tourists; he is no barbarian, this Irish-speaking Irishman. On the contrary, he is in his way the most interesting type of character, not merely in Ireland, but probably in Western Europe.’ [183]

‘.. nomenclature, topography, hagiology, and literature of our country’ [184]

‘There are hundreds and thousands of people who are Irish Irelanders at heart, but they lie in an enchanted sleep, like the fabled warriors in the cave of Innisowen, waiting for the magic word that will make them leap into life again, and chase the demon of Anglicisation into the sea, even as St. Patrick … sent [the snakes] writing and squirming into the Atlantic.’ [186]

‘But let us develop our civilisation on native lines [187] half-and-half Irish people [187] bounded duty … to discredit this nation-killing fallacy that to be Irish is to be inferior and incapable of becoming great in the Englishman’s sense of the word, that is to say rich, or reputed as such.’ [188]

‘Stop your ears against the Siren songs of Anglicisation, and tie yourselves to the mast of the good ship Irish Ireland lest you be lured to the shore which is whitened with the bones of generation after generation of anti-Irish Irishmen. … a voice whose fascination we need not fear, for it draws us to a pleasant shore, the friendly kindly, Irish Moy Mell of Gaeldom, a land of promise, flowing with the milk and honey of glorious memories and inspiring hopes.’ [189]

‘For all its bloated prosperity, England, to right-seeing eyes, shows manifest signs of national decadence, whereas the Irish people, a clean-living, prolific, God-fearing race, nurtured in the wholesome air of poverty and persecution, have before them, we hope, a great future.’ [190]

Melvill’s LECTURE [Pt. 2]: ‘Noe was yet living when the first colonists came to Ireland, according to the Annals of the Four Masters … There was a High King, or Ard-Ri, in Ireland for 3,000 years, in unbroken succession, from the time of the Firbolgs to Roderick O’Connor, the last Ard-Ri. How many of us could tell the names of even half a dozen of the most famous of those monarchs, such as Ollamh Fodhla, who instituted the great Feis of Tara; Con, the hundred-fighter, who claimed half of all Ireland as his territory; or Cormac MacArt, to whose reign is [?addigned] the Golden Age of ancient Ireland? We live on the border of Esker Riada, which divided Owen’s half from Conn’s half;’ and how many are able to explain what that means? Irish history tells us that most of the Irish kings for upwards of 800 years belong to the Northern, or the Southern Hy-Neills. How many could explain that riddle? And so it is with many other events of ancient Irish history.’ [191]

‘.. the glories of Christian Ireland, which won for itself in the dark ages of the world the most honourable title ever given to a nation, the ‘Island of Saints and Scholar,’ a name that deserves to be written across the pages of history in letters of light. [195] ... from the sixth century until the beginning of the penal times Ireland was studded over from sea to sea with churches, nunneries and monastic schools [196] … Clonmacnoise, with its crosses, towers, and ruined churches - that have weathered the storms of a thousand years - is a place of which Ireland is as proud as Rome is of her Coliseum, or Athens of her Parthenon.’

‘Ireland is pre-eminently the country of religious vocations … within the wide domain of the Church’s territory there is no more fruitful recruiting ground for the arm of the King of Kings than ‘our own old Catholic land.’ … the Irish have been ever a religious-minded, supernatural people, the prevailing trend of whose thoughts is to ‘seek the things that are above.’ [199] Irish peasant’s trusting, child-like faith in the goodness of Providence [198].. pure spring of Irish faith [199] … I shall touch but lightly on the seven hundred years’ war against English rule as a source of national pride. [200] For 350 years before the so-called Reformation the Irish were fighting for their country against the English invaders; for 300 years after it they had to fight for their faith [202] But if our forefathers were doomed to failure in their efforts to regain their national independence, they were singularly favoured by Providence in their fight for their religion, a fight against desperate odds. [203]’

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Chap. XVIII - Boycotted
Melvill Snr. buys for son Hugh Dereen Manor, ‘gentleman’s place’ [216]; returning American-born emigrant demands Buckley’s Place - some fertile fields - from Mr. Melvill, and gains support from Land League; Melvill’s son Hugh driven off the land; old papers of the White’s discovered which include evidence that Buckley sold the fields for a large sum.

dislike of being regarded as a family man and a nepotist [209] … aiding and abetting land-grabbing, and that by none other than his father [209] Dereen Manor … as family named White … auction … a strong Protestant farmer in the neighbourhood had the impertinence to question the genuineness of the bid [211] It was his [Mr. Melvill’s] proudest day, perhaps, of his life - excepting, of course, the day of his son’s ordination. [212]

[Buckley] joined the local branch of the League, and soon gained adherents to his cause. [213] NOTE: League is enough, in place of Land League, though the mere context would suggest Gaelic League to the uninitiated reader.

Melvill’s being suspected of involvement in the incident by his parishioners ‘a fair example of the irony of his fate.’ [215] Fr. Melvill Pres. of Kilcloon Branch of the League … resigned [215] young priests should stay out of politics [215]

‘cattle drives’: This was the new evangel of the land agitation, which a section of the ultramontane politicians were just then preaching as a means of breaking up the ranches. To the cupidity of the landless man, and the small farmer who was anxious to increase his acres, the new doctrine appealed with special force. ... To be a big farmer was now looked on as a disgrace, if not a crime; and the rich boddagh might well tremble for his possessions when the fiery cross went round with the order, ‘Drive him.’ [216]

[In the aftermath] the principal drivers and the Yankee ‘show the white feather’ by going bail.

‘Down with the grabber and the sons of the grabber ..’ Father Melvill’s hot blood resented the covert insult to the cloth [and boxed his ear (argumentum baculinum)] [221] [the culprit leaves Kilcloon for America 222]

‘a rigorous boycott [222] … no one had the moral courage to oppose the ukase of the League [223] [Hugh Melvill forced to leave for America, but his brother James. ‘made of sterner stuff’ takes over the Manor’ [223]

‘agreement [found] between George White and Tom Buckley … to sell … for … two hundred pounds … a receipt … witness [still alive] testified &c.’ [223-4]

Note: ‘Had his enemies the ordering of it, they could scarcely have devised a sweeter revenge.’ [226] His son Hugh runs off to America under persecution by the Land League.

Matt Melvill is dying of heart failure; his son Hugh is ‘working as a navvy in NY in daily fear and dread that some one would discover his identity and [call] him ‘grabber’ [228]

Matt dies just as Hugh arrives home from America’[232]: ‘The hard, honest man, the industrious, successful farmer, the silent persevering bread-winner, the good husband and father had fallen at the post of duty, as became a man and a Christian. [233]

[Guinan attempts to capture the wife’s reactions to the death: “woe to them that broke your heart, and weary on it for a world that left you low to-night, the best and kindest crature ...”, 234]

Chap. XX - The Silver Lining
In a typhoid and diptheria epidemic the baby daughter and wife of a small farmer die. The peasant shows Christian fortitude; as Melvill puts it: ‘I am glad to see, Tom,’ that you are bearing your great affliction with Christian resignation. Remember you will meet your dear ones again in heaven, where there will be no parting.’ He answers, ‘Yes, Your Reverence, that’s just the raison why I’m tryin’ to hould up so well, though I’m bet down into th’earth, thanks and praises be to God!’ [241] Like Mrs. Melvill, he calls the deceased ’‘the best and truest crature..’.

‘Father Melvill’s conduct in the crisis gained him the undying affection and admiration of his flock. Such fearless devotion to duty is one of the strongest links in the chain that binds priest and people in Ireland. … h will despise even certain death to bring the consolation of religion to the dying beggar … bent only on proving his fidelity to his King by saving an immortal soul to swell the chorus of homage that rolls around the Throne … he is a hero in his way, just as brave as the winner of the Victoria Cross.’ [238]

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Chap. XXI - A First Convert
Rev. Desmond, the Protestant minister, is converted partly be association with Fr. Melvill, but more by his conviction that the true Christians are the Catholic peasants of the parish: ’I have been studying them now for five years, and I am forced to the conclusion that the religion in which I have been brought up can never exercise on the mind and heart such strange, Divine influence. No. the Catholic Faith must be what it claims to be, the only pure and undefiled well-spring of Truth.’ [248]

This naturally leads to resentment in the Protestant community: ‘Some of the latter went so far as to insult their late Rector in the most public manner … They received a thrashing, in consequence, which left them sore bones for many a long day. A sensational prosecution followed … a question and discussion in the House of Commons … Darby Duncan … got a month’s imprisonment for what he called the lambaistin’ of the Protestants … “Hurrah for the Pope!”’ [254-55]

On sectarian differences: ‘… in Ireland … owing to the exactions and persecutions of the ascendancy class in the past, the barrier of religious belief has long been as a wall of brass separating Catholics and Protestants.’ [244]

The theological arguments leading to conversion are pedantically rehearsed , and the influence of Cardinal Newman mentioned. [244f].

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Chap. XXII - Illness
Bicycling in the rain to attend a death-bed, Fr. M catches cold and rheumatic fever (rheumpyra) His awful prayer-poem: ‘My Calvary’. [263] [Recovers, takes holiday - doesn’t say where - promoted to Seminary President]

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The curate’s effect on Kilcloon assessed: ‘From being below par [odd idiom in a man who hates golf] it suddenly rose in clerical estimation and steadily hardened up to a standing which no one would ever dream [recte ever have dreamed] of predicting for it. [267] Fr. Melvill [was] likely to be the one great man who would graduate thence into fame and blossom into honours.’ [270] NOTE

hardened is very innocent.

When he visits the O’Kelly’s happy home, he ‘would heave a sigh of regret over his lot,’ but only on the grounds that he is not living closer to them. [268] The children are called after mother, grandfather and uncle: ‘little Jenny, Matt and Bernard.’ [270]

‘his favourite magazine literature [269] Sketches of Parish Life … wherein the commonplace everyday incidents of life in dear old Kilcloon were reproduced with photographic and phonographic accuracy.’ [269]

Age quod agis, his motto [267]; To ’spend himself and be spent’ his motto [274] ‘betimes, the deep and awful gloom inevitably associated with permanently impaired health … the heritage of ills which a double dose of rheumatic fever has bequeathed .’

‘..he would end his ministry where he had begun it, among the simple, kindly people of his first love.’ [275]


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