On October 4th 1975, I arrived at Saint Gabriel’s Retreat, The Graan, in Enniskillen, to begin my Passionist Postulancy. I was 24 years of age. I arrived with a few items of luggage and a guitar. The guitar was a parting gift from my colleagues in the Accounts Department at Olivetti in Queenslie, where I had worked for the previous 5 years. It was a very nice guitar, a Yamaha FG 350, which at the time cost £100. I still have it 45 years later and it sounds as good as ever, although whether I sound as good as ever is another matter. Before entering the Passionists I had been part of a folk group that played various venues up and down the country. I’ve mentioned before that Billy Connolly was doing the rounds of the folk clubs at that time as well, and we regularly played on the same bill, always with him as top of the bill, and usually with us as the opening act in each half. I also got involved in liturgical music, post-Vatican II, both in my home parish of St. Laurence’s in Drumchapel, and on youth retreat weekends at the Passionist Retreat Centre at Coodham in Ayrshire.
I had hardly set a foot in the door at The Graan when the Rector suggested that I start a folk group in the church to engage the local young people. Also, my Postulancy Director had become heavily involved in Charismatic Renewal, which was massive in Ireland during the 1970’s and beyond, and he thought it would be a good idea to drag me around County Fermanagh three nights a week to play at various prayer groups. This was at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland and here I was, bundled into the back of a car with my guitar, being driven up and down dark and lonely country roads at all hours of the night, to wherever a prayer group might be taking place. No wonder my mother never slept a wink that year.
In September 1976 I left The Graan to go to Mount Argus in Dublin to begin studies at the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, run by the Jesuits, in Ranelagh, a 20-minute cycle ride away. The Passionists had come to Mount Argus in 1856, but it had only become a parish in 1974. Once again, no sooner had I set foot inside the door, when the parish priest suggested that I start a folk group to engage the local young people. We put a notice in the parish newsletter to invite anyone who might be interested to a first practice, but we were a bit naïve in not being specific enough, and so the following Tuesday night 40 people turned up, from about 14 to 35 years of age and, such was the enthusiasm, that we didn’t want to turn anyone away, and so there began this very motley, musical crew, playing and singing at the 1.00 p.m. Sunday Mass. The 14-year old had as beautiful a voice as you would wish to hear. The 35-year old was a flautist and a father of three, with the patience of a saint, who became a mentor to the younger members, and a great support to myself.
After my ordination in 1983 I wasn’t involved in the group as I took up various roles in different places with the Passionists. But then, in January 2001, I returned to Mount Argus as rector and parish priest, only to find a remnant of the group still singing at the Vigil Mass. Initially, when I wasn’t celebrating the Vigil Mass, I would enjoy singing with them, until they found themselves without a guitarist, and I was drafted in to fill the gap until they found another. They never did, and so it was that I found myself part of the folk group once again, until I left Mount Argus in 2016 to come to St. Mungo’s, at which time the group was unable to continue, but could reflect on the accomplishment of 40 years of dedicated service to the liturgy. For the final few years there were only six of us, none of us what you would call young, but we loved to meet every Tuesday night, reflect on the Sunday scriptures, then choose and practice the music, becoming great friends in the process. During this time, we were led by that same 14-year old with the wonderful voice who had never faltered in her commitment to it for 40 years. Last Friday I travelled over to Dublin for an overnight to meet up with them for a reunion meal, and it was such a joy to see them. My Passionist life might have been very different without that guitar, but I will be ever grateful for it. Deo Gratias!