I was wandering around town last week, and as often happens, my feet took me down Charlotte St to one of my favourite haunts, Gilhooleys pub. As I relaxed at the bar, preparing myself to meditate over a pint of Guinness, I suddenly recognized Duncan, a distant cousin of mine from the old country. Usually laconic, old Dunc looked even more down than usual.
‘Hey Duncan, why so somber?’
‘Did you not hear?’ He shook his head sadly and slumped down even further, his face sinking toward the froth on his untouched beer. 'Old Maggie.'
He meant Sister Margaret, known as the ‘Mother Teresa of the Irish West’
‘Surely not?’ I prompted.
‘I was there,’ he said. He shook himself a bit. Then taking a long pull on the black stuff, he sat up straighter on his stool.
‘There she was – lying back on the pillows. Her face so pale. . . yet aglow like. There was myself, a young little nun from the convent, Bessie, and old Father O’Hennessy. Nothing to do but just hold the vigil.' He paused. 'How many times can ye' say the Rosary? God, forgive me,’ said Duncan, crossing himself.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Duncan is little older than me, and always held me in a sort of spell with his reserved gravity. I sat and waited, and eventually the story unfolded, my eyes on the pint and bar, but my mind lost in Duncan’s voice, the memory of the peat smoke, and the warm shuttered rooms of my childhood. I was there, in that room with Duncan.
‘Will you not take some water?’ asked Father O’Hennessy.
Maggie shook her head, making a sound deep in her throat that might have been anything.
‘Perhaps some milk?’
‘I’ll try,’ croaked Maggie weakly.
Father O’Hennessy nodded his head at Bessie, who slipped out of the room, returning a moment later with a large glass of creamy milk.
Bessie stepped up to the bed and held the glass to Maggie’s lips. Maggie choked and spluttered, the milk spraying out onto the cover. Maggie shook her head, and Bessie withdrew the glass. I could see poor little Bessie’s eyes tear as she mopped up the spill.
Eventually Bessie came back over to myself and Father O’Hennessy in the corner near the fire.
‘It’s no good, Father,’ said Bessie.
Father O’Hennessy looked down at the floor, then up suddenly. He considered for a moment, then his eyes lifted to the ceiling. ‘May the Lord forgive me.’ He turned his back on Maggie and slipped a silver flask from his coat pocket, pouring a good slug of Jameson’s Whiskey in with the milk. ‘Try that, girl.’
Bessie went back the bed. At the first touch of the glass to Old Maggie’s lips, her eyes lit up. She pushed herself back up into a sitting position, and gulped down the rest of the drink.
A little colour came back into her cheeks then, but there was something – the unearthly clarity of her eyes or the pallor of her skin – that alerted us.
‘Get the others, Bessie. Lively now,’ said Father O’Hennessy. It would not be long.
Soon the room was crowded with clergy, most of them the nuns that Old Maggie had led for more than a quarter of a century.
For a long moment Maggie looked at the them, then she tried to push herself up higher. This was it. The last words of this wonderful woman.
‘Help her up, Bessie.'
Maggie’s face was rapt as she drew a breath.
‘Whatever you do – don’t sell that cow!’