“Ireland is where strange tales begin and happy endings are possible.”
Charles Haughey (1925 –2006) former Taoiseach of Ireland
Ballyvaughan is a tiny village nestled on Ireland’s west coast, overlooking Galway Bay. I adopted it as my home away from home, having enjoyed many stays there before and after my Ireland tours. That’s where I found myself in April 2012. Without a car at my disposal, and limited bus service, I discovered that I was getting a bit antsy, feeling kind of stuck. One day, while at the tiny market (which also serves as the post office and petrol station) a notice on the community bulletin board caught my eye. Every Tuesday morning in Ballyvaughan a 10-seater bus collects an assortment of seniors and delivers them to the closest big town of Ennistymon, and then returns them three hours later. Myself being a young 59, I wondered if I was suitable company. “Yes,” I was informed. Anyone could take the weekly bus to Ennistymon and back, for a mere two euro.
It was a soft weather day, meaning the temp was mild and the breeze light. I arrived at the market to find two elderly women chatting with each other. I inquired about the bus to Ennistymon. They assured me that I was at the right place, at the right time, and that the bus would arrive soon.
I was very much the center of attention on the wee bus, obviously new to the area and a couple of decades younger than most of the passengers. I loved being questioned, as I knew it was coming from a trait shared by the Irish—a lively sense of curiosity.
Together we sat in silence, until the Irish thirst for information got into one of the women. With narrow eyes and a tilt of the head, I was asked, “How do you come to be here in Ballyvaughan?”
I replied, “I lead tours to Ireland and like to take a break by staying on my own in Ballyvaughan.”
Both women looked at each other, somewhat shocked that a lady like me would be roaming about Ireland on her own. I gave them a smile and added, “I’m a Reverend, very interested in Celtic Spirituality.”
By their expressions, I sensed that I had passed a moral code of some sort.
“Did ye know of John O’Donohue?” one woman asked.
“Oh yes,” I replied, “He greatly inspired my ministry.”
“Johnny grew up here, you know,” a woman said, “just a wee bit down the road. Oh, his death was so shocking and sad.” With that both women nodded to each other, with hand over heart, followed by making the sign of the cross on their ample bosoms.
Friends at last, I learned their names were Mary and Maureen. They loved my Irish name of Kathleen and my mother’s birth name of Connolly. Together we bounced along as the wee bus negotiated the narrow roads full of pot holes. Already on board was an elderly gent, quite decked out for a casual trip into town. He kept to himself.
Suddenly Maureen announced, “This here lady is a Reverend from the States. She liked John O’Donohue.” Mary silently echoed with a vigorous nod. The old man replied, “You know Johnny grew up around here. Just down the road.” Now all four of us were nodding in agreement.
We traveled on in silence for several minutes, my eyes soaking up the beauty of this wild and rugged area of Ireland. Soon we made a stop in the tiny village of Fanore when on the bus hopped a jolly fellow more my age. He looked to be a rugged farmer type, with deep grooves on his forehead and red lines on his puffy cheeks. He nodded to the driver, to the elderly gent, then to Mary and Maureen. They all nodded back. Suddenly the new man, the one more my age, locked eyes with me. “Well, now, who are ye and where do you come from?”
Maureen blurted out, “She’s a Reverend from the States. She liked John O’Donohue.”
The newly arrived man chimed in, “Did you now! Well, Johnny grew up around here, just down the road. Fine lad he was. He used to do my religious home work for me.” With that he introduced himself as Mr. Michael O’Toole. We shook hands, and our bus ride continued. Mr. O’Toole interrupted my thoughts with his own inspired thought, “Ye know Johnny is buried in the cemetery up ahead.”
“Yes, I know,” I replied, “I have visited his grave.”
Without a pause, Mr. O’Toole shouted to the bus driver, “Tommy, pull over at the cemetery where Kathleen here can visit John O’Donohue’s grave.” Mary and Maureen nodded in agreement and then chimed in, “Oh, wouldn’t that be lovely!”
“Oh, that’s okay,” I tried to graciously reply. “I’ve already been there. You needn’t pull over for me.”
Pull over, Tommy the driver did do. Everyone was staring at me, in eager anticipation. I slowly stood up, gave the obligatory nod, and disembarked the little bus.
I walked through the cemetery gate and then climbed up on the cement wall in order to make the trek to John’s grave. When I arrived, I turned and looked at the bus. All eyes were on me, peering through the windows like they were about to witness John’s resurrection.
I hadn’t a clue what to do. With my back to them, I said aloud, “Okay, John, I’m paying my respects. Again. I can see how loved you were and are, and not just by me.” I stood long enough to give my witnesses a thrill. Down over the cement wall and back through the gates, I again boarded the little bus to Ennistymon. My group of newfound companions remained silent the rest of the way, each wearing a smile as soft as the weather.
We arrived Ennistymon and parted ways for a few hours. While the ladies shopped, I enjoyed a luxurious foot massage at a fancy hotel spa. Ever mindful of the clock, I returned to the little bus several minutes before the declared departure time. I was surprised to find Michael already on the bus. Now my Irish curiosity kicked in. “So, Michael, I see that our elderly friends come to town to shop. What is it that calls you to Ennistymon?”
“Well, you see, it’s a bit of a tale,” Michael replied. “I was arrested for drink driving.” That’s Ireland’s equivalent of a DUII. With that bit of news, I tucked my chin, cocked my head and looked over my glasses as I said, “Ohhhh, so you don’t drink anymore?”
“Oh, hell no. I drink like crazy. It’s driving I no longer do.” He seemed very pleased with himself. “Next time you take the bus to Ennistymon I’ll buy ye a pint.” He punctuated the invitation with a wink.
With all travelers back on the bus, we began the ride back to my little village. Soon, Michael interrupted my wandering thoughts as he shouted to the driver, “Hey, Tommy, can ye make a detour and show Kathleen here where John O’Donohue grew up?”
Mary and Maureen thought this to be a fabulous idea. One of the women chimed in. “His mum still lives there. Oh, the sorrow poor Josie has had since her Johnny died. How she lives with a broken heart, I don’t know.” Again the two women shook their heads and crossed themselves.
I did indeed get a look at the O’Donohue homestead in rural County Clare. It was a little yellow house on a hillside covered with spring flowers and surrounded by miles of rock walls. It was an extra treat to realize we were driving on a very narrow road that John used to walk to school. Once again, I heard Michael’s story of forcing a young John O’Donohue to do his religious homework. It was obvious that the ladies did not approve of this behavior, and it was equally obvious that Michael got a kick out of it. With a grin he said, “Oh, I did him no harm, ye see. It was all good fun. But Johnny sure knew his Bible!”
We all sat in silence the rest of the way home. Arriving in Fanore, Mr. O’Toole stood up, made a grand bow, and proclaimed, “God bless ye all on this fine, fine day.” With another wink he was gone. In another ten minutes, I was back at my B&B in Ballyvaughan, wondering if I’d ever see Mr. O’Toole again.
“The secret of forgiving everything is to understand nothing.”
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) Irish writer
One year later I was back in Ireland, again enjoying private time at a quaint B&B overlooking Galway Bay. Mostly out of curiosity, I decided to take the Tuesday seniors bus into Ennistymon. I was delighted when I recognized Mary and Maureen, one up in her 80s, the other low in her 90s. Smart as a whip these two! I re-introduced myself. They remembered that I was from Oregon and that I loved the writings of John O’Donohue. When they called me Kathleen Connolly, I didn’t correct them.
Soon we made the stop in the coastal village of Fanore and onto the bus came a man looking a bit disheveled. I recognized him as Mr. Michael O’Toole from the previous year. “Oh, I see we have a visitor!” Michael shouted with glee. I said a proper hello and then reminded him that we had met before. “Oh, yes, it’s John O’Donohue that ye’d be after. He was raised here and is buried just up the road a ways. He used to do my religious homework for me. All it took was showing him a fist.” Michael gestured while I grimaced at the thought of John being bullied. “Oh, ‘tis only a bit of fun we were having back then. You see, Johnny boy loved the Bible. I’d like to think I helped him in his studies.” A sudden outburst of laughter rang through the little bus.
This year, on the ride back to Ballyvaughan, Michael asked me to sit where we could chat. That would be him chatting and me listening. Soon he told me that he had had three drink driving offenses. With the third he permanently lost his right to drive. “That was fourteen summers ago,” he said. He’s never driven since, and nor will he ever again. This is because the last offense put a young woman in a wheelchair for life.
Michael has carried this heavy burden every day for fourteen years, he says, and will for the rest of his life. Each summer he makes a pilgrimage by train to Dublin to visit Ann and her family. He brings them gifts and buys them supper. “Ann and her family have forgiven me,” he said. After a long silence, Michael shook his head as he spoke. “How they can do that I just don’t understand. I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I could have killed that young woman, and nearly did so. I have to live with that the rest of my life.”
It was then that I remembered something I was carrying in my purse. It was a round clay medallion with a spiral etched on one side. A friend made these for my Ireland travelers that year. Each received one upon arrival in Ireland.
All had words on the back that became literal touch stones for our journey. The leftover medallion was white. On the back was etched the word “forgive.” I took it out of my purse and showed it to Michael.
“I want to give this to you,” I said, “because now you must learn to forgive yourself.” He scoffed at that notion, saying it wasn’t possible and that he didn’t deserve it. Knowing that Mr. O’Toole was likely a devout Catholic, I subtly played the God Card, using a tone of voice similar to Roma Downey on the Touched by an Angel television show. I’m pretty sure a golden halo emerged at the tips of my black and silver hairs.
“Do you think, Michael, our Creator would want you to suffer like this? You were made in the image of Him. You are a child of God, just like me, just like Ann, just like the ladies on the bus with us. Ann is showing you that God has forgiven you through her. Now, can you Michael, just believe for a moment that God can forgive you so that you can forgive yourself?”
After a long pause, I then placed the white medallion in his hand. “Hold onto this, Michael, and remember this moment. Our healing sometimes doesn’t happen in a day, a week or even a year. But with God’s love moving in and through us, forgiveness is possible. Can you believe that, even if for a moment?”
Looking like a lost little child, Michael nodded his head. He clasped the medallion in both hands as if in prayer. “I’ll hold this every day until summer, and then I’m going to give it to Ann.” I added, “That’s a grand idea. Let it connect you as anam caras, as soul friends, as your buddy John O’Donohue wrote about.”
With a grin, he replied, “Ohhh, that’s what John O’Donohue would say. You know he lived just up the road here. His mudder died a year or two ago. Dementia, a terrible thing.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mary and Maureen again shake their heads and cross themselves.
And on and on he went, sharing stories, pointing out landmarks in the rugged Burren landscape, and, occasionally, with a wink, showing me the clay medallion. I’d like to think that Mr. O’Toole was changed that day, but only he and God know that for sure. What I know is that I was changed by the encounter on the little seniors’ bus to Ennistymon. Mary, Maureen, Michael and I plan to meet up again on a spring Tuesday in 2014. Praise God, let it be so!
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) Irish writer.
One year later, for the third time, I again hopped aboard the little senior’s bus destined for Ennistymon. Maureen was there, greeting me with a grand smile. Mary, she said, was on holiday in England. Then Maureen proceeded to introduce me to a new lady I had not met. Maisy is a good friend of hers. The three of us enjoyed a good chat while savoring the sites of the lush and rocky landscape. It was a glorious day, spring effortlessly easing into summer.
I wondered if Mr. O’Toole would join us as in previous years. “Yes,” Maureen said, adding, “I hear he’s no longer drinking or smoking.” Tommy, the bus driver, let out a loud guffaw just as he pulled over. There was Mr. O’Toole, leaning against a rock wall, with cigarette in hand. He looked neat and tidy in a leather coat and dark sunglasses. Kind of movie star like. Mary whispered to me, “I’ll bet he’s into the drink again, too.”
So on the bus came Mr. O’Toole followed by a lingering trail of smoke. He nodded to everyone, including me, as if I was a local. “You’re back, just like ye said you’d be,” he said to me. I smiled and continued to enjoy the bus ride.
Later, when everyone had finished their chores in Ennistymon, we again boarded the little bus. This time I said to Mr. O’Toole, “Do you remember what we talked about last year on the way home?” He nodded, quickly adding, “And I still have the little coin you gave me with that word on it. I see it every day. Some days I pick it up and hold on to it like there’s no tomorrow. Other days I feel like throwing it. It’s a choice, you know. Do ye think that’s reasonable?” My reply was a simple nod of the head.
After a few bends in the road, I smiled and said softly, “You’re looking well. I can tell there’s something different about you.” He wanted details, so I continued, “Your eyes are brighter and your smile is softer. I can tell you’re no longer carrying the double burden of guilt and self-hatred.”
The rest of the journey home was filled with idle chatter and gentle laughter. It was like we were all lifted by Mr. O’Toole’s new found freedom. “To be honest with you,” he said before departing, “I did have a Guinness at the pub in Ennistymon, but look at me—I didn’t drive!” I asked for a photo. Just as Tommy the bus driver snapped the camera, Mr. O’Toole gave me a peck on the cheek. With a wink, he was gone.
Sometimes I wonder if Mr. O’Toole is real. Our brief encounters on the little bus to Ennistymon have been filled with unbelievable mischief and magic. I can’t wait to see what the next bus ride reveals.
“If suffering brings wisdom, I would wish to be less wise.”
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) Irish prose writer, dramatist and poet
My 2015 springtime travel plans for Ireland did not find me in Ballyvaughan. Having skipped a year, I wondered if, a year later, anyone on the wee little senior’s bus would remember me. Come to find out, I am quite memorable, as are the jovial and kind hearted seniors once again headed for shopping in Ennistymon. My trio of elderly lassies greeted me with glee. That would be Mary, back from London, plus Maureen and Maisy. Even Tommy the bus driver asked me how things were in Ore-e-gone.
As always, the enchanting landscape of The Burren captured my full attention. “Do you ever get tired of looking at where you live?” I inquired. All three agreed. “We never get tired of God’s blessing of this most beautiful place on earth to live.” Tiny little Mary squeaked, “And I’ve been here 92 summers.” I love how people in Co. Clare often measure time by the passing of seasons. It caused me to reflect on the many spring times that have passed since my first solo pilgrimage to Ireland in May 2000.
Before we reached Fanore to fetch Mr. Michael O’Toole, I was told that he was again into the drink. All heads shook in sadness to the tune of the soft clicking of the tongues. This time Michael looked disheveled but his spirits (not the drinking kind) were in full bloom. “Well, helloooo, Kathleen. Why were ye not here last year? We missed you and were worried about you.” I explained that my tour group concluded in the east of Ireland, therefore preventing me from my annual visit to the west.
There was the usual conversation about the late John O’Donohue. Remembering how Michael used to make John do his religious homework, I couldn’t help but inquire as to what stopped it. “Well,” he said, “It seems Johnny Boy’s mudder called my mudder and told her all about it. Oh, did I get a whupping that day! “
“So you stopped making John do your homework?” I asked.
“Oh, hell no. All I had to do was add a fist and he got the message.” With that Michael lifted two fists as if he were a world class boxer from Donegal. Again, laughter wafted through the little bus to Ennistymon.
This time, on the return journey, I sensed that there was something Michael wanted to tell me. “So,” I asked, “What’s new in your life?” His bushy eyebrows lifted as his lips twisted into a sly smile. “Shhh,” he whispered, “This is only for you to hear because you’re a reverend and will understand.” I calmly waited for whatever confession he was about to make.
“I’m seeing someone, all the way in Dublin,” he whispered.
“Oh, Michael, I think that’s fabulous. Why is it a secret?”
“Well, you see, her husband doesn’t know.” With that he threw his head back and laughed and laughed and laughed. I never did know if he was telling the truth.
We took another photo together and said our goodbyes. He again sneaked in a quick peck on my cheek. “Until next time,” he said over his shoulder as his disembarked from the little bus. That would prove to be my last encounter with Mr. Michael O’Toole.
“Better pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” – James Joyce (1882-1941) Irish writer
When my yearly tour concluded on April 30th, I returned to Ballyvaughan. A local business man once declared that I was the American ambassador to Ballyvaughan. I rather liked the sound of that. I arrived on a Monday feeling very tired, but I knew I could not pass up the nearly annual Tuesday bus ride to Ennistymon.
I arrived at the usual pickup point on an unusually sunny and warm day. It was outside the only petrol station in the village, situated right next to the only church. To my delight, I discovered dear Maisy sitting alone at a picnic table. The sun was in her eyes as we greeted one another. “Hello Maisy. It’s Kathleen, the reverend from Oregon.” Her face lit up as we clasped hands. “Oh, Kathleen, you’ve come back to us. Mary, now 95, has gone back to England to live out her days. Maureen, thank God still with us, will be very happy to see you.”
Soon after that Maureen joined us at the bus assembly point. It was then I inquired about Michael O’Toole. “Will we be seeing him today?” I asked. I premonition told me that we would not.
Maisy began, bowing and shaking her head. “Oh, it’s very sad news. You see he died, last November, I think it was.”
Maureen chimed in. “Yes, I do believe it was November. A rather dark and breezy day.”
Tommy the bus driver confirmed it. “Yes, it was Tuesday in November. When he got off the bus he bid us all farewell. Those were likely his last words. His body was found the next day. They think it was a sudden and massive heart attack.”
I felt that drop in the belly that comes with sad news. “Oh, no,” I managed to say, adding, after a pause, “I hope his passing was swift and painless.”
“Oh, likely it was,” someone said. “But you know, Kathleen, that man lived a life of hell. It was his own pain and the pain he caused others.” This was followed by dead silence.
It was then that I realized I had only encountered Michael in the mornings, presumably before he had a first drink. That was on the way to Ennistymon. On the bus rides back, after a couple of pints, he was full of the craic, the Irish word for fun. He was, you know, the funny kind of drunk. But there’s nothing amusing about the pain and suffering caused by alcoholism.
In my four brief encounters with Michael, aboard the wee little bus for seniors, I always came away inspired.
First, by him taking responsibility for nearly killing someone due to his choice to drink and drive.
Second, by never again getting behind the wheel of a car, whether sober or drunk. I believed him.
Third, many times I imagined what it was like for him to make his yearly trek to Dublin—by bus—to make amends to the wheelchair bound young woman and her family.
Fourth, and finally, it’s that word: Forgiveness. Michael made it very clear that he hated religion for all the bad things it had done to good people. Forgiveness of the Church would never be uttered by his lips, he once told me, “…as long as I live.” Well, Michael is no living in human form, so I will utter that word for him.
I ask God to forgive you, Michael, for all of the transgressions you committed while alive. John O’Donohue, who passed as suddenly as you nine winters ago, forgives you for being a bully. The woman you maimed has already forgiven you. It is my deepest belief that now, in spirit form, you have finally forgiven yourself. I like to think that the medallion with the word “forgive” was your touchstone. To the past, to the present, and now the future of your eternal spirit. In memory of you, I shall gaze with wonder at the moon and bow in reverence to the dawn.
“Yes, I am a dreamer, for a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
Oscar Wilde, Irish writer
RIP Mr. Michael O’Toole
Written by Rev. Kathleen McKern Verigin
May 4, 2017