The Work of a Winter 8
The brother has gone in and left the fire and a woman’s voice from the Begijnhof
wafts in with the blue smoke of leaves, gentle as the midnight singing in the dark
of the Clares of Lough Ree. I went there near the end to copy the book of their rule,
a workaday one for the hard life they live day in day out – I felt almost guilty
to be putting their austerity down so stark and I cannot say I was not glad to leave them.
It’s a sore existence they have there in the wet heart of Ireland. They all take a part
in the drawing of turf and water for the house, tending a mucky garden in the rain
in neither shoes, nor socks, nor stockings. They wear rough wool against their skin
like the robes of St Clare, who thought the homespun velvet and the rope a jewelled belt,
her wooden slippers gleaming gold in the tiny light of Mary’s altar.
They say she loved the rain on the hills of Spoleto because it was a link to him
but rain was rare in Tuscany – we had no such problem, there was always rain.
They prayed so hard and so unceasingly that midday seemed like midnight
and even then they’d be up and at the matins. I stayed two days and they are praying
for me now and will be at my death, that was their promise for the book.
The Work of a Winter 9
Lough Ree was the closing of a circle, for there we’d worked as four for the first time:
the two Cú Choigcríches, Fearfeasa Ó Maoil Chonaire and myself, from sunrise to
sundown, from St Francis’s Feast to Mischief Day, on the list of kings and genealogy of
saints – sifting, straining dates and notes. On the Feast of Saint Charles of Borromeo the
sisters baked apples in honour of his blessing of the orchards and our finishing of the work.
That was the rhythm we took to Donegal and to the Annals – the best days an almost
silent meditation, each man lending weight to the work of the others, light streaming in
the window catching motes or rain dripping from the leaves all round concentrating the room’s sounds
of breath and books. Later – lucubration, redaction and sometimes a letter from abroad
like the one from Prague on the ghostly library of Strahov we would have loved to see.
Then the campaign against us, the accusation of the five errors and that great work still
not seeing the light of day. I carried it with me across the North when the flax fields were blue
to sail from that dark town in July and here when I smell the retting beds and see the river
water turned to gold, undrinkable – it seems our work is rotting away too with only my little
book of hard words, an accidental harvest from for all the years and journeying.
The Work of a Winter 10
It’s words from that book that are lively in my head tonight and the memory of a marvel.
We’d travelled down to Cloch Uáitéir from Dublin after working on the miracles of
Moling and were staying in the barn of the secular priest Robneid Purcell to copy his fragment
of the life of Kevin who’d lived with his disciple Solomon on a skerry in the lough
nearby. We copied disgusting poems that day, I’m ashamed even now to confess.
It was this time of year: I remember the lake ringed red by the hawthorn hedges
and in the evening we lit a fire on the floor to take the chill off the night but as we prayed
before sleep the air filled with the flurry of angels – white wings frantic and lucent
from the flames – our own private Pentecost overhead in absolution for those godless poems.
Even as we prayed they began to fall, St Francis’s flowers. A flock of great white butterflies,
bedding down to winter in the walls, had mistaken the heat of our fire for an early Spring
and come back to life too soon. No angels then but marvellous still.
Is that what death will be, I wonder, a gentle waking into the warmth of God?
These are my last things, my litany of lost or nearly lost words inflected by home
and memories that flit in the dusk made vivid for a moment then gone.
I am the poor friar Mícheál Ó Cléirigh.
© Maureen Boyle