HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Apparition At Friars Hill

The apparition at Friars Hill takes the country by complete surprise. Phones hop. The media swoops. Turlough Ó’Lúnasa is interviewed. Before you can say redundancy or foreclosure the masses are on their way to the grotto in the Rahoon area of Galway.

The background music to the apparition is that banks and developers have all lost their bearings, their balls and everything else in a casino. The leader, Julius Coyle orders the spread of pain. “We must spread the pain,” says he magisterially, throwing his toga over his shoulder like a B list celebrity. Bryan Bruticus, Tribune for Agony, takes to the job with gusto, out and about selecting citizens at random, drilling into root canals without anaesthetic. Howls are heard as far away as Iceland, where they have more than enough of their own howling going on. Everywhere you go, folk at kitchen tables, staring at blots on oilcloths; businessmen throwing themselves off tall buildings. The country is in flitters.

At this point, I am still an orphan, plotting my escape from a palace where I have spent an entire childhood under a black soutane.

The clergy are suspicious. They’ve been here before. Caught off guard by Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, Ballinspittle. Now Friars Hill!

“What do you think yourself, your Lordship?” asks the curate, Father Alphonsis.

“Piffle and nonsense. They do this just to spite me and me up to my oxters in that other business.” “Oh, begod,” says Alphonsis happily, “have you been fingered by the Ryan Report, your Lordship?” His Lordship is not well pleased. As he lifts his soutane to sit down, a dissenting undersized orphan – guess who! - makes a break for it. “Ninety Eight! Wouldn’t you know! The little bugger!” roars his lordship. Alphonsis tries to block my escape but without success.

I flee the palace. Then run and run and run as fast as my little legs will carry me. I’m a diminutive due to the fact I’ve never grown, for lack of food, nutrients, not to mention lack of daylight. When I get to the Bishop O’Donnell Road, there don’t I come on a huge crowd all on their way to Friars Hill. I join a gang of young fellas, who welcome me into their ranks.

The grotto becomes a place of pilgrimage. A hundred coins have been dropped in the collection box, plus twelve buttons and a condom. The crowd swells.

Residents, not slow to miss a trick, fling themselves into renovating houses: men recently thrown out of jobs, abroad with paintbrushes; sturdy women surfacing drives. As the money rolls in, residents order en suites and large extensions. They buy four by fours, Hummers, army tanks. Install helicopter pads. Some even rise to rocket launchers. The rest of the country languishes, but things couldn’t be rosier in Friars Hill Rahoon. Money coming in and money going out. There are smiles on peoples’ faces. In Rahoon the sun is shining.

Then the miracle.

“Oh, suffering J,” and more expletives from his Lordship, “Not another miracle!” Alphonsis gives me the lowdown later when he quits the cloth. “Your Lordship, you can’t ignore it any more. We’ve got to make a statement, it’s expected.” “Have you captured that blackguard, Ninety Eight, yet?” “No, your Lordship...” “Keep the thumbscrews on.” “But the miracle, your Lordship…?”

“I’m talking about Ninety Eight, you jam jar. The midget. Find the midget!”

The first fall of snow. But the cold doesn’t dampen spirits. One canny entrepreneur, borrows a foldaway chair and a few rosaries from the Cathedral shop and sets up a stall on the Rahoon Road. With wind in his sails he returns and hacks off the John F. Kennedy and De Velera icons and puts them up for sale too. Another whips out some copper, precious metal being much in demand. Yet another is about to have a go at the altar, but a parishioner stops him in his tracks. “Get outta here, ya feckin’ bowsie,” the layman roars, giving him a thump. The Cathedral, when it hears, is not well pleased. White smoke is detected…or is that for a pope? No matter. Before long there are stalls up and down the Rahoon Road from Friars Hill to the O’Donnell and up as far as Malin Head and beyond.

The Bishop knows a visit to the shrine is necessary if only to divert attention away from all the bad reports about the clergy.

A Big Event has been flagged for New Years’ day at three o’clock. Our gang take up position under a eucalyptus tree. I’m a few months into my freedom at this stage. A strange kind of holiness descends on the place. Children are screaming. Teenagers shout into mobiles. Packed lunches are munched. As the clock ticks towards mid-afternoon, the tension builds. People stare intently at the visionary, Turlough Ó Lúnasa, Mary’s lieutenant on earth, whose hands part and who smiles and laughs and seems to see something. Fathers keep looking at their watches but nothing is happening. Disgruntlement is spreading throughout the grotto like swine flu, when suddenly a shout. “The sun. It’s moving.” “I see it.” “Me too.” Everyone stares at the sun.

The sun looks lovely. Apparently that’s the apparition, but it just looks like the sun to me.

A young boy spots me up on the eucalyptus tree, which I’d earlier climbed to get a better look. “Look!” he points. “An angel!” People look in all directions. “Where? Where?” “Above on that tall tree.” “It’s an angel!” cries the boy. “I see him,” shouts another. Then a chorus of “Me too” as all heads swivel up to the tallest of the trees in the green at Friars Hill. There, for everyone to see, is a cherubic figure in loincloth – guess who! – swaying back and forth and looking down at the crowd. “An angel,” murmers the multitude. A hush settles on the place as the – by now half blind – pilgrims gaze in shock and awe at the apparition above. Someone starts the rosary. “Ninety eight, you little bugger! Come down this minute,” roars his Lordship from his bishopmobile at the back of the crowd.

“I will in me arse!” I say.

Thousands of heads swing from his Lordship to myself and back again. More in shock than awe at this stage. The bishop flies into a rage, and that carries him up the tree at a speed no earthly human has ever been known to achieve before. But these are extraordinary times. Then the battle. Good versus evil. The bishop and me slugging it out with crozier and sally. Back and forth on the blue green branches of the swaying eucalyptus. On the street bets are placed. Odds favourite to win is myself, being the lighter, more nimble.

Julius Coyle, when he gets wind of it, arrives in his chariot to give sustenance, support and encouragement to his Lordship. Still hand in glove, wouldn’t you know! His centurions set up a royal marquee halfway between the racecourse and Friars Hill green. He takes a ringside seat and shouts, “ Ye boyo,” to his Lordship in between big feeds of hog, cow, veal and gallons of wine. It’s like the Colliseum all over again, God be with the good old days. Every now and again Coyle’s men throw an implement into the air to his Lordship: the odd slasher, a sabre, a spear or two, a few turkey bones. Despite disadvantage, David – that would be me – triumphs over Goliath in the end, through sheer determination and years of built-up resentment. The overweight bishop, exhausted, finally crashes to the ground. The crowd chants, “Glory O to Ninety eight.” “Enough!” I protest from up on my eucalyptus perch, “Look at that lot back there in the Tent.” The crowd turn to look at the patricians, lolling around in Hospitality, laughing their heads off, too drunk to even register the fall of the Church.

“Let them tighten their belts,” roars Julius Coyle, in his cups and oblivious to everything outside the feast. “They’re living beyond their means,” snorts Tiberius Hockney, who has made a ghost appearance, and then, showing a deep knowledge of Joyce, recites, “Shite and onions!” as Julius rushes off to the vomitorium. “Where’s me bonus?” yells Johannus Fitzpatricus, the man famed for the breathtaking feat of slicing a country off at the knees. “Wait’ll after the budget, y’ greedy fecker,” roars the drunken Julius on his way back from a quick gag, “only jokin’, y’oul eejit, you’ll get your bonus.” Breaks into song, “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen…” “Who’s robbin who?” asks the wily Willicus. The plebs unbeknownst to the tent dwellers are listening to all, for isn’t this a state-of-the-art tent, with sound amplified! “Down with the Tent!” I call. “Down with the Tent!” echo the plebs. The plebs en masse move slowly towards the Tent. The centurions close rank. Battle lines are drawn.


What happens to Turlough Ó Lúnasa? Well, the events around myself and His Lordship, completely overshadows Turlough’s vision and chats with Our Lady. In desperation Turlough comes up with a new scheme. Pricks his finger every time he touches the statue, maintains Our Lady is bleeding. But he’s found out and the Master, Liam Ó’Hooligan, arrives to give him a good clip around the ears. “Get back up that road to school, you useless waster,” roars O’ Hooligan. Teachers are allowed to give clips around the ears these days, the Tribune for Ignorance rightly recognizing that with one hundred and fifty to a class, teachers need a little help with crowd control. Thrashing with legs of chairs is still outlawed but sarcasm and ridicule have been re-introduced. These are hard times indeed.

Things die down in Rahoon, The crowds get fewer and fewer. The hawkers one by one fold up tents. One by one B & B signs are taken down. The only business doing a roaring trade is optics after all the unprotected stargazing. A papal Bull is forthcoming from the Vatican, fed up with so many cases of litigation, people suing for eye damage and so on.

The rest is history.

When at last he sees the writing on the wall, Julius Coyle steps down, but not before rewarding his trusty henchmen, both public and private, for their loyalty and support. This he does out of the cartload of bucks borrowed from the heathen Maximus Lucretius from far away beyond the Rubicon. Julius is no sooner off into the sunset than Maximus, wouldn’t you know! arrives at Hibernia’s door to demand his pound of flesh in terms of interest and debt repayments. Maximus Lucretius means business. “I got none of that money,” cries Hibernia, pregnant again and destitute, “ I don’t have anything to give.” Maximus looks around, taking everything in. Fingers the pearl handle of his dagger. “You have assets.”

 “Assets?” shrieks Hibernia, “What assets?”

Maximus nods in the direction of an old fork and hoe resting against the gable end of the house. “But without our tools how will we grow food?” Hibernia wails. “What are we to eat?” Maximus calmly eyes the infants in the sandpit. “You have babies, don’t you?”

So to conclude, all I’ll say is: freedom’s not all it’s cracked up to be. But still, as we hurtle to hell in a handcart, I reflect with some satisfaction on the demise of the Church and my part in its downfall.