Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Vanishing Ireland 4


Above: The monks of Mount St. Joseph.
To see a 'Nationwide' show on life at the
monastery with Turtle as presenter,
follow this link.

Father Laurence Walsh - Born 1929

Brother Dominic Tobin – Born 1925

Father Ciarán Ó Sabhaois – Born 1926

Brother Niall Maguire – Born 1914

Father Éanna Henderson – Born 1925

Dom Colmcille O’Toole – Born 1925

Father Robert Kelly – Born 1928

Father Gabriel McCarthy – Born 1925

(Photo: James Fennell)


Roscrea, County Tipperary


Father Laurence Walsh throws thumb and forefinger in the air and whips them back around his chest in a circular manner.

‘Um, let’s go gardening?’ I suggest.

‘No,’ says he. ‘It means: “Cork won by two points.”’

The fine art of silent language is something the Cistercians have evolved carefully over the long centuries since Robert of Molesme founded the austere order in 1098. The monks never actually took a vow of silence; a ‘general atmosphere of silence’ was simply considered essential.

Which is why Father Laurence, a sporting enthusiast, is such a deft hand at giving scores in sign language.

At the age of eighty-four, Father Laurence considers himself one of the juniors of Mount St Joseph’s. He has held numerous roles here over the past six decades including twenty-five years as bursar and three years as abbot. He has also served on and off as prior under four separate abbots.

‘I started out as Ned Walsh from Roscrea,’ he chuckles. ‘My family still know me as Ned. When I came in here, there were a lot of names available because thirty men had just been sent from here to a new foundation in Scotland. I took my father’s name. Laurence Walsh. And that’s how I am known now. Even my passport calls me Laurence.’

Father Laurence was an only child. His father, who ran a hardware shop in Roscrea, had often talked about the monks of Mount St Joseph being his greatest customers. ‘I always had the priesthood in mind, but not the monastic life,’ he says. Although he attended the Cistercian College in Roscrea, right beside the abbey, he had planned to go to St Flannan’s College in Ennis.

However, when St Flannan’s College president and a curate came to interview Laurence and his father, the fourteen-year-old panicked, hopped up on his bicycle and vanished over the horizon.

‘I was going through agony,’ he explains. ‘I was very happy in the Cistercian College and I didn’t want to go to board in Ennis. It was a long way away. When I got back at six o’clock, my father’s good name with the clergy was gone and my place at St Flannan’s was gone too. So I had to look for some other kind of vocation. I thought of joining the Columban Fathers who were doing a lot of work in China at that time. And then, in my last year – 1946 – I decided to join the monks here.’

Nearly seventy years later, Father Laurence nimbly guides us through the abbey’s church, library, sacristy, refectory, infirmary and college chapel, talking history all the way.

In the seventeenth century, these lands belonged to Dr Richard Heaton, a Yorkshire clergyman regarded as Ireland’s first botanist. By 1877, it was in the lands of Count Arthur Moore, a wealthy Catholic landowner and Home Rule supporter. He gifted the six hundred-acre property to the Cistercians, including the original mansion and walled garden. The first monks arrived up from the Cistercian abbey at Mount Melleray in February 1878. Working with local stonemasons, the monks then built the magnificent church that stands alongside the college with dark fossil-hued limestone quarried on the land.

A highlight of Mount St Joseph’s is the number of stained-glass windows running throughout, depicting the lives of saints and biblical scenes in magnificent colour. Father Richard, the present abbot, was so taken with the windows that, in 2009, he published a beautiful hardback book on them entitled Lumen Christi. Father Laurence wrote the text.

The library boasts a spiral staircase straight out of Hogwarts and is lined with huge, musty old tomes of Latin verse and ancient wisdoms. The nearby dormitory, where Father Laurence slept in the 1940s, has been converted into a library extension, its shelves lined with books written in numerous languages. Their beds comprised of wooden tresses, straw mattresses and pillows of chaff. ‘There was great snoring in here at that time,’ he laughs, recalling a giant of a man from Limerick. ‘He’d barely be in bed and he’d start. I didn’t think I’d stick it at all, but actually you got so used to it that you didn’t even notice.’

Outside, he points out the dairy farm, the orchard and the walled garden where the monks tend to fruit and vegetables – or, at least, where they did until a combination of old age and supermarkets compelled them to swap their secateurs for a shopping basket.

‘There was nearly eighty men here when I first joined,’ says Father Laurence. ‘There’s nineteen monks resident here now.’

‘Is this an interrogation?’ asks Dom Colmcille O’Toole, when Father Laurence lures him into meet us. ‘Oh, well, I’m very photogenic anyway, a beauty at eighty-seven.’

Dom Colmcille is arguably the abbey’s most venerable resident, having been elected its abbot in 1964. Born in 1925, he grew up on a small farm in Ballintubber in County Mayo ‘where my family of seven brothers had many a fight’! As a boy, he was also educated in the Cistercian College in Roscrea before he joined the order in 1945. During his first year, thirty Cistercian monks from Mount St Joseph founded Sancta Maria Abbey amid the Lammermuir Hills of southern Scotland. It was the first Cistercian house founded in Scotland since the Reformation.

In 1966, Dom Colmcille made a ten-day visitation to the new abbey where his host was Dom Columban Mulcahy, the first abbot of Nunraw. Dom Columban was a son of the former Thurles postmaster and a younger brother of General Richard Mulcahy, Minister of Defence in the Free State Government. ‘The general was a very strong character,’ says Dom Colmcille. ‘An iron heart, totally honest, a man of integrity and I learned a lot from him.’

‘The first night I was in Scotland, I was absolutely amazed to think that I was outside of Ireland.’ He was destined to travel considerably farther when, in 1965, he went on an extensive visitation to the Cistercian abbeys in New Zealand and Australia. He also played a key role in the foundation at Bolton Abbey near Moone, County Kildare, and made several visitations to another at Mariakloster on the island of Tautra in central Norway where Father Anthony O’Brien of Mount St Joseph serves as chaplain to a community of nine Cistercian nuns.

At the time of his election as abbot in 1964, Dom Colmcille was only thirty-eight years old and considerably older than many of the hundred and five monks over whom he presided. ‘I was well down on the pecking order of the community. Some of them had even taught me at the college.’ However, he rallied to the role and served for an impressive thirty-six years before handing over the reins to Father Laurence. ‘I’m expecting a huge pension any day now,’ he says, giving the bursar an ambitious wink.

Father Laurence says the monks are stirring. They want to know what the two young men with the camera are up to. ‘While the ball is on the hop, we may as well make use of it,’ he says, and ushers us in to meet the next man.

At the age of eighty-eight, Father Éanna Henderson remains as passionate about sport as he was eight decades earlier. ‘Hurling football, tennis, soccer, cycling, swimming, the whole lot. I didn’t excel at any of them but I loved playing games.’ Sport and music were both important parts of his childhood at the Henderson family home in Glasnevin, which was then a small village located on the northern outskirts of Dublin.

There was also rebellion in the blood. A grandmother from Armagh was connected to the Manchester Martyrs, three Irishmen hanged in the wake of a planned Fenian rising in 1867.

Fifty years later, his father, Frank, and Uncle Leo served as officers with the Irish Volunteers. Frank, a printer by trade, was a captain in the GPO garrison during the Easter Rising of 1916 and went on to become Commandant of the Second Battalion of Irish Volunteers.

‘They both had links early on to the Gaelic League and to the GAA, the hurling and football. That’s how so many people met in those times. They had a common link through sport and music and costume and dancing and the Irish language. That’s what bonded them all to Pearse and MacDonagh and Hyde and all of them.’

Father Éanna’s other grandmother was known as ‘Ma Mór’, and was a ‘very small and very lovely woman’ from County Laois. ‘I remember very well the time that she was brought down here by one of the family. Even though she was ninety-two years of age, she hopped out of the car like a girl and when Father Oliver gave her a bowl of strawberries and ice cream, she was as happy as anything. That was the last time I ever saw her.’

Brother Dominic Tobin, who was born in 1925, was nineteen years old when he joined the order. Having grown up on a farm beside Mount Melleray Abbey in the Knockmealdowns of County Waterford, he naturally gravitated towards the abbey farm. He has subsequently served as farm manager for over thirty years, primarily overseeing the dairy herd that supplies milk to the Avonmore creamery.

Father Ciarán Ó Sabhaois, born in 1926, is a passionate Irish speaker who grew up on a small farm near Newry in South Armagh. ‘And the first lesson of education is to grow up on a small farm,’ he counsels. Having traced his own ancestry of the Savage, or Ó Sabhaois, family back to the Normans, his interest in matters historical ensured his appointment as the abbey archivist. He maintains that the change has been minimal since he joined the order in 1948. ‘There were more people,’ he says. ‘It was a lot stricter and you could only communicate by signs. But otherwise it was the same as it is now.’

Brother Niall Maguire, now ninety-nine, was in his sixties when he joined the order, having previously worked for the Revenue Commissioners. However, most of the monks who are at Mount St Joseph today arrived before the Second Vatican Council convened under Pope John XXIII in 1962. Better known as Vatican II, the council sought to reform the Church and reconnect it with the post-war world of the 1960s.

In Roscrea, the monks no longer say mass in Latin, which didn’t initially appeal to Father Laurence. ‘I opposed it when it started,’ says he, ‘but looking back after so many years, I can see it was very necessary. I just couldn’t see that at the time.’ Incidentally, Father Laurence is now an internet-savvy octogenarian.

Vatican II also enabled the order to open up to Roscrea a little more although Dom Colmcille maintains that they are still more enclosed as an order than the Benedictines. ‘You can feel yourself being drawn out sometimes,’ he says, ‘so you need some strength to resist it.’

The jury is still out as to whether or not the corridors of Mount St Joseph became any noisier after Vatican II. The return of the voice had to be weighed against the ever diminishing number of monks walking through the monastery every passing year.

‘Very few enter nowadays,’ concedes Father Laurence. ‘Our two juniors are in their forties. One is approaching Final Profession and the other has recently completed his training. Richard, our abbot, is the youngest monk of all at thirty-seven years of age.’

Before we leave, I ask Father Ciarán how you tell someone you’re in a bad mood in Cistercian sign language. There is a momentary silence broken only by the ticking of umpteen clocks on the walls. With the other monks watching on, he gamely places his knuckles on his chest and rubs them with a silent snarl. The room duly reverberates with the sound of a good deal of laughter.


All four 'Vanishing Ireland' books are available via http://astore.amazon.com/wwwturtlebunb-20





Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.