Father Francis O'Flaherty of Aran, by Dr George Petrie

From Penny Readings for Irish People, Volume 2 (1879), by the Editors of The Nation

In Dr. Petrie's account of his antiquarian researches in the Aran Islands some highly interesting sketches of the inhabitants and of the local celebrities of the place are included. They are written in a truly sympathetic and kindly spirit, and have the additional advantage of being strictly veracious. The following is a charming portraiture of a good Irish priest, who lived--as so many of his order live--a life of simplicity among his humble flock in a remote part of the country, unheeding, and unheeded by, the busy world, his goodness and his virtues known only to his spiritual children and to Heaven.

In these trifling memorials of the Aran Islanders, it would be unjust to omit a notice of their venerable pastor. Father Francis O'Flaherty is a native of Aranmore, and received his education in a college in Spain. After spending a few years as a curate in some part of Connaught, he was appointed parish priest of his native islands, whither he returned never again to leave them, and has now been the unassisted teacher of his flock for upwards of forty years. The unremitting toils attendant on such a situation may be conceived; but:he dangers with which they are here accompanied, and the courage necessary to meet them, can only be appreciated by recollection of the singular and peculiar region to which his duties belonged--namely, a cluster of islands washed by the waves of the Atlantic, presenting in most places an iron-bound coast, and separated from each other by rapid currents that never assume a tranquil appearance, and are seldom entirely free from danger. Courage is, indeed, a striking trait in the character of this venerable man, and is strongly marked on the lip and brows of his manly but toil-worn and weather-beaten countenance--a face that a physiognomist would look at for hours with pleasure, so harmonious are its parts, so steady its expression of serious but mild thought, and of manly firmness and simplicity. Of his virtues I need say but little, as they may be considered as appertaining almost of necessity to his station and professional habits. Let imagination fancy the qualities that should adorn the priest, and the ideal attributes will not be much unlike those that really belong to Father Francis O'Flaherty. But some of the peculiarities of his opinions respecting men and society deserve notice, not only as illustrative of the purity of his own mind, but as affording the surest testimony of the humble virtues of the simple people from whom his knowledge of mankind has been derived. Of these peculiarities the most remarkable is a too favourable idea of the excellence of human nature in general--an opinion that is clearly the result of an almost total ignorance of its vices. This leads to a scepticism that appears extraordinary in one of his understanding, in matters told him that are at all opposed to such opinion, and an equally remarkable credulity regarding things that are not so. In fact, he will believe almost anything not impossible, because he cannot suppose anyone would be so base as to impose upon him by an untruth; but with him it is beyond belief that vice or depravity can exist among mankind, except in rare and solitary instances. In illustration of this singular trait I was told many interesting anecdotes, one of which I will venture to repeat.

Some time since one of the islanders, being about to emigrate to America, applied to a stranger in the island for written instructions how to act in a world of which he had no experience, and which he had heard was different from his own. The request was complied with, and the instructions were such as the writer thought necessary to a simple and innocent mind, entering into a state of society where it would be likely to meet many ready to take advantage of its artlessness and inexperience. The simple Araner, affrighted at the dangers thus presented to his imagination, submitted the paper to Father Frank, that he might be assured whether they were real; and the priest, on reading it, indignantly tore the paper to pieces. "Believe not," said he, "what this man says--he must be a bad man that would lead you to entertain so vile an opinion of mankind. Suspect no one. There are, I fear, some bad men in the world, but I trust and believe they are few. But never suspect any man of being so without a perfectly sufficient reason."

Father Frank is poor. The unglazed windows of his humble cottage, and the threadbare appearance of his antique garments, bespeak a poverty beyond even that of most of his flock. He is, in fact, altogether destitute of the comforts that should belong to old age. This is not the fault of his parishioners, by whom he is ardently beloved. They would gladly lessen their own comforts to increase his. and Lave frequently tried to force on him a better provision, which he has as often refused. "What," said he on a late occasion to Mr. O'Flaherty, who was remonstrating with him on this refusal--''what does a priest want more than subsistence? and that I have. Could I take anything from these poor people to procure me comforts which they require so much more themselves? No, no, Pat--say no more about it."

The figure of the good priest is unique in appearance, from the peculiarity of his costume, which, except in the articles of hat and long trowsers, is not different from the dress common to the Araners. He wears a long coat of antique cut, and over that a similar one of larger size; both are of the same dark blue colour, and are, I should suppose, the only habiliments of the kind in the island. They are characteristic of their owner, old and almost worn out, but still uncommon and respectable.

I saw Father Frank frequently. Sometimes near his cabin, moving along slowly, supported by a stick that was once the handle of an umbrella, and attended by some of the islanders receiving his advice; at other times, in the morning, on a rugged pony, similarly attended, descending some rocky path to his home, after passing the night with a sick, or perhaps dying, islander. During the last two days that I passed in Aran, I met him amid scenes so striking and characteristic of this remote region, and, at the same time, so strongly contrasted with each other, that I am anxious to present my readers with a sketch of their principal features. The first of these days was the Sabbath. I rode down to Kilronan, where Father Frank resides, and where I had learned that Mass was to be celebrated, that I might see the assembled congregation. The day was calm, bright, and lovely--scarce a cloud was to be seen. The gray rocks lost their bleak and rugged character in the warm blaze of sunshine. The dark blue sea looked tranquil, and the white sail moved along the surface slowly and without rocking.

On one side the Connemara mountains displayed all their picturesque variety of peaked forms, and here and there a long and graceful line of curling smoke arose from the unseen hamlets, while on another side the gloomy promontory of Blackhead and the cliffs of Mohir arrayed themselves in a dress less than usually terrific. The ceremonies of religion were over, but the assemblage which had been drawn together still remained, dispersed among the rocks in a variety of picturesque groups, bright as nature in costumes and in appearance, equally impressed with the character of quiet and enduring happiness. In one place a number of men in youthful prime were drawn together in sober converse; in another, the old people sat silent and contemplative. Here, too, might bo seen groups of young and unmarried women, with their hair tied up into graceful ringlets, and their cloaks carelessly disposed into picturesque draperies, while their attitudes, some lying in each others' laps, and some with their arms about each others' necks or waists, bespoke the presence of youthful affection and innocent simplicity.

This picture was equally striking and characteristic; for the colouring of the dresses of the peasantry was such as the painters of the Roman school have always loved. Positive, rich, and varied, but not gay or gaudy. Thus the deep red and blue tints of the female costumes were relieved by the azure dresses of the men; and these strong colours, contrasted by the gray tones of the surrounding rocks, received an additional effect of richness and splendour.

Had the scenery of this picture been that of a river bank in a sylvan valley, instead of a wild rocky shore in the Atlantic, the subject would have been truly Arcadian; as it was, however, it might be considered more novel, and scarcely less striking or delightful.

How different did the same scenes appear on the day following, the last that I spent among these insular wilds.

The morning was cloudy and squally; the wind strong from the north-west; and the sea rough. Mr. O'Flaherty endeavoured to persuade me to defer till a better day my projected visit to the smaller islands; but a letter which I received from home in the morning, which contained an account of the illness of a dear child, determined me on proceeding.

We passed along the northern shore of the island, and when we came within sight of Kilronan, now gloomy and lonely, I could not help being struck with the different appearance which it presented to that of the day preceding. I endeavoured to single out the priest's house, and I pictured him to my imagination, his figure reposing by his little fire after the toils of his week's labour. He was at this time suffering severely from a cough, which he confessed to me had deprived him of rest for many nights; and when on bidding him, as I thought, a last adieu, I endeavoured to impress upon him the necessity of a little nursing and confinement, he assured me it was his intention to follow my advice from that day. Little then did I suppose that I should ever again see him.

In an hour we dropped anchor about a furlong from the shore of Innisheer, at the only landing-place which it presents--a deep, shelving strand, then beaten by a sea of wild breakers. "I fear," said Mr. O'Flaherty, "that we have had our labour in vain. With the wind in this point there is no venturing nearer the shore, except in a currach, and the breakers are so high that I doubt whether the islanders will venture out to us." Almost immediately, however, we saw a number of men descending the cliffs towards the beach, among whom, to my great surprise, we discerned the long-coated figure of Father Frank! Thus it was that he was nursing himself. "He has come," said Mr. O'Flaherty, "to attend some sick person, and no doubt waits to return in our safer boat, as I told him we should be here." And after holding, as it appeared, a consultation with him for a few moments, we saw the men carry down to the beach one of the currachs, and, after one or two unsuccessful efforts of their united exertions to launch her fairly among the breakers, we saw her boldly contending with their turbulent fury. Sometimes the frail vessel would be altogether invisible, and again my alarm for its safety would be removed by its sudden reappearance, as she got clear of the breakers, and her course was more rapid and steady, making her way like the wild sea-birds, tossed about on the surface of the waves, now turned one way and now another, but still floating in all the security of a creature to whom these rough waters were but its natural element.

The scene was altogether grand and striking. The mass of white waters tumbling about in the little bay, above which the castle of Teague O'Flaherty, situated on a bold rock, frowned among the dark clouds in proud though deserted grandeur; the gloomy obscurity of the objects, the noise of the elements, and the screams of the wild sea-birds, produced such an effect as a painter would occupy himself at least in admiring.

Having received particular instructions, while the curragh was approaching, how to conduct ourselves in it, as the chief danger to be apprehended in these canvas vessels is that of an overturn, from the want of their being steadily balanced, we committed ourselves to the guidance of the crew. Nothing could be more admirable than the skill and coolness which the boatmen displayed. They seemed impelled by one mind --at one time following rapidly the course of the gone-by wave, at another pausing till the vessel quietly rose above the swell of its successor; now flying to escape the breaker that seemed to threaten instant destruction; and again. with the quickness of thought, turning its lofty prow to the billow, when there was no longer safety in retreat. The situation, to one unaccustomed as I was to such perils, had something terrific in it, but was at the same time grand and exciting, till, as we neared the shore, when, in the returning confidence of safety, I began to give free scope to my enjoyment, I suddenly felt myself violently struck down by a weight of waters that completely covered me. For a moment I did not know where I was, nor where I should find myself; but the feeling was only momentary, for, as the breaker retired after this exhaustion of its fury, we were pulled by the persons on shore out of the danger which a second one might produce, and we jumped on terra firma with an alacrity quite laughable, having suffered no greater injury from our adventure than a little fright and a thorough wetting.

By the time that we set out on our homeward voyage, the weather had abated something of its severity. The old man, exhausted by the day's fatigue, and too feeble to bear the pitching of the boat except in a lying posture, stretched himself on a small mattress in the cabin, where he lay for some time apparently slumbering--his limbs stretched, his eyes closed, and his hands locked in each other and resting on his bosom, reminding me forcibly of the figures of some of those dying saints which the Italian painters have so often imagined. But though his body was at rest his mind was not so; for, as I afterwards found, it was busily occupied with the welfare of his flock. He had received on the preceding evening for the poor of his parish thirty pounds of that money which the noble benevolence of England had supplied to her suffering sister, and was anxiously considering the best means of discharging the trust reposed in him. After some time I heard him call Mr. O'Flaherty in a low tone of voice, and, on consulting him, it was agreed that he should send on the following day to Galway for the worth of the donation in oatmeal.

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