Back in church, the choir in full voice, but sadly, an empty pew

John Arnold reflects on the return of the church choir... but also an empty pew, where one church goer used to always sit
Back in church, the choir in full voice, but sadly, an empty pew

Cathy Gubbins (left), of Bartlemy, with Eileen Fitzgerald and Celia Prince, both from Fermoy, and the singer Brendan Bowyer before his concert in the Midleton Park Hotel in 2013.

JOE Dolan had a lot of great songs, but one of his biggest hits was My Own Peculiar Way.

Now, at Mass last Sunday, I wasn’t thinking too much about the Mullingar maestro, but my mind operates in strange ways and whenever I seem to be ‘away with the birds’, it’s just that random thoughts can sometimes come together in a strange pattern with amazing results.

So I always implore friends to forgive me ‘if sometimes my mind should wander to a suddenly remembered yesterday’.

Back in 1968, Jack Walsh was buried in Gortroe cemetery. Having worked as a farm labourer all his life, he died at the age of 75 and was interred with his ancestors in the picturesque hilltop cemetery.

Jack had married Mage Healy in 1942 and they settled down in what had been School Master Larry Flynn’s house in Hollyhill. In actual fact, from the front door of the Walsh home one can see Gortroe clearly.

I can’t say I knew Jack very well - I was only 11 when he died - but Mam was always talking about him and as a small child I was often in Jack and Mage’s home.

When Mam was growing up in the 1930s, her father, John Twomey, though a farmer, had a job as a Department of agriculture Livestock Inspector. He was often absent from his home in Kilcor from Monday until Friday. He might have been in West Cork or up in the Midlands - long, long journeys 90 years ago. My grandmother kept the flag flying and the ‘home fires burning’.

Mam often said they were ‘blessed’ with the workmen employed on the farm - Jack Walsh was one of these.

He could plough, reap and sow, milk cows, choose potatoes, cut rushes and furze and the myriad of other tasks to be done on a mixed farm in the 1930s. 

He settled down to married life in Bartlemy and ten years after his marriage, Mam also came to Bartlemy.

‘Old friend’s are best’, so the bond remained with Jack and Mage and their two daughters. The day after Jack’s burial in Gortroe, his widow was over at the grave. Jack’s mother was an O Shea so both O Sheas and Walshes since time immemorial were buried in that ground. Next to their grave was that of the Curtin family of Main Street, Rathcormac.

Well, when Mage Walsh looked at the freshly covered grave, she was a bit perturbed. In old cemeteries like Gortroe there are no kerbs or ‘boundaries’ around different family graves and no grave numbers. Usually some ‘elder’ of the family would ‘mark the ground’ for the gravediggers.

Anyway, Mage thought her husband’s grave had slightly encroached on the Curtin ‘ground’. Perturbed she was, so down to Mary Curtin she went half apologising for the mistake she felt had been made. Mary Curtin’s reassuring reply was ‘There’s enough room for everyone’ and so there was. Mary and her brother Tom were interred there later and there was no congestion!

Jack and Mage Walsh’s daughters Hannah and Cathy married two first cousins - Ollie and Mike Gubbins.

So, last Sunday at Mass our little choir was back. Sometimes we might have only three or four, but to paraphrase someone famous, ‘wherever two or three sing in my name, I am there with ye’.

Back singing in church for the first time in two years - it was great. They say singing is like praying twice, and one way or another we had ten on Sunday.

At Mass during these last two Covid years, the congregation was very small. Social distancing was practiced and now, even though the ‘restrictions’ are lifted, I see most people still wear their masks in church.

With no choir, I’d normally take a seat midway down the chapel. It’s not like it was even 40 years ago - if you weren’t in early back then, you’d not get a seat. Sadly, those days are gone, but that’s life.

Anyway, when our choir are in action we take our places in the pews in what long ago they used to call ‘the women’s aisle’. That was in an era where supposedly there was a place for everyone and everyone knew their place’ - no regrets that that attitude has disappeared!

When I was first in the choir with an unbroken boy’s voice, the songsters gathered upstairs in the long taken-down gallery. Mrs O Connell played the harmonium and young and old sang - it was kind of compulsory in that time. Ah yes, how times have changed, and when Mass was over on Sunday and we’d sang the last hymn, that really came home to me. There was no-one sitting in the seat in the corner behind the choir. That’s where Cathy Gubbins always sat.

As I’d leave the Church, Cathy and I would always have a little chat, renewing that bond of friendship between our families going back to the 1930s - her father and my grandfather.

Cathy died last year. She had a variety of illnesses in recent years. Then she got the dreaded Covid and we all thought the worse. But she battled back and beat the scourge that has devastated the world.

When she was coming home from hospital in February last year, we had an emotional ‘welcome home’ gathering for her at the Cross of Bartlemy. She got to go on holidays with her friends last summer. She died in August and we all miss her.

But when I turned around last Sunday after Mass, her smiling face was absent and it really saddened me.

She was a fine singer herself and I can remember when she took part in Muintir na Tire Talent shows in the 1970s. Isn’t it amazing that an empty place on a church pew can bring such memories? Our choir is small but it’s the Bartlemy choir and Cathy was part and parcel of our community.

A few years back, she travelled to Lourdes and she loved it. Over in France we chatted about her mother and mine, her Aunt Mary and my Auntie Jo. We had so much in common and Sunday Mass in Bartlemy was so important to us both.

When I was researching a book on Gortroe cemetery years back, Cathy was one of the first people I ‘interviewed’. She had a vast store of knowledge on Healys and Walshs, Gubbins, Kellehers, O Sheas and many others. She was so anxious that I’d write down what she knew. That’s the way traditions are kept alive and handed on.

Passing her house on the way back from any trip, match or meeting, I always knew that just around the corner was Bartlemy and I was home. Since she died the family have kept a light in the window.

Memory, they say, can play tricks but it can also rekindle the light of other days.

She loved Brendan Bowyer the way I loved Joe Dolan. We didn’t sing any of Joe’s or Brendan’s songs last Sunday but we still got an appreciative round of applause from the congregation. I know Cathy was clapping too.

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