Friday, 24 October 2014

My three boys in Nunraw

Sancta Maria Abbey Nunraw.
My three boys in Nunraw, September 2014

My paternal parents and their offspring were interested in education and in professional advancement. Their progress could be described as the product of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and of the proliferation of the Irish Catholic secondary schools during the gradual emergence of the Catholic middle class during the later years of the 19th   century

Brothers three: Dad, Sam and Paddy
My father was the eldest boy, born in 1886, and Sam was the youngest of the eight children. He was born in 1900. It is Sam who is the subject of this essay. He studied for the priesthood and joined the Cistercian Order in 1924. I deal briefly with his career and in doing so I refer to my three sons who joined me in visiting the monastery established by Sam at Nunraw in East Lothian in Scotland in 1946.

Sam was prior of the Cistercian monastery and secondary school at Roscrea in Co. Tipperary when he was appointed as the founder and Abbot of the first post-reformation Catholic monastery in Scotland. It was sited in East Lothian in 1946 just after the end of the World War. It seemed a very ambitious undertaking and almost a provocative challenge that a Catholic monastery would dare to establish itself in the heart of Scottish Presbyterian country and that it would acquire extensive land and buildings after their arrival there. On the contrary, the monks were well received by the local people and were greatly helped in settling down during their early years.

Land acquired extended eventually to 1300 acres, which was mostly worked by the monks with some local farmers but the fall in vocations among young people has led to the disposal of the land and the loss of the traditional role of the Cistercians in farming and providing for their members.

The monks (and their many skills).
The monastery was completed by 1969 and had acquired a large guest house close by. The monks built the monastary completely by themselves during its 23 years of construction with the assistance of volunteers and a few local building experts. As the first abbot of Nunraw, Dom Columban (Sam) soon became a close friend of the head of the Church of Scotland and both were enthusiastic in sharing their interest in and hopes of ecumenical progress within the Christian world. Dom Columban had an obvious impact both locally and in the wider world. He received widespread publicity at the time of his death in 1970 including a full programme presented by Malcolm Muggeridge on BBC television.

I remember my uncle as having a most happy and gentle disposition, a feature of many of the other monks we met as children and as we were to meet this year when we arrived in Nunraw. He was clearly very progressive in his outlook and may have found the very conservative rule of the Cistercian Order to be incompatible with changing attitudes aimed at greater communication created by better education and the expanding nature of modern society.

An example of his progressive nature was his concern about the appalling diet on which he and his colleagues in the order were confined to. No meat, fish or other sources of protein except hard cheese could be found on their table. He arranged for me and my colleague, Noel Hickey, and our dietician in my department at St. Vincent’s Hospital to visit Mount Melleray in  Co. Waterford, the head and sister house of the Cistercians in Ireland and to make recommendations about a healthier diet for the Order worldwide.

We investigated the causes of death of the previous 50 monks as recorded in the County register in Co. Waterford and found a relatively poor life expectation among the community. We attended their main meal of the day (including our female dietician – possibly the first female to attend such an event!) and made recommendations to my Uncle Sam which were sent to Rome and apparently acted upon on behalf of the entire Order. Meat and fish were still prohibited, as I recall, but pulses – a mixture of beans, peas and lentils – and eggs and other protein sources may have been allowed.

At Nunraw: David, Self, Richard, Dom Caira and Hugh.
Earlier this year during a conversation with my son Hugh we spoke about Dom Columban. Hugh suggested that we ought to visit the monastery as a tribute to his memory. After some thought I wrote to the current abbot Dom Mark Caira and I was kindly invited to visit Nunraw with my three sons, Richard, David and Hugh. Flying directly to Edinburgh, we hired a car and settled ourselves in an excellent hotel. Next morning we drove to Nunraw, a distance of about 35 miles where we spent up to three hours in intensive conversation with the abbot, with his immediate predecessor, Dom Raymond, and his predecessor and successor to Dom Columban, Dom Donald. The latter was appointed shortly before Columban retired and the latter’s  early death just at 70 years.  Obviously with the next three abbots alive and well, the life span of  the monks has greatly extended since the early  days, perhaps because  their dietary habits have improved or might it be the bracing air of Scotland?

Sam's grave is just to the left of the big cross.
Not unexpectedly, we found that there has been a marked fall in vocations and that the monastery needs to reduce its facilities for the visitors who attended and used the monastery and guest house as an environment designed for prayer and reflection. There are now about twelve to fourteen monks, all of them above seventy years. They had a complement of about 64 in the early 60s but vocations have been falling slowly and inexorably since Vatican II and I am told that the paucity of vocations entering monasteries is evident worldwide. In the late 1960s I recall my uncle being greatly stressed by the early changes occurring in the monastic world after Vatican II.

We found the same personalities among our hosts which I recognised in my uncle and predecessor whom I knew so well, a sense of happiness, contentment, courtesy and optimism despite recent changes in the spiritual and secular world. And clearly they showed a special regard and reverence when they spoke about Dom Columban.

Richard, David and Hugh; when things were more black and white.
The visit for me had another and equally meaningful and lasting effect. It was the first time I had spent alone with my three boys, all now in their fifties. It was a reminder of the gulf which exists between generations in terms of interests and current affairs. It also is a reminder of how warm can be the relationship between father and son. I was treated like a lord in terms of hospitality and consideration and reminded so fully of the warmth of their affection. It was as obvious to them as it was to me that this short break from full family life, removed from the daily affairs of an extended family, had a binding effect on our relationship. 

When together in the hotel, pub or elsewhere there was never a moment of silence. Talk was incessant but it was generally shared by the three and on subjects which were more often of interest to their generation. The first evening we arrived we spent about two hours in the lounge/bar and I found that I was a little remote from the conversation, not only because the subjects were closer to their interests but because of my inability to catch many parts of their conversation, aggravated by the constant noise in the background of the bar and the inevitable loss of hearing as part of my age. At first I was a little concerned about my patchy exclusion from the discussions and the likelihood that this would remain during the entire stay of our time in Edinburgh but I decided that my real role was to study the three of them during their frequent and sometimes intense conversations and to analyse the relationship between them.

Pinting with Hugh
This proved to be an excellent decision and, although there was no loss of attention to me and my presence at times, it was fascinating to be a listener rather than a participator and to study their different characters. Their friendship was clearly apparent and at no time was there any evidence of discord but it was clear that Hugh needs to be alone at times and it is good to be alone with him to share a pint. Richard tends to have strong views but is amenable to other opinions and is safe behind the wheel. He did not seem to resent the modern gadget at the back of the car which in flat and monotonous tones advised him that the next turn was 350 metres to the left. It seemed a help in Edinburgh to the unfamiliar, dominated as the city is by the Castle, by the confusing pattern of streets surrounding it and the heavy weekend traffic and crowds  

David, Self and Richard, enjoying the 1970s.
David likes to keep in close communication with his family and his profession and is in constant use of his mobile phone and his camera. I had the impression that he was the calmest of the three but this could be disputed. When the three were together there was little evidence of calm. Hugh was less communicative with his wife and family at home. He probably contacted them not more than three times daily while David would have comfortably exceeded that number. Richard was the most economical in the use of his ‘phone. He rang his loved one once every day as he retired to his bed in my room. Most obvious to me was the affection the boys shared, their generosity, their common interests and their constant concern about my welfare and comfort.

Altogether it was a most happy reminder of the good fortune which can exist in family life and particularly in the extended family of which I have had the good fortune to belong.  Apart from our visit to Nunraw I thought the happiest moments of our visit was sitting in a crowded pub with a pint of Guinness in my hand listening to and sometimes even intervening among my three boys.

Spot yourselves boys.

1 comment:

  1. It is disconcerting to reflect that we have seen the disappearance of two millennia of christian monastic tradition in little more than a generation.