Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hay on Wye / Sean MacFheorais



I was in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye last weekend and attended Mass in the local parish church.  The fifty or so attending the only Sunday Mass in the Welsh border town almost filled the small church to capacity.  I have been visiting Hay for almost 30 years as a result of Richard Booth’s entrepreneurial spirit which saw him developing the market town as the world’s first book town.  With a population of less than 2,000 Hay has no less than 27 second hand book shops, one of which is perhaps the largest to be found in Britain. 

The elderly Parish Priest of Hay is Fr. Tim Maloney whose name prompted the belief that he was Irish.  However, he told me he was born in India, although the Irish connection was made when he told me that his mother spent her last years in Wexford where she died.

Hay, like Athy, owes its existence to the Normans and both towns were established as key border fortifications.  Hay is located on the Welsh/English border, while Athy is located on what was the border lands which separated the Normans from the Irish. 

What struck me about the Mass in Hay was the very vocal participation of the congregation.  Hymns were sung with fervour and responses were clear and uplifting.  It was an active participation which I have come to associate with Anglican services but which perhaps owes more to the English or Welsh character than anything else.  I could not but help comparing my Sunday morning experience in Hay with Mass in Athy or indeed Mass anywhere in Ireland.  Is it a lack of confidence which limits the Irish person’s participation in communal hymn singing?  How I wish we could import some of the panache and vigour of the small Hay congregation to Athy.

The Anglican Church in Hay is high Church and the present Anglican incumbent continues the High Church tradition which goes back many decades in the Welsh border town.  Relations between the Anglican Church and the other local churches are apparently good but were not always so. As late as 1742 a Methodist preacher was stoned to death by a mob of angry locals in Hay.  There were also serious outbreaks of anti-Catholic feeling reported in Hay in 1850 when effigies of Pope Pius IX and Cardinal Wiseman were burnt in the centre of the town following the Pope’s announcement of the reorganisation of the Catholic Church in Britain.

In 1968 when the local Catholics of Hay acquired their present place of worship there was again an outcry fuelled by many outsiders including Rev. Ian Paisley.  The building acquired had previously served a local Calvinistic Methodist group known as the ‘Jumpers’, a name given to them on account of their energetic involvement in services and communal hymn singing.  Its proposed use as a Catholic Church proved a bridge too far for those opposed to the Catholic Ministry.  Nowadays all this is forgotten and the small Catholic community in Hay provides an interesting contrast in a Welsh countryside which is renowned for the multiplicity of its dissenting churches.  If you are interested in books do visit Hay-on-Wye.

Two weeks ago I got an email all the way from Queensland Australia with a request for the words of the poem ‘An Tincéir Sas O’Neill’ which my correspondent, a native of Cobh, had sung in school in the 1960s to the tune of ‘Spancil Hill’.  He thought it was composed by Athy man Sean MacFheorais and so it was.  The poem simply called ‘An Tincéir’ was included in MacFheorais’s first book of Irish poetry ‘Gearrcaigh na hOiche’ published in 1954.  I was pleased to have a copy of the book and was able to send the words of ‘An Tincéir’ to my Queensland correspondent.

I never met Sean MacFheorais but was looking forward to doing so when he was scheduled to give the first public reading of his then newly written poem on Athy in the Vocational School on 17th March 1984.  Tragically at just 69 years of age he died a few weeks before his planned visit.  I wrote of Sean MacFheorais in Eye No. 76 bemoaning his loss and how we tend to overlook the local men or women who make a meaningful contribution to Irish life and culture.  Sean MacFheorais was one such man and his poetry reaches out far beyond the shores of his native Ireland as evidenced by the request I received recently from Queensland, Australia.

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