Authors: Patrick McCabe
Late at night – when he was a boy – he would often lie awake in bed, dreaming of that glorious day when he would return to the town as a fully-fledged clergyman; cruise proudly
through the bannered streets in an open-topped bus on the side of which bright painted colours ecstatically enthused W
!, tears of joy filling his eyes as he recognized each face from his childhood, his heart swelling with pride as he saw his old classmates waving and
crying triumphantly: ‘Hooray for our pal Declan! For this day he has made Barntrosna a happy place!’ He would ponder, too, on his mother, who for many long days and nights had
selflessly toiled at her knitting machine, waiting patiently for this day which, many times, she must surely have thought would never arrive. And now it had! How many times had he swooned as he
thought of her radiant in her green coat and hat, giving him a little wave from the front pew as he knelt down before the Monsignor who was to perform the ceremony. The Monsignor who would be a
good friend to Declan throughout his seven long years in Maynooth College. And who, when they had both finished their spiritual reading, would play football with him up against the gable end of the
college, or perhaps accompany him to the games room for a spot of well-earned table tennis.
Declan would smile as he thought of those days which, of course, were yet to come. He saw himself scoring a goal and the Monsignor going mad! So furious Declan thought he was going to hit him!
‘It hit the post!’ he could hear the older man of the cloth shouting, when it was plain for all to see that it simply had not! But in the end, they would, he knew, settle with penalties
and all would be well again. Then it would be off with them around the walk (‘This gravelled circle of contemplation,’ his colleague called it) to discuss the latest gossip in
or the Monsignor’s forthcoming article in
They say that in the seminary you form friendships which endure for life. That between men, a bond of affection can develop which becomes indissoluble. Of two men, this was most certainly
destined to be true – Declan Coyningham and Monsignor Pacelli Harskins.
Testimony to this would be the fact that for years afterwards Fr Declan would descend the stairs – or he would if things were not, tragically, to prove otherwise – to find awaiting
him on the front door mat a familiar sight – a small white rectangle of paper – and, secreted inside it, familiar words which no matter how often he read them would never cease to
gladden his heart: ‘Harskins here! How’s tricks?’ And there Fr Declan would stand – years into the future – with the letter in his hand, almost as if in another world,
catching up on all the latest
(which was to be their own private pet name for scandal) in Maynooth, whilst Mrs O’Sull (as she would affectionately be known – her name in its
entirety being O’Sullivan) tugged repeatedly at his elbow. Rubbing his hands and smiling away then as he seated himself at the table, then excitedly exclaiming with a twinkle in his eye,
‘Ready for action when you are, Mrs O’Sull!’ and launching himself into a fierce attack on his sizzling plate of rashers and eggs.
Which would, of course, please his housekeeper no end. Because she would know Declan in his youth had been a very weak boy. Had, in particular, a tendency towards colds, the reason his mother
knitted him a grey balaclava with matching tasseled woollen scarf, and which she had persuaded his teacher Master Petey to allow him wear for the duration of the school day. Initially, the master
– perhaps understandably – had displayed some reluctance. ‘As a rule, Mrs Coyningham, you see,’ he said, ‘the boys are not permitted to wear headgear of any kind in
the classroom. It wouldn’t be, generally speaking, school policy.’ In the end, however, as he knew the family well, particularly old Jack Coyningham, who had been a well-known character
and raconteur about the local pubs before he was killed in a buckrake accident (having been perforated), he agreed to make an exception in this instance.
So it is self-evident that Declan was not a strong boy; and also irrefutable that he had a tendency to pick up colds of an often quite distressing severity. But whether or not exercising what
might be termed ‘the balaclava option’ was ultimately a wise course of action, considering what later transpired, must remain for ever open to conjecture.
For it was around this time that Declan’s air of ‘apartness’, that preoccupied sense of purpose mingled with sanctity that seems the lot of those destined for the religious
life, began to manifest itself quite clearly. The manner in which he now carried himself, each step carefully measured with almost obsessive exactitude, as if engaged in some private and intensely
personal march for Jesus, and, beneath his balaclava, his eyes transfixed by a miraculous image located, it appeared, somewhere directly in front of him. It was as if from him there seemed to
shine, as if in some other-worldly Weetabix advertisement, a light of breathtaking clarity. A light that triumphantly declared: ‘I am Declan Coyningham. That is my name. And it is my duty to
become a priest and save souls in my home town of Barntrosna.’
An assertion which was undeniable; the evidence was there, all around if you cared to look for it – manifested in the softness of his hands; the supple leather of the shoes lovingly
polished by his mother every morning; the little miraculous medal pinned to the white cotton of his vest.
The inevitability of Declan’s devoting his life to the service of Christ was accepted at a very early stage by the people of the town. Who, in the main, were quite proud that this was the
case. After all, there hadn’t been a priest ordained in Barntrosna for over ten years, ever since Fr Sean Chisleworth of Turbot Avenue and that seemed like generations ago now. ‘We
could be doing with another priest,’ the parishioners would often remark, ‘and sure wouldn’t it be great for Mrs Coyningham? I think she has her heart set on it, God love
Which was indeed true. Ever since Jack (RIP) and herself had done
(which had been their private name for the love act), she had known Declan was destined to take holy orders. If
you had asked her: ‘But how – can you explain to us, Mrs Coyningham? – how could you possibly have known that? At such an early stage, I mean?’ she wouldn’t have been
able to tell you. Not in concise, empirical language, at any rate. She would just feel her stomach and give you that look, that queer look that seemed to say: ‘I can’t rightly say. I
just knew, that’s all.’
When Declan made his first communion, she thought she was going to have to be carried out, collapsing from what she could only think of as a surfeit of almost unbearable pride. ‘Oh, if
only Jack was here now,’ she sniffled into a Kleenex tissue provided by her sister Winnie (Mrs Alfie Baird of Main Street), adding: ‘He’d be the proudest man in the town, God rest
‘Maybe he’s watching from heaven,’ soothed Winnie, trying not to think of the remains of what had once been her brother-in-law (for it was her who had come upon what seemed a
discarded haybag beneath the buckrake on that fateful day). ‘Maybe he is,’ sniffled Mrs Coyningham as her son Declan appeared out of nowhere, like an angel dropped from heaven, in his
beautifully pressed new suit and carrying the polished, zippered missal with its glittering binding of gold which had been a present from his Aunty Gertie. ‘My holy boy!’ cried both
women at once and descended upon him in a flurry of rattling pearls and spontaneously levitating clouds of powder.
Perhaps if Mrs Coyningham had not insisted quite so forcefully on his daily wearing of the balaclava and knitted scarf, events might have taken a slightly different turn. And Fr Declan might
still be happily ministering away in the town of Barntrosna, instead of his soul being an infinitesimal speck circling the cosmos, pitifully crying out for someone to direct it homeward.
At religious retreats down the years, a story that has been related with great frequency concerns an artist commissioned by the Church authorities to paint both the image of transcendent
goodness and beauty and that of the most unimaginable wickedness. And who, having had the former delivered to him – the luminous, unblemished visage of a young boy – duly completed his
task and set off upon his journey to locate its obverse, a badness so foul and repellent no words could ever begin to adequately describe it. Thirty years he spent upon his quest, only to discover
that the black-socketed, wild-haired creature he had chosen as the most authentic representation of evil proved to be none other than that very selfsame young boy he had painted all those years
before, now corrupted beyond belief, by this egregious world and all its myriad depravities.
The despair of the crushed painter knew no bounds. As did that of the people of Barntrosna, who now found themselves encountering what had once been Declan Coyningham. What words could they even
begin to utter as they gazed upon his hideous figure, for all the world an animated scarecrow as it flailed about the streets on splayed legs with a bottle of methylated spirits held aloft,
scornfully gloating: ‘Thomas Aquinas! The two ends of a dog’s bollocks!’ and ‘I’ll give you informed conscience, you gimpy-looking hoor and that fucker along with you!
You hear me?’
‘NO!’ cried the real Declan Coyningham as he shot up now in his bed, beads of perspiration the size of table tennis balls pinging off the wall opposite. For it had
– God be praised! – all been but a dream! Declan sighed with immense relief and flung himself upon his knees in thanksgiving. But his relief was premature. For much worse was yet to
come – and in reality.
Who can say for certain that things would have been otherwise if the balaclava had not been donned that first day? That Mrs Coyningham would not still be by her post at the knitting machine,
instead of eating flies in St Jude’s Nursing Home, insisting that she is pregnant with a little girl who is going to be a nun? Who can honestly declare with anything approaching unfailing
conviction, ‘Look! If Mrs Coyningham had left things the way they were and never minded about the bloody old balaclava, Fr Declan would be above in the chapel saying Mass this Sunday just
like he always did!’ – none who identified their place of residence as the town of Barntrosna, that much can be safely regarded as far beyond doubt.
What is also beyond doubt is that the events which led to the tragedy which was to befall Declan Coyningham, aspirant clergyman, could be said to have begun not long after eleven o’clock
play in Barntrosna Primary School in the year 1964, for that was the day the boys from the Back Terrace decided once and for all that they had had enough of Declan Coyningham and he would have,
without further equivocation, to be blown up.
What exactly it was that transpired on that fateful day, no one can say for certain; suffice to say that when the news reached Mrs Bobie Coyningham, she completely broke down on
the spot, and was never to be quite the same again. Not, however, that she found herself alone in her trauma – for the town in its entirety was destined soon to be in deep shock. After all,
it must be remembered that, in those days, Barntrosna was a quiet, peace-loving community. How could it possibly be expected to cope with a tragedy of such appalling magnitude? Certainly, there had
been unsettling incidents, particularly during the ‘troubled times’, such as the night the Black and Tan lorries rolled into town under cover of darkness, raided Bartle Foody’s
bar and grocery and beat the proprietor to a pulp with golf sticks and, of course, the occasion on which Teresa Carstairs (Mrs) embezzled the entire funds of the Barntrosna Lacemaking Association
and decamped to Honduras without ever being heard of again.
But all this was as nothing to what happened to Declan Coyningham who, on that dread day, had only two things on his mind and they were how to surprise his mother with a little treat and how
best he might serve the Blessed Virgin Mary the mother of God, now that the month of May (her special time) was upon us. Which was why it took him completely by surprise when
‘Fish-hook’ Halloran, Nailie Hopkins and one or two others emerged from their hiding place behind a wall and barked: ‘Hold it! Stop right there, Coyningham!’
Initially, Declan was quite pleased, but his good humour and sense of bonhomie began to dramatically evaporate when Fish-hook pulled the tassel of his woollen scarf in a clearly aggressive
manner and snapped: ‘Look here! This has gone far enough, Coyningham!’ With the conversation taking this turn, Declan became somewhat alarmed. Which he was indeed correct in doing,
especially now that Fish-hook was glaring at him like a man possessed, with the fleshy tip of his tongue darting in and out like a serpent’s. There was only one thing Declan could think to do
and that was to say the prayer his mother had taught him, the little prayer to St Anthony for intercession in times of great distress. A definition which most definitely applied now, Declan
realized, as Fish-hook gruffly wrenched the missal from his hand and demanded: ‘What’s this? Prayers, eh? Pshaw!’ flinging it disdainfully across the hedge. Declan emitted a
shriek of horror and cried out. He explained that it had been a gift from his Aunty Gertie but Fish-hook disdained his pleas with a wide sweep of his mucus-silvered arm, explaining that he
didn’t care who gave it to him, all that mattered now was that Declan’s carry-on had to end once and for all. Because he was somewhat uncertain as to what exactly Fish-hook was talking
about, Declan ventured tremulously: ‘What carry-on is that, F-F-Fish-hook?’
Which was unwise in the circumstances because it only succeeded in further deepening the rage of his glowering adversary. ‘What sort of carry-on?’ he snapped. ‘Don’t play
dumb with me, Coyningham! You and your stupid balaclavas, that’s what! We’ve about had it with you! Acting the big fellow! Ha! Look at the big fellow now, lads!’ to which his
predatory companions responded with a guttural ‘Haw!’