My mother Julia died five years ago on Prince Philip’s birthday, June 10. It was appropriate. She shared a birthday with Queen Elizabeth and frequently prayed for the English monarch.
Prayer was a central part of her long life. Coming from a farming background in County Cavan, there was no higher aspiration than to have a priest in the family. Stethoscopes and legal writs were considered inferior to a soutane and Roman collar. So it was a source of intense pride and happiness when her nephew Johnny Cusack was ordained in 1963. Shortly afterwards, at my maternal grandmother’s wake, her sister Annie – my great-aunt – clutched my 14-year-old hands and whispered: “Please God I live long enough to be at your ordination.”
My mother possessed a simple, uncomplicated faith. Priests were gods; nuns were Hibernian royalty; Christian and De La Salle Brothers princes, having in common with the clergy and the nuns an incapacity to sin.
Nightly she would kneel by the double bed she shared with my father, her head bowed in prayer. The recitation of the Rosary was a daily family ritual until, overwhelmed with children (she eventually had seven), she simply hadn’t the time.
There was always a freshly replenished stoup of holy water in the hall of our terraced house in Cavan. A picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus watched over it. (Though unlike some neighbours, she did not install pictures of Pope John XXIII alongside the slain JFK.) When any of her grown children were returning to London, Dublin, or ever more remote locations, she would dash from the front door clutching a bottle of holy water. As the car departed the kerb it would be given the equivalent of a holy car wash.
She also believed fervently in the power of the Mass for the living and dead, paying handsomely for Masses to be said. In the 1980s she won £80,000 in the Irish National Lottery. Shortly afterwards I received a call from my brother Myles. “Have you heard from the mother?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “I won’t spoil the surprise,” he said enigmatically.
Some days later a letter arrived at my London home, the name and address written in Julia’s unmistakable copperplate. I opened the envelope to find a card bearing the Sacred Heart. On the other side was a passport-like smudged stamp with an indecipherable, scrawled priest’s signature in ink.
The accompanying letter from Judy explained that the enclosed was a card for £1,000 worth of Masses, which she had paid for and were currently being celebrated for the salvation of my soul. Judy had handed over £7,000 of her lottery winnings for Masses. I was dumbstruck at this loving gesture, and had visions of Masses being said under floodlights around the clock.
At her funeral Mass in Cavan Cathedral in June 2015, attended by the Bishop of Kilmore, various monsignors, parish priests and curates, I recalled her investment. There was much shuffling on the altar bench when I explained that since receiving her gift, my younger brother Aindreas had died of a brain tumour; my youngest sister Joan was in the final throes of terminal MS (she died the following year); my marriage and that of brother Myles had ended in divorce. And our beloved benefactor had spent the last eight years of her life with dementia. In horse-racing terms not a great result – if you judge just by this life.
Like most Catholics of her generation, she put great store by relics. Aged about 11, I was dragooned into viewing the glove of the late Padre Pio, the Italian saint who was said to possess the stigmata. He died in 1968 and was canonised by John Paul II in 2002. His bloodstained glove was on a world tour and fetched up at Cavan Cathedral. My mother insisted I accompany her to join the faithful queuing to see the glove and try it on. Rarely had I seen my mother so happy as she held the tired old glove and slipped her hand into it.
During her last eight years, sitting vacant-eyed in a care home, all memory of her children and husband vanished. But she remembered vividly her parents and her childhood. There was one other retained memory: the prayers and responses of the faith.
At her 90th birthday, months before she died, her nephew Fr Johnny celebrated a Mass attended by all her family. Throughout she muttered ramblings, mostly about the farm bullocks from her Lavey childhood. But when he held up the sacred Host, her mind suddenly cleared. She smiled up at her nephew and before offering her tongue declared: “Hello God.”