Seeing things as they were

Mar 19th, 2010 | By | Category: Ireland

“Late night pharmacy,” declares the neon sign above the shop in Dun Laoghaire.

Paddy never needed such a sign; he didn’t even need to be at the shop.  Pharmacist in an isolated town on the western seaboard, there would be callers at the house on a Saturday evening.  Frequently the callers would arrive by tractor; the only journey of the week from a remote farm.  The trip would take in shopping, Saturday evening Mass, a couple of pints in a bar, and, when necessary, a call with Paddy.

“I can’t turn them away – I go and open up the shop.  Do you know what really annoys me?  The lawn mower.  I work six days a week and like to have Sunday quiet, so I cut the grass on a Saturday evening and the old lawn mower takes ages to get started and I no sooner have the thing started than someone arrives, ‘Paddy, I know it’s after hours, but could you help me out?’”

It’s close on three decades since Paddy’s late night pharmacy, the summer of 1982.  A committed member of Fine Gael, Paddy believed that Garret Fitzgerald, who had lost the general election earlier that year, but would regain power in the autumn, needed to pursue wholesale constitutional reform.  Paddy had no confidence in the political system believing it was being used for people’s personal advantage.  He could recite in detail the abuses he encountered.

We drove to Knock one day.  It was miles and miles on roads where speed invited an encounter with a bog or a dry stone wall.  It was an odd journey: two Protestants curious about what it was that drew the crowds.  Whatever it was, we did not find it.

Getting back that evening, we sat down at the dinner table.  “Were you at Knock today? Had I known you were going, I could have had a word with you about that place”.  He shook his head.  His wife, a traditional countrywoman, glared at him.  Maybe Paddy had not found whatever it was that prompted pilgrimages.

The last encounter with Paddy was 1987.  He was in a regional hospital, undergoing tests for cancer.  There was a moment of self-consciousness going into his room.  Taking a school assembly that morning, I had still a clerical collar, “Father is here to see you”, said a deferential nurse.  Paddy waved me in and waved her away.

“Look at this place”, he said, “they want money for everything.  I even have a pile of 50 pence pieces to get the television to work”.  He was in despondent mood; not so much about his health, but because his party was about to lose the forthcoming general election.  He was suspicious of those who were to gain power.

Memories of Paddy are of a man who would have felt quite at home in the year 2010, which is odd, because those who covered up the case of Father Brendan Smyth try to argue that 1975 was a different age.  Maybe Ireland had changed fundamentally between 1975 and 1982; or maybe that gentle country pharmacist, who was a member of a conservative political party in a small west of Ireland town, was a revolutionary out of step with the rest of his community; or maybe the contention that 1975 was a different age is simply the latest attempt to muddy the waters by an institution seen through by a man who operated an informal late night pharmacy.

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