[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in Around the Boree Log and Other Verses, 1921.]
Vale, Father Pat
Yes, that’s the hardest hand at all upon my frosted head —
That telegram that brought the news that Father Pat is dead —
I cannot grip its message yet; we were such cronies, that
The world is not a world to-night without poor Father Pat.
Nigh eighty years I’ve known him now. Since ever we were boys
Across the sea in Ireland, each other’s cares and joys
We’ve shared as with their leaden step they strode across the mat;
The kindest heart that ever beat is stilled in Father Pat.
They knew him round the country wide; from here to Carrathool
The teamster toiling by his dray, the youngsters home from school,
Would greet him with a curt “good day,” and shyly pull the hat
Down farther on the forehead in respect for Father Pat.
I see him in my mind to-night, a diamond in the rough,
A kindly soul that hid the gold, but showed the sterner stuff —
The wise old eye, the homely face, the scant hairs pasted flat
Across the wide wise baldness of the head of Father Pat;
The collar caught with honest tape when fleeting studs had gone;
The suit that said good-bye to cut the day he put it on;
The handsome stock the sisters built, the tassels on the hat,
The stout umbrella in the hand of manly Father Pat.
I see the ordered sitting-room he’ll never enter more,
The ivory bead-crowned crucifix, the font behind the door,
The parish books, the registers and, handy where he sat,
The well-thumbed breviary that warmed the heart of Father Pat.
A man of method all the time — the pigeon-holes a-line,
A dozen keys upon a chain, his pockets filled with twine.
His actions told the time of day, and rivalled e’en in that
The sober clock that ticked away the life of Father Pat.
He used to run the curate on the lines he ran himself;
A list of parish duties stood upon the mantel shelf,
As binding as the decalogue, so all-embracing that
The bishop had to keep the step, when guest of Father Pat.
He’d argue till the cows came home, and never know a doubt;
But when he “showed the p’ilteness,” it was then, my boy, look out!
He’d lay the shoneen* by the heels, and shake him like a rat;
He wasn’t worth a straw, bedad, when trimmed by Father Pat.
His sermons were tremendous things, and thunder-bolts would drop;
The trouble with poor Father Pat was when and how to stop.
Theology? don’t mention it! he’d talk the bishop flat;
One half was Father Gury, and the rest was Father Pat.
I’d quoted him so often to the young lads round about
To show that we old fellows still were far from petered out,
Could take a hand at ceremonies, could sing a Mass and that;
So when we had a big day here I called on Father Pat.
He came — but didn’t conquer, faith, though every nerve was strained;
He’d waved his hand to rubrics on the day he was ordained;
He went along his old, old way in broken notes and flat —
To tell the truth, I felt ashamed for once of Father Pat.
These young lads build their castles up, and fancy’s beacons glow.
Ah well, poor Father Pat and I went through that years ago;
And some of those ideals are dead, and some we’ve jested at,
And some are where the failures wait for me and Father Pat.
Though brighter far the morning seems than does the setting sun,
Still, they but carry on the work by such as us begun.
We blazed the tracks they tread to-day — at least they’ll grant us that —
The men who sailed in sixty-five along with Father Pat.
We left the friendly stars astern, the Irish lights agleam,
We dared the seas in sailing-ships before the days of steam,
We faced a weird wild waste of world that brave men trembled at:
No shipside welcome met the men who came with Father Pat.
We turned our horses’ heads out west, beyond the farthest track,
With nothing but an alien star to light the journey back.
The echoes mocked us as we went, and silence startled sat
When out beyond the rim of things we marched with Father Pat.
We said our Mass in canvas tents, and neath the gnarled trees;
Of red-gum slabs and sheets of bark we built our sanctuaries
Our axes rang on timbered slopes above the mining flat,
And church and school and convent mark the path of Father Pat.
We made our bow to wild and waste, and hardships worse than those;
We leave a gracious golden land that blossoms like the rose.
Far defter hands may now adorn the work we laboured at,
But granite base and buttressed wall were built by Father Pat.
Well may his arms drop idly down at eighty years of age;
His story goes behind him with no stain upon its page.
I’ll bet he played the innings through and carried out his bat,
And none dare hint “retiring hurt” in front of Father Pat.
And with him goes the little band that sailed in sixty-five;
A dreamer by his lamp to-night is all that’s left alive.
Poor Father James, and Father Ned, and jovial Father Mat
Are waiting out beyond the dark to welcome Father Pat.
I’ll not attend the obsequies: I feel I could not face
The office that I know so well, and see his vacant place:
We saw a generation pass while side by side we sat:
Another starts its march to-day — without us, Father Pat.
They’ll wonder why I am not there — I, last of all the band —
To take farewell of him that’s gone; but he will understand.
We’ll have a little requiem my own loved altar at,
And just ourselves — alive and dead — shall chant it, Father Pat.
*An over-smart would-be gentleman; a term of contempt.
John O’Brien. Around the Boree Log and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1921
bedad = an Irish exclamation, a euphemism for “By God”
shoneen = a gentleman in a small way, a would-be gentleman who puts on superior airs; always used contemptuously [see: P. W. Joyce. English As We Speak It in Ireland, Longman, Green & Co., London, 1910, page 321]
vale = Latin for farewell; used as a heading for death notices in many instances
Edward J. Susank says
This poem brings to mind Rev. Patrick Healy. He was born May 11, 1879 in County Galway, Ireland, and ordained at Carlow on June 17, 1905 for the Diocese of Rockhampton.
He served the Catholic Church in Australia from 1906 to 1924. From 1907-1909 he was assistant pastor at St. Joseph’s Church, Townsville. He later served as a parish priest at Longreach, Mount Morgan and Barcaldine. He became pastor at Longreach in 1912 and had a reputation as a builder of parishes and schools. In 1919 Fr. Healy became Administrator of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Rockhampton and secretary to Bishop Shiel.
In 1924, a sever bout of dengue fever forced him to leave Australia and move to the more salubrious climate of Southern California. He spent the remaining 44 years of his priestly ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles where I knew him well. He died on March 25, 1969. Vale, Father Pat.