“I was blind, but now I see” (John 9 : 25) (“Amazing Grace” ?)
CHAPTER ONE : ” BRED AND BUTTERED AT BOTANY BAY”
I was born in what used to be called, by Australians anyhow, the “Lucky Country”, and in what anyone who has ever lived there knows is the world’s most beautiful city. Kogarah is one of Sydney’s southern suburbs; its supposed onomatopoeic name, chosen by the immigrants who arrived Down Under 50,000 years ago (virtually “ab origine”), is a reminder of the noises frogs made in its marshes. More recent immigrants, like my grandfathers, must have found it very different from the city of London or the Tipperary village of Toomevara (“Tomb of the MEARA” : “Tuam an Mheara”) they left at the end of the nineteenth century. Both my parents grew up in Kogarah; neither ever got to see the places their fathers had left Up Over.
Subdivision of my paternal grandfather’s five-acre backyard made it possible for my parents to raise their seven children in a small house which “The Boss” constructed for them and in which they lived all their lives. Their sixth child, the fourth of their sons, lived there for the first fifteen years of his life. Like most people, I can remember nothing of the first three but almost everything since the age of four. That was when I fell in love with my first nun.
She was a “brown Joey”, a Sister of St Joseph, heavily robed, her already beautiful face put to its best advantage by her coif and stiff, snow-white wimple. When later I was to don a religious habit myself and complete the symbolic beginning of a new life by changing my first name, I based it on hers. Luckily her name was Sister Leontius and not Sister Mary-Elizabeth.
Kindergarten and First Grade were two years of ecstasy. I knew there was a war going on. Mum equipped all of us with first-aid kits in view of the imminent Japanese invasion, and when three of the Imperial Navy’s midget submarines started shooting in Sydney Harbour, we were all under the oak dining-room table. All great fun. Never did see a Japanese, let alone hear a shot. Closest I was to get to what was going on in the Pacific, South-East Asia and New Guinea was to be given some Australian yen, the occupation currency that, mercifully, was never needed. But for the nonce life was fun and games, rationed butter and milk, snags and spuds at home and platonic bliss at St Patrick’s Convent School.
There was one incident in those first four years of school that warned me that I would not always have teachers like Sister Leontius. Sister Austin was not only hideous, but given to scaring the daylights out of her pupils. It was bad enough that she would threaten us with incarceration in the classroom cupboard with the sliding doors; when she added the bit about the “silverfish”, a dreaded form of insect I never actually saw but which, we were informed, would crawl all over us once we were locked in the cupboard, I was ready for my first nightmares. And then there was First Communion, forever to be associated with my First Cigarette. This apparently sacrilegious combination deserves explanation, because like everything else recounted here, it carries a message for those astute readers already reading between the lines.
Mervyn and Billy were the tough kids in Third Grade. They gained respect by blocking their victims between a wall and the school gate and proceeding to torture them by prodding or by tickling until we cried for mercy. They were also particularly gifted at marbles, and managed to acquire splendid collections by beating everyone imprudent enough to play with them. But they were also precocious smokers. During a memorable lunch-time, they invited me to cross the highway separating the school and church property from Moorefield Racecourse to share one of the smokes Billy had stolen from this mother’s purse. Their idea was audacious but not foolhardy. The deed would be done discreetly, behind one of the billboards surrounding the racecourse. Mervyn passed me the cigarette he had already begun to smoke, and my first draw was my last. Not only did I begin to choke, but at that very moment Judas Iscariot turned up. The intruder was one of our classmates whose real name was Michael. He took one look at the three of us and then ran back to tell Sister Austin all about it. The dressing-down that followed included the very real threat of being forbidden to make our First Communion, a family and social disgrace made even more intolerable by the fact that it would mean missing out on the Communion Breakfast. Even the purest of First Communicants knew that after the Mass there was always a collation in the church hall, the principal feature of which was chocolate-covered biscuits. It was 1944 and I had never tasted a chocolate-covered biscuit in my life. My repentance was heartfelt. The biscuits were delicious.
Graduation to the Marist Brothers’ school was painless enough, even for the youngest kid in the class. The reason was Brother Campion. In those days at least, one did not fall in love with Marist Brothers, but if one did it would have been with this white-haired saint. I did not yet suspect the existence of certain psychopaths who wore the same habit and taught in the same school. Campion had no cane, never gave pre-adolescent boys “three on each hand” (“six of the best”), would never have thought of using metal-edged rulers on the backs of their fingers, carried no refrigerator strap rolled up in the pocket of his black habit (far more convenient for corporal punishment than a cane concealed in one’s sleeve). Nor had he the eccentric masochism disguised as sensitivity to injustice, revealed one day years later by one of his confreres, who having discovered that he had punished an innocent student, asked to be, and was, caned himself by the victim. Campion, Brother Campion – “Camp” we called him, but of course only among ourselves – managed to control and actually teach an overcrowded classroom of 108 unruly boys in short pants, jacket and tie (the uniform even included felt, miniature adult hats !). His secret was a firm and fair discipline – and the channeling of physical energy through team sports.
The asphalt playground of the school where, over the next eight years, I would complete both my primary and secondary education, was hardly appropriate for the recreational activities that took place before school and during breaks. But it was all we had. Half a dozen cricket pitches were squeezed into one end of the playground; the rest was divided up into white-lined areas for each of the grades to play in. The cricket was brutal enough, the idea being to be the first to retrieve the ball hit by the batsman, theoretically, into the practice-nets, but in reality anywhere at all, including, on one occasion, into my teeth. With the cricket pitches already at saturation point, the only other option was to have each grade, in its appointed territory, divide into teams and run around madly tossing a football to members of its team, while the opposing team would do all it could to capture and keep the ball for itself. I do not recall anyone actually being killed as a result of this team-building activity, but bloody noses, bruises and torn shirts were considered normal occurrences.
It was different on Thursday afternoons. Depending on the season, we would repair either to Brighton-le-Sands, a fenced enclosure in shark-infested Botany Bay, or to Ramsgate baths (in the words of Clive James, “one vast urinal”) for swimming, or to Scarborough Park for rugby or cricket.
Neither the Brothers nor the parents of their students, at least during and immediately after the War, had money to spend on non-essentials like sports clothing. Brother Campion nonetheless decided to equip everyone in his class with guernseys for the rugby teams he created, by himself cutting, sewing and dyeing hessian bags. (There is another, somewhat more credible, version of this story, which gives the credit to our Mothers. Whoever did the work, this was the closest I ever got to a hairshirt. I wore my yellow guernsey with pride.)
It was pretty hard, given the home, school and social environment of a Catholic child growing up in those years, to be anything but totally religious. I didn’t yet know that it was officially considered a mortal sin for a Catholic family to send one of its gossoons to the Public School, but I had an already impressive list of the thousands of other ways one could end up in Hell. My parents were practising, but not fanatical Catholics. It was, of course, totally unthinkable that any of the family would miss Mass on Sunday, but this, like the “Easter Duty” (obligatory Confession and Communion during a set period of the year), was minimal Catholicism. Ours included an occasional family rosary, fairly regular attendance by some of us at Sunday evening services, and, naturally, participation in the annual Parish Mission, when Redemptorists would take over the running of the parish for a whole week and set us on fire with new-found fervor. We never called them Revivals, but those extraordinary evening events including Confessions, Rosary, incense-impregnated Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and that feat of religious oratory and pre-television entertainment known as the Mission Sermon, were their Catholic equivalent.
The secret, however, behind the commitment of Catholics to Catholicism lay in the combined influence of a totally sacralized clergy, an education system dedicated to the daily reinforcement of faith and devotional practice, and an inherited, unquestioning, positive identity as Catholics rather than the rest of humanity classified simply as NON-Catholic.
My best friend, Bruce, who lived next door, was non-Catholic and more precisely, Presbyterian. I had no idea what that meant, except that they did not have Mass, indulgenced prayers, nuns and fish on Friday. They were, however, very strict about Sunday rest. We knew it was a sin to cut the grass or paint your house on the Lord’s Day. But they would not even let you race your billy-cart down the footpath. I never discovered whether it was the noise of those four- metal-wheeled contraptions, the physical effort involved, or the disturbing of the neighbors that made it wrong; I suspected it was because it was fun.
Bruce and I had great times together. Of course we did not attend the same school. His was free, public and secular. Unlike us he did not have a school uniform, which simplified matters when the Public School kids set an ambush for the enemy, a.k.a. the Catholic, uniformed school-kids on their way home from school. Everyone knew which side everyone was on. We would throw stones at each other until some adult would intervene, thereby spoiling it all by interrupting a war that had been going on in Ireland for the last four hundred years. I never fought with Bruce. We had our differences, but we had so much in common : marbles, kites, scooters, swimming in nearby Kogarah Bay, swapping cigarette-cards (actually flattened cigarette packs), sitting at the corner of our street and Prince’s Highway recording the numbers of cars as they drove by (Heaven knows why), and playing bottle-tops. This last activity consisted of taking capsules we had hammered to be as flat as a coin, pitching one of them to land as close as possible to a wall; the player whose bottle-top was closest to the wall would then pile up a given number of them on his elbow, and, with a little luck and much dexterity, try to catch them in his cupped hand. We were not yet into bikes, or even long pants. Before long our ways would be parted, with childhood and its pre-adolescent pleasures a thing of the past, as we moved on to puberty – with girl-friends for Bruce and the Franciscans for Frank.
I found out early what Franciscans were. My big brother Michael – all my brothers were bigger, older and, as they sometimes proved, stronger than I – was some eleven years my senior. I have only the vaguest recollections of him at home, because he left to join the Franciscan Order about the time I fell in love with the beautiful Sister Leontius. I knew he had been a house-leader of the Marist Brothers’ School, something of a sportsman, and an officer in the school Cadet Corps. But for reasons unknown to me, and perhaps to himself, he – like so many adolescents during the ten years following World War 2 – decided to become a priest. I suppose – no, I know – Mum and Dad were proud of their eldest son and of his religious vocation. Mick had finished High School and so was eligible to enter the Novitiate, a one-year trial period during which he and another ten or so graduates of Catholic schools from around Australia would discover monastic life and decide whether or not they wanted to continue by taking what much later I would discover were called Simple Vows – Poverty, Chastity and Obedience – and which, when my time came, would prove to be anything but simple. But I’m jumping the gun by a full ten years.
So Mick left for Maryfields, a farm become Friary south-west of Sydney, which the Franciscans had been given by some wealthy benefactor. There were three major effects of Mick’s decision to follow the Poor Man of Assisi. First, there was a little more room at home. Mick was gone, and because he persevered as a Franciscan until his death (a victim, at sixty-seven, of Alzheimer’s) would never live with us again. We could visit him, and did several times during his Novitiate, and later during the seven years he would spend in Melbourne studying for the priesthood. This was, in fact, the second effect of his departure – my exposure to my brother, in habit and sandals and tonsure, a living statue of St Anthony of Padua, minus, fortunately, the lilies. The third effect was one of disappointment for my grandfather, the Irish patriarch, the Boss, Michael O’Meara, whose name had been given to the first of my father’s sons. The disappointment was not that his first grandson was to become a priest. On the contrary. I saw his bedroom once. Nanna had made it into what looked to me like a chapel, with an oil-lamp permanently burning before a statue of the Virgin. Michael and Joanna were fervently, ferociously Catholic. Wherever they lived, it had to be close to the parish church. The practice of going to Mass daily which I was to adopt during my school years was already that of my grandmother. When my uncle Frank died at the age of twenty, his father donated a marble altar to our parish church. (I often exploited the plaque it bore – and still bears – when I would show it to other altar-boys as proof that the altar in fact belonged to me). No, the Boss was delighted that Mick was to become a priest. The problem was in his becoming a Franciscan; this meant he could never become a Monsignor. Michael O’Meara Senior believed in the hierarchy, in every sense of the word . . .
Back at school, my primary education continued with the help of Mr Bruce, a lay-teacher retired from the Public School system, who had published a book of exercises in Mental Arithmetic which we actually enjoyed using, and Brother Xavier, an eccentric but effective teacher who helped me in acquiring an Hibernian Bursary. Obviously Dad belonged to the Hibernian Society, although I had, and still have, no idea what he did there – besides have a few beers in their club downtown. His membership entitled me to compete for a bursary to pay for my secondary education. School fees were absurdly cheap, but in those post-war years Mum watched what she did with every shilling. There was no particular kudos attached to winning the bursary, but it meant that from now on my school education would cost my parents nothing.
Entering High School was a major event, even though it was on the sames premises I had been frequenting for the last three years. New teachers, new subjects : Latin, Mathematics including Algebra, Physics, Chemistry, and for some reason I have never understood, Technical Drawing. The idea at the time, at least for those of us who had succeeded in being placed in First Year A – the “better” students – was to make it possible for us to choose any of the top professions, identified as those of doctor, lawyer or priest. I suppose somebody realized that many of us would go into business; nonetheless the subject “Business Principles” was not taught in I A, but only in I B. All of us were expected to, and twenty-eight of us did, complete all five years of High School and sit for the final State-run examination known as the Leaving Certficate or the L.C.
One of my new teachers was also the School Principal, Brother Maurus. He taught Math. “Curly” we called him, because his hair was as straight and stiff as the cane he wielded. The trouble was that Curly had, as a young man, known my father. This led him on occasion, not only to call me “Jim”, but in one rare moment of humor to tell me to congratulate my father on the quality of the homework he had presumably done for me. Before recounting the most memorable of my encounters with Curly, I should take a moment to say a word about my father’s initial career.
Dad was proud of the fact that when he was nine – the year was 1909 – he was one of the first students to enroll in the new school the Marist Brothers had established at Kogarah. He would always add solemnly that that same day another of the school’s first students was a certain Norman Gilroy, later to become a Cardinal of Holy Mother Church. Grandfather apparently had high hopes for the only one of his sons who revealed any scholastic ability, so he sent him some years later to “Joey’s”, St Joseph’s, Hunters Hill, another Marist Brothers’ school and one of Sydney’s so-called Greater Public (i.e. Private) Schools. It was there that my father discovered his vocation to be a . . . Marist Brother ! It was either at Mittagong, the Brothers’ Juniorate, or in his first post in a school in Maitland, that Dad, (“Brother Frederick” !) and Brother Maurus lived and worked together. Dad, who spent a few years as a Brother before leaving to return home, get a job and marry my mother, never said a word to me about his religious career, even when I told him of my plans for my own. I never found out whether he knew I knew, but his Marist experience did not help my relationship with Curly.
It was the end of the first term in my First Year of High School. I had done well enough in all of my exams, with one exception – Algebra. I had not only failed, but my exam paper was selected by Curly for public vivisection. I was eleven years of age. More than sixty years later I can still feel the pain and the embarrassment. Inevitably, I decided that Mathematics – in spite of the positive experience I had had in Mr Bruce’s class two years earlier – were beyond me. I would excel in English, learn to love Latin, find fulfillment in French, but in Calculus, Trigonometry and above all Algebra, Curly had succeeded in convincing me, I was destined to fail. And, of course, I did. Until three years later, I met Pygmalion. His name was Elias, Brother Elias.
“Charley” – we had somehow succeeded in discovering Brother Elias’ real, baptismal name – was new to the school. Since Second Year I had been, like my brother Mick, an Army cadet, and when Charley arrived on the scene he was appointed Captain of cadets – and Math teacher for the upper grades of High School. No athlete himself, he also took on the position of coach in the school’s athletic program. I had by this time come up through the ranks in the Cadet Corps and proudly wore to school, every Friday, a cut-down, genuine Australian Army uniform with the insignia of Sergeant-Major (I would end up as one of the last of Her Majesty’s commissioned Cadet Officers, with the rank and title of Lieutenant – at fifteen years of age !). I had also, having discovered my serious limitations in certain other sports, begun to imagine myself a future champion in the 100 yards dash, if not in putting the shot.. Charley and I got to know each other. I was tempted to say “appreciate” each other. I certainly liked, even admired, the man. One day he took me aside and expressed his surprise at how badly my performance in Mathematics compared with results in other subjects. I could not, of course, tell him about Curly, his sadistic confrere and superior; I contented myself with an expression of my resignation to being a moron in Math. Charley would have none of it. He even offered to help, to . . . coach. A year and a half later, I passed both Mathematics exams in the L.C. I had discovered what George Bernard Shaw had Eliza Doolittle say : “What distinguishes a duchess from a flower-girl is not so much her behavior as the way she is treated”
In retrospect, the amazing thing aboiut my imminent decision to enter a religious order is that I was never tempted to join the Marist Brothers, as one of my companions did; Billy, Brother Christopher, later became Principal of Marist Brothers Kogarah ! Charley, and Campion before him, more than made up for the likes of Curly and the other pedagogical misfits I had endured. But Brothers were not Priests. On the other hand, two of my own brothers were in the process of becoming priests. Jim, my second eldest brother, was now in a seminary. Grandfather, had he lived to see it, would have been delighted. Jim had chosen to study for the Diocesan Priesthood : you start as “Father” but could end up as Bishop, Cardinal or Pope Jim the First. Brothers were teachers, but Priests were preachers, celebrants of the Eucharist, ministers of the Sacraments, counsellors, confessors, confidants, tireless champions of all that is right and good and generous, selfless benefactors of the poor, the lonely, the sick and the dying – and highly respected members of the community. I would be a Priest. But also a Franciscan. There was something so total about giving up everything, not only girls and marriage but the right to own anything and even one’s own will. At the advanced age of fifteen, I knew exactly what I wanted and presumably what God wanted : I would follow the Poverello in Poverty, Chastity and Obedience and, “Deo volente” (“God willing” !), later be ordained a Priest.