My father came from the old country in middle age, and to his last he instilled in me the peculiarities of his native tongue. Even now, at the age of seventy, I am left with his manners of speech, his inflections and growls. He left me with his sayings, and I recall one in particular, his favorite, a hall-comic shout of equal parts exasperation and petition: "Help me, Father Alphonsus!"
Most often this was uttered in moments of high disgust. My father worked as a hod carrier until he was seventy, a job that condemned him through all those years to being eternally strong and eternally exhausted. At night, sitting in his chair in the parlor of our tenement, he would brood over the five of us, his children, as we bickered over one thing or another-the last scrap of the night's loaf, a new toy pilfered from a classmate-and he would take on the resigned look of a condemned man, and invoke the name of this priest, a man he had known long ago. And then, if my mother didn't rush from the kitchen to herd us from danger, my father would often hit one of us.
Even late in life he had ridged muscles along his chest and back. His face was etched with a sunburned and skeptical squint. When we were young, he hit hard. When he sat down again, walled in now by the wails of a child, he'd rub the sting from his cracked hands and fall into a black mood. "Forgive me, Father Alphonsus," he'd mumble. The meaning always seemed clear. My father was a man of weakness and vices, and he made no apologies. He prayed for strength in the face of us. Much later in life I found myself praying aloud to Father Alphonsus a time or two, such as when my own son stole a car. The matter was quietly settled in the office of a police-department captain, with the victim of the theft staring at me from across the table and my son quietly sobbing. Father Alphonsus, the faceless man of grace, hovered ethereally over the proceedings.
Alphonsus, my father told us, was the most well-intentioned man he had ever known, "if such things should count for anything." Alphonsus was a near relation, the keeper of faith in Fenagh, the hamlet on Lough Ree where my father was born.
"He was a man who knew nothing but to offer the best he could," my father said. "I have neither his patience nor his benevolence." My father wasn't cruel, but he lived a life of bricks on his back, the stabbing workday sun, and day's end liquor bought with the desire for the most liquid at the lowest negotiable rate. He'd drink and play our battered phonograph, closing his eyes and giving himself over to the crackling arias. Though he often invoked the name of his old village priest, he found no priest here to be worthy, and he fell away from the Church despite my mother's prodding. When I was seventeen and was offered a scholarship to Boston College, he complained bitterly that I could do better than to deal with Jesuits, insincere bastards that they were. I suspected that my father could have done much better than his dire life, but he seemed not to want to, couldn't fully engage in the way things were. It didn't seem unusual that a hod carrier would prize his books, his Greek classics and sweeping histories. He was Irish, and illegal. He could not become lace-curtain Irish, and my father had nothing good to say about those who were. He maintained through his life the sidelong glance he had learned when he first came off the boat, before he found my mother and married her.
This Father Alphonsus was one of the few people mentioned from my father's youth. I had no sense of what the man was like, his look or manner. At times I wondered if he was real. But one day, late in his life, my father came to feel a desperate need to tell me a story.
This would have been 1952. My father was about the same age as I am now, but he was much closer to death than 1 assume myself to be. A resolute smoker of filterless Camel cigarettes, he was in the advanced stages of cancer of the larynx, which at the time was virtually incurable. In the nursing home, in a wicker wheelchair, he talked compulsively despite the ongoing strangulation of his voice box. He'd take a deep breath and then release it in long, rattling phrases, and I would sit and listen to monologues about his job and friends and enemies and crooks and aces. Later, in his yellow-walled hospital room, he'd go on and on while I watched the rectangle of sunlight glide imperceptibly across the waxed floors and then fade and die. I sensed in all this talk a spiraling movement toward something central. He had, he told me, things he needed to say. Important things. What happened on Father Alphonsus's final day was one.
Alphonsus had been the youngest of six, born six weeks after his father's death by pneumonia, and from the moment of his birth his mother had unshakable plans for him. Alphonsus would be her last chance, and she was the kind of woman who felt that producing a priest was a fitting and necessary act of completion to her maternal career. From the earliest age Alphonsus was groomed for sacred duty. She made him tiny knitted vestments and pasteboard altars as playthings, enlisting his older brothers, rougher boys, to encourage Alphonsus to believe that he was different. Alphonsus's mother spoke to him nightly about the duties he would assume, bedtime tales about faith and good works. His oldest brother, Eamon, explained, to him about celibacy, and none too charitably. But Alphonsus listened and nodded. The details Eamon so eagerly shared, using examples of his own sordid exploits as proof of what Alphonsus would miss, horrified the younger boy. Eamon waited then for a response. Alphonsus's nightly sessions with his mother allowed him to apply the appropriate word: sacrifice. "Good lad," Eanion said. Aiphonsus, even as a child, was looking forward to the priest's solitary life. His heroes were the Irish hermits of the Middle Ages. He read stories of their lives on the rocky islands off the west Irish coast, lives of gray skies and gray seas. These stories filled him with awe for the heroism embodied in shunning the world.
Sacrifice did not define the process of Alphonsus 's rise to the priesthood. He slid through seminary and took up his works back at St. Enda's in Fenagh, his boyhood church. When his superior, the aged Father O'Donnell, passed away on the night after Christmas, 1906, the twenty-six-year-old Alphonsus became his village's spiritual leader.
Nights, standing in his bedroom as rain washed the windows of the drafty stone rectory, he thought that he didn't regret what he had become but that he wouldn't ultimately measure up. The feeling wasn't new. He had completed his studies with neither distinction nor exceptional difficulty. He had never considered himself brilliant, but he had enough intelligence to see his own utter lack of intuition. Could a priest, confronted with the fluid nature of reality, afford not to rely heavily on hunches and inspiration? In his small room in the seminary he prayed long and searchingly, believing that a sudden feeling of enlightenment or resolve might be transmitted from the Creator. But when he finished with his prayers, he felt nothing.
In the first dozen years or so after ordination things went relatively well. His posting to the village seemed clear notice that not much was expected of him from his superiors. Alphonsus presided over the reassuring cycle of dawn masses, funerals, and weddings; he taught catechism and organized a football team of the younger boys. These were the things Alphonsus had imagined himself doing effectively. He'd stand at the edge of a rain-softened field, the winds off the laogh making the edges of his cassock snap and tighten around his legs, and he'd watch the boys, some playing bare-foot as they kicked the ball about. He felt like a giant then, affecting a sternness he recalled in O'Donnell. He hoped to instill in them the fear he'd held of the old man. But at the same time, he felt small and weak in the face of the unanticipated crisis. It had not yet happened, but he knew its inevitability, if not its form. He felt that these things could be seen by the shrewd among his parishioners: His stammering uncertainty when faced with the difficulty of a pregnant girl, Amanda Flynn, asking to be quietly married, even though half the town had already heard whispered dispatches of her condition. Or the town's thieves and adulterers and his sheeplike acceptance of them sitting in the front pews, their faces masks of haughty and false devotion. He would meet their eyes briefly and then look away.
One day, after years of this stoic service, Alphonsus awakened early to a knocking on the door. This tapping was light but relentless, on and on until he had let his eyes adjust and find the phosphorescent hands of his clock. It was three o'clock. An early riser, Alphonsus was surprised to be rolled out of bed, and the insistent softness of the knocks as he descended the stairs indicated to him a call for last rites, perhaps for the elder John Flanagan, who'd been kicked shoeing a horse and was not expected to recover. At the door he found a boy, perhaps ten years old, shivering.
"Father, you have to hear a confession," the boy said.
"A confession. You hear confessions, don't you?"
"Well, I thought you were. . ." Alphonsus felt a twinge of anger. "Of course I hear confessions. But I generally don't find children on my doorstep at odd hours. Now, get inside here. We'll do it in the study, and it had better be good."
"It's not I who needs to," the boy said. "The person is waiting inside the church."
What was this? Alphonsus made the boy stand in the entry while he ascended the stairs to change clothes. The oddity of this demanded confession made him suspicious. For a shaky moment he worried that this would be a robbery. He sat at the edge of the bed, still in his underclothing, his cassock across his knees. He tried to place the boy's face. The child was not one of his footballers; the face was reminiscent of the O'Neals, a family of beggars who lived in a beaten-down mud cottage outside the town, near the lough shore. Alphonsus heard the door below open and then shut. The thought of what might be afoot-being lured out by the boy and then thrashed for his pocket watch-made him wary. Alphonsus went to the bedroom window and looked out. The boy had left the house and now stood on the dark lawn with a man. They were shadowy forms, but he could see that they were looking up at him. The man raised his arm and waved. Alphonsus waved back and then held out a raised index finger: one moment. The man nodded.
When Alphonsus came out the door, he felt the glassy cold cutting through his sweater. The man and boy moved forward to meet him, in the steam from their own breathing. The man, his face hidden by the pulled-down front of his cap, was staring at the ground.
"The boy said you'd gone inside the church," Alphonsus said.
"No, Father. He's right inside the confessional."
They stayed in the yard while Alphonsus went in. He fumbled for a candle at the back of the nave, still half waiting for hands to seize at him from the dark. But in the weak light the church was still. He entered the confessional, snuffed the candle, and slid back his screen.
"Are you there?" Alphonsus said.
"Then go ahead."
The voice began its mumbled recitations, and as he waited, Alphonsus rubbed his eyes of sleep and wondered about the elder John Flanagan and whether he had lived through the night. Alphonsus was feeling light and electric, not quite anchored in the dark. He realized that the man had stopped talking
"Go ahead," Aiphonsus said.
"Father, I've breached the Fifth Commandment."
Alphonsus was silent. He was sure the man was confused. "Do you mean adultery, then?" he said.
"Tell me the Fifth Commandment."
"Thou shalt not kill."
Alphonsus felt strangely calm. This was the first time he'd encountered such an infraction. A killer! He silently recalled the seminary lessons: Forgiveness is the priest's task, punishment the law's.
"Who?" Alphonsus said.
"I don't know his name."
"Who knows about this?"
"No one, Father."
"Not your friends outside?"
"Not even them. Only you."
"And where is the dead man?"
"In the woods near the lough."
"Is that where you killed him?"
"That's where I did him, Father."
Alphonsus leaned back against his bench. He told himself to go slow.
"And while you were standing over his body there in the woods, were you feeling remorse for your act?"
"I felt sorry I had to breach a commandment."
"Was it self-defense?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"What manner was that?"
"That we are all in danger, Father."
"Some men, to prove their remorse, might turn themselves in."
"Aye," the voice said. "Some might."
"And why not you?"
"Others will be involved. Others who don't deserve such troubles."
"How so? Troubles from whom?"
"From the Black and Tans."
"Oh, my," Alphonsus said. He ran his fingers along the starched smoothness of his collar.
Matters had taken on a more troubling dimension. He now understood that the dead man was a policeman from the RIC, the Royal Irish Constabulary. Four years had passed since the Easter Rising in Dublin, and in this four years of undeclared civil war the RICs, seen by many as agents of British rule, had often been targets. The RICs were Irishmen, but more and more the younger men had left the ranks, some openly disavowing their ties, others simply slipping out, often to England. Those who remained were the older hands, who after years of service were not sure whether to be more afraid of the Irish Republican Army or of a lost pension. But with each new death of a constable came more recrimination and violence.
The Black and Tans, since they'd been brought in from England, had begun a policy of retribution that was as simple as it was vicious. When a policeman was killed, the Tans generally burned the village nearest the killing. Alphonsus did not need to calculate the distance to the shores of Lough Ree: as a sport fisherman, he knew the lough, a landlocked elbow of water a mile wide and eleven long.
"Father ... ?"
Good God! Was this how simple it should be? Alphonsus was speechless. Penance? He sat for a long time, thinking, wondering whether he could somehow find a way to consult with someone. What was the penance for such an act?
"I can grant no penance yet," Alphonsus said. "I want you to return here at the same time tomorrow night. I want you to do nothing except pray. Take no action. Now, where is this body?"
"Father, I don't know if…”
"Good Lord, man!. Tell me where this poor lad is, so he can receive the sacrament due him!"
"Do you know the path to the rock formations on the east side of the lough?"
"He's twenty or thirty yards north of the path, about a quarter mile up from the shore."
"How did he get there?"
"He was answering a call for help."
The man fell silent. Alphonsus could hear his breathing. "Father?" he said. "Father, I thought you had to grant penance."
"Not in the case of the Fifth Commandment," Alphonsus said. "Most people have no experience in this." He quivered at his own lie, but his voice remained firm.
As Alphonsus sat in the confessional, listening to the receding footsteps and then the slam of the church door, he rubbed his hands on his knees, trying to calm himself. Indeed, he was thinking of the town of Balbriggan, which had burned a few weeks before at the hands of the Black and Tans.
But, Alphonsus wondered, could this man who had spoken to him in the confessional truly be repentant, having known what his actions would lead to? Alphonsus thought not. But he had, from his training, clear guidelines: as much as he wanted this man to turn himself in, he could not require it. And doing so probably wouldn't help, once the dead man was discovered. The Black and Tans, so called because of their odd makeshift uniforms of khaki army trousers and black RIC tunics, were men in whom the cruelty of war had become ingrained. They were being paid ten shillings a day, good money, but still they often sought as payment the suffering of those they saw as enemies, which was nearly anyone Irish.
Alphonsus relit his candle. The movement of the shadows in the boxed closeness of the confessional made him think of the lick of flames. The Black and Tans' terror felt close at hand. Why should anyone be absolved?
In the morning he offered sunrise service to a handful of sleepy elders and then returned to the rectory for breakfast. The housekeeper, Mrs. Toole, had brought in a two-day-old copy of The Irish Times, and over his toast he went through it slowly, looking for news on the Troubles. In the village he had heard talk of how the Black and Tans had taken to roaring down Dublin streets in a lorry, wildly firing their weapons; in Kiltartan a woman was dead, hit by stray shots with a child in her arms. But in the Times he found no mention.
He changed into his gardening clothes. His flower beds faced the woods, and at the edge of the trees he had vegetables. He spent hours here, for the priesthood had not proved to be excessively demanding. Many days he stood at his fence, watching the movements of the drawn carts and of his parishioners, the cottiers coming from the clodded potato fields. Far off, on an open meadow, unfurled bolts of linen bleached in the sun, long white bars against the hard green. Today, in the garden, he contemplated the early-morning confession, and the meeting that night. He felt ludicrous standing here in the garden, but at the same time he wanted to be nowhere else, for he was alone.
Down the rutted lane that curved behind the near cottages he saw Sean Flynn, the retired schoolteacher, walking his dog. The animal, runty and of no clear breed, dug at a rabbit hole. Flynn, leaning on his cane and softly cursing the dog, saw Alphonsus, and ambled up.
"Have we been fishing this week, Father?" "I confess I haven't. But soon."
"Father, the weather's turning cold."
"I know, I know. It's pitiful that 1 haven't."
"No, I have some matters."
"Father, clear your mind."
"You really should."
"I think I will, Mr. Flynn. Really."
It would be his reason, then, to go to the lough. In the house, packing his equipment, he slipped in his stole and oils. He put on a clean cassock and adjusted his biretta, his priest's crown with its hard sides and pompon. Mrs. Toole was down below, dusting in the dining room, and he went to the kitchen to pack a jam sandwich. "I'll be off fishing now," he said.
"Today?" she said.
"With Mr. Flanagan on his deathbed from that horse kicking him?"
"Urn, well, I'll be back by midafternoon. I heard he’s doing better."
"Really? Who told you?"
"Mr. Flynn. We were just talking outside."
Mrs. Toole went back to dusting the china cabinet. "You and the fishing," she said.
"Every chance I get," Aiphonsus said.
"You're fishing dressed like that?"
"If anyone does need last rites, I don't want to do it in my fishing clothes. I shan't be long, anyway."
The row from his usual fishing spot to the shoreline edge of the path was longer than he was used to. After pulling his boat onto the rocks, he walked up and down the path several times, first making sure no one was near, and then beginning to scan the thick woods for any sign of the body. The killing had been in the dark, he assumed, so perhaps the instructions were confused. The day had become brilliantly crisp, and he couldn't see anything human amid the play of shadows and light. Alphonsus stepped off the path and walked broad circles, searching, pulling up the hem of the cassock so he wouldn't get muddy. He kept his eye on the path, too, in case someone came. He wouldn't have an answer if asked what he was doing.
After an hour he sat. He unfolded his sandwich from its greased paper and ate, thinking. He had, in his estimation, covered nearly every possible spot where a body might be. He wondered if this was a hoax. He was too exhausted and tense to fish, and the winds beyond the woods seemed to be picking up. Had he been fishing, he might have been in dangerous waters. He wished he didn't have to return to the village, to the confessional. Bad things were to happen, and he had no idea how to stop them. If he didn't find the body, someone else would: the absence of this constable would eventually become known. Though some constables deserted, slipping away to the north or across to Britain, Alphonsus reasoned that only proof of a desertion would curb the Black and Tans' impulse for destruction.
His calling was powerful, but an unwillingness to absolve the man in the confessional was stronger, a mixture of revenge and principle he couldn't shake free of. He didn't know if that man had been an O'Neal, but he was certain the man was like the O'Neals, someone embittered with his lot and perhaps too willing to blame everything on the British. But he had to absolve, to heed his vows. When his sandwich was gone, he walked down to the lough and drank at water's edge from cupped hands. Back up the path, but now not as far from shore, he plunged into the woods, again searching.
The body was half hidden with wet leaves, the accumulation on the windward side like dunes overtaking a pyramid. Alphonsus knelt, put his hand on the shoulder, and gently rolled the man on his back.
"Hello, Thomas," Alphonsus said.
He hadn't considered the possibility that he would know the deceased. The body was that of Thomas Shanahan, a royal constable stationed at the RIC barracks on the other side of the lough. Thomas had from time to time come to mass at Alphonsus's church. Alphonsus had made a point of welcoming him, for he believed that all were equal in the eyes of God. Thomas was also a fisherman, and after mass they had often talked of their favorite spots. Thomas's face was clean, his clothes neatly straight. He wasn't in uniform but in thick wool trousers and shirt, as if off duty. Alphonsus turned him again, and now saw the crust of hardened blood on the back of his head. As he removed his oils and stole from his fishing kit, Alphonsus scanned the trees, ready to become prone should he hear footsteps.
Thomas was middle-aged, a bachelor who, Alphonsus sensed, was as private a person as he. Thomas lived in the RIC barracks, but in his conversations with Alphonsus never spoke of any of his mates. But of course one couldn't, in the same way that Alphonsus understood he would hear no mention of the Black and Tans and their tactics. Alphonsus, as he daubed the oils upon the cold face, assumed that Thomas had deplored all this, and Alphonsus didn't care to know different.
When he finished the last rites, Alphonsus sat for some time on a rock, looking at the body. How had Thomas come here? Had he been ambushed fishing? No rod or kit lay nearby, but those might have been spoils for the killer. He could go on speculating, but he couldn't avoid what he now planned to do. From his own bag Alphonsus extracted his trowel, the best he had been able to manage without being noticed. He walked in a circle around Thomas, looking for the softest and highest ground, and then knelt and began digging.
This act, he knew, transformed him. He had no business doing this. The dirt did not give way as easily as he'd imagined; he'd felt, coming out in the boat, that he could be back at the rectory by dusk. But the soil was choked with rocks. Hours into it, he stood back and looked at the pitiful rut he'd clawed out, and he laughed in despair.
"Tommy," he said to the body, "I damned well don't know what to do with you. This just isn't Christian, is it?" Tommy, on his side, stared out onto the lough.
Alphonsus peered up through the trees, not able to shed the sense that he was being watched. He had the feeling that the killer might come back, to see that the body was still there. The IRA wanted the body to be found, surely, so that a bloody raid by the Tans was inevitable. The killing of a fellow Irishman like Tommy would create doubt and ambivalence unless it was followed by the necessary retribution by the Brits. Was he being used in this? Did someone expect that Alphonsus himself was going to report the death? Or would the killer return, having thought things over, to put Tommy in a more conspicuous place?
His plan had been to bury Tommy, but Alphonsus now saw that he wasn't capable of finishing the job. The hole was barely two feet deep. Alphonsus recalled his grandfather's stories of the Famine, of skeletal men burying cloth-shrouded friends as packs of starving dogs gathered at the periphery, yelping with hunger and bloodlust, set to dig as soon as the living moved on.
"Forgive me, Tommy, but I can barely move now," Alphonsus said. "I thought my gardening had made me fit enough to undertake this."
A wind was picking up on the lough, making the water choppy and whitecapped. The row back would be dangerous if he didn't go soon. He felt a rising panic. He would have to drop Tommy into the deep waters-he saw this. He'd not be back until well after dark, but his midnight confession awaited. He'd have to be there or the killer would certainly have suspicions.
Down by the water he searched for a way to weight the body. Rocks were all around, but no means of attachment. His fishing kit could be loaded with them, but the top was loose and the ballast might fall out as the package sank. Alphonsus saw one way to do what he needed to do. Standing above the body, he removed his cassock, and then pulled off Thomas's pants and shirt.
Getting the cassock onto the body was easy. Thomas was a bigger man than he, but the cassock was loose. Alphonsus adjusted the braces of Thomas's pants and rolled up the pants and shirt cuffs so that he was clothed for the stealthy trip back to the rectory. In a pocket was a purse with Thomas's papers and a sizable bit of money. Alphonsus was surprised that this hadn't been taken.
The boat rode low on the water with two men in it, the dead one loaded down with stones, the live one weighted by the terror of being caught. Alphonsus had used his fishing line to bind the bottom of the cassock around Thomas's ankles to hold the rocks; the collar was snug at the neck. The last trace of sunlight was nearly gone. Alphonsus stroked hard against the winds, slicing out toward the rough middle of the lough.
He was a sinner now-he could see that. He would dump a dead man into the cold waters as if he were a load of garbage, would grant penance to a murderer. He would return to his rectory, slip past Mrs. Toole so that she wouldn't notice his inexplicable change of clothing, and spend the rest of his life trying to live with this. And all he wanted was for no one to be hurt. So be it. If this body somehow resurfaced or washed to shore, with a cracked skull and wrapped in a cassock, so be it. Or if the Tans correctly interpreted Tommy Shanahan' s disappearance and overran Fenagh anyway, so be it. "So be it, Tom," Alphonsus said. "A week will pass and you won't turn up, and they'll know, they'll know."
He stopped rowing. The moon shone through a break in the clouds, giving definition to the far edges of the lough. To say a prayer at a moment like this seemed crude and sacrilegious, desperate and artificial. But he prayed now anyway, prayed for guidance.
Nothing came to him. He felt that matters were on an inevitable course and he could do nothing but send Tommy to the bottom and then go home. "Do as we must do," he said to the body.
He grabbed the shoulders of the cassock. He crouched in the boat, the balance becoming uncertain, and then he lurched and Tom hit the gunwale. The boat was listing. Water was pouring in. He had imagined a noiseless letting-go of the body, but now Alphonsus was in a fight, and in his panic he wasn't sure whether he was trying to shove the body away or pull it back on board. But neither was happening and now he was underwater, the coldness and dark shockingly sudden. He looked up and could see only a single blurred spot of weak light. He wanted to reach for it, that moon in the sky over on the other side of the surface. His hands were still clenched to the bunched fabric of his own cassock, now weighted with death, and he let go of it, and the solid block that was Thomas grazed his leg and ankle and then was gone.
Alphonsus had been hanging on to the side of the overturned boat for some minutes when he decided that he would not return to Fenagh. That he would survive was not a given; the water was cold enough and his arms were tired enough from the digging that he felt almost nothing, except for the dull pain of the thick muscles along his neck. But he clung on, the wind and waves rocking him in crests and swells, until he was desperate enough to push away from the boat and swim for shore.
His thought, as he crawled out of the water on his hands and knees, was of his hat, his black biretta, floating like an ornate ship far out of reach, its black pompon now a keel. He had seen it from the boat, puffed by the wind and etched by moonlight, unwilling to sink with the cassock. The boat, too, would be found, far off on the lough, known by those fishermen who knew him.
In the woods he undressed, squeezed water from his clothing. He considered trying to light a fire. Naked in the cold air, he plunged into the water again to clean himself, and then dressed in the wet woolen shirt and trousers. His black brogans squished loudly when he walked, but he was moving quickly. In no time he was well up the path and along the rutted highway toward Dublin. By dawn he would find a ride in a chicken lorry, and by that evening he would use Tommy Shanahan's wet money to get a room over a public house by the docks. Three days later, his clothes dry and black stubble making his face lose its delicacy of appearance, he would bribe a dock worker to get him into the steerage of the first ship leaving Ireland. The dock worker would ask, "Why are you going?" The answer would be this: that the stowaway was a royal constable from near Fenagh, that he was running away, and that he hoped no one would find out. And when these words were out, the dock worker's face would be twisted with revulsion and the story of his flight would be common knowledge in Fenagh in a few days' time.
My father, telling this story thirty-two years later in a wheelchair in the rest home where he would die, told me that this is how he came to be a man born in middle age, with a name picked from a city directory. He told me he felt the need to unburden himself, that my mother never knew, and that he was for that reason glad she had preceded him into death. He said this without a hint of expectation that I would say anything to console him, and I didn't. I couldn't. I was in my twenties then, leaning over the man who had hit me so hard and so frequently that I had gone to bed many nights wishing to be someone else, a different child. I should have said something. But I stared at him until a nurse came to us and said he needed to eat.
A few years ago I went to Ireland, for the simple reason that I am a devout Boston College football fan and that year they played a game in Dublin against West Point. I boarded an Aer Lingus 747 packed with alumni, and we sang drinking songs high over the Atlantic. Only on the day after the football game did I think to rent a car and take a drive. Asking in Dublin, I found no one who'd heard of Fenagh, but I set out toward Lough Ree, and on its eastern shore I got directions to the town. There I parked, and walked the length of its primary streets, and stood for a while in front of St. Enda's Church, without going in. At a small shop I talked to the keeper, a man older than I, and he told me he had a niece in Boston he sometimes went to visit. I told him I'd had a relative here, a Father Alphonsus.
"Of course," he said. "I've seen the plaque." He pointed me down the road toward a knoll overlooking the water. There, behind some overgrown brambles, I found an engraved plate, the size of an envelope maybe, mounted on a rock.
"Father Alphonsus Kelly, RIP. Drowned November 5, 1920." I stood on the knoll and looked at the harsh waters where this man had lost his life and become someone else. He was a man who became old and could not aspire to the better part of himself he believed he had squandered-who had come to find, I think, that in his exile he couldn't bring himself to try to be like Alphonsus, who indeed was a specter that floated over all our lives. Standing at the edge of the lough, I said a prayer for my father. I petitioned that he might be delivered from a purgatory of which I had been part.