Luck of The IrishT. SHER SINGH
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
You’ve heard of the luck of the Irish, haven’t you?
I must have had a bit of it rub off on me, because I saw it in full force in Ireland.
I finished high school in 1964, having spent most of my schooling years in a boarding school run by the Irish Christian brothers on the outskirts of my home town of Patna (Bihar, India). My parents decided to send me there at considerable expense because of its reputation as one of the better schools in the region.
I enjoyed the eight years I was at St. Michael’s, and have fond memories of it, even though my stay was rudely punctuated by periodic and painful exams and the occasional use of the notorious leather strap by the Brothers.
I have, ever since, nursed the desire to visit Ireland. First, to see the land whose beauty I had heard so much about throughout my childhood. Secondly, to re-establish contact with some of my teachers, particularly a Brother Michael Johnson who had taught me virtually everything I had learned during five of the most formative years of my life.
Finally, one summer, I found myself on a flight to Ireland for a two-week jaunt around the island.
The only clues I had was that Johnson was Irish, and that the Order he had belonged to was headquartered in Dublin. I had heard rumours through the years that he had left the Order in the later 1960s, and had married.
I knew he must be originally from Carlow County, because somebody had told me within months after I left high school that I spoke English with a thick Carlow brogue!
Those were all the clues I had. I didn’t even know if he was alive. And if he was, was he in Ireland? Where?
So here was my plan: my friend and I would be doing a counter-clockwise drive around the island, starting from Derry in the north. We would be in the south-east by the 8th day. Maybe we could cut through Carlow and, once there, see if we could track down someone who knew of him.
Also, we were to be in Dublin on the 10th day; I could try the man office of the Christian Brothers and see if they had any information of his whereabouts in their files.
One fine morning -- on the 6th day of my adventure -- we found ourselves in Tralee, a town on the west coast, poised to tackle the glorious Dingle peninsula and then the legendary Ring of Kerry.
Sitting in our room in the ancient castle-turned-bed-and-breakfast where we were staying, I had a few minutes to kill while I waited for my friend who was in the shower. So I flipped through the local phone book to “C” for Christian Brothers. There were dozens of numbers listed for that Order … schools, seminaries, orphanages, retreats, etc.
Well, I thought, maybe I can try and get a phone number from one of them, as to who I should call when I get to Carlow or, later, in Dublin.
I chose one number at random and dialed. It was listed as a monastery in the Dingle area.
A male voice answered. A brother Gavin.
I explained that I was visiting from overseas and trying to trace a Brother who had taught me almost three decades ago in India. Could he please recommend who to call in Dublin?
“Try me,” he said, “Go ahead, try me!”
It took me a while to interpret his accent and realize he wanted me to throw a name at him.
“Johnson. Michael Johnson,” I said. And then, hesitatingly, added, “He may be from the Carlow area, I think … maybe.”
There was silence for a few seconds, broken by a guffaw and a roar of delight. It took me forever to figure out what he was saying. He was talking non-stop, excited by I knew not what.
I asked him to slow down and made him repeat everything until I understood the one line he kept on repeating.
“If there is one man in the world who can tell you about Michael Johnson, it’s me.”
I thought he was pulling my leg, maybe mocking me even. I went quiet.
He continued: Gavin had been Johnson’s friend and mentor. In fact, Johnson had been ordained some 40 years earlier, in Gavin’s habit (cassock) -- in accordance with tradition, since they had been the closest of friends as novices.
But, through the years, they had lost touch with each other. But guess what? Gavin had met him only a few months ago … the two having lost touch during the intervening decades!
Yes, Johnson was alive, at least he was until a few months ago, he said, with another burst of hearty laughter.
Yes, Johnson had left the Order some time ago, had married, had children, had continued teaching in the Waterford area, and had recently retired.
“I was at his retirement party,” he said. “Try the girls’ school in Carrick-on-Suir and they’ll tell you where he is now. He used to be their vice-principal.”
And added: “He’s a gentle soul, Johnson, he is. You must find him.”
Fortunately, there was only one girls’ school in the town, I was told, when I spoke long-distance to the town’s phone operator. She connected me to a nun at the school within minutes.
Yes, Johnson had taught there, and had indeed retired. But they didn’t have any further information as to his current whereabouts. The only thing she could add was that he used to commute from a town called Clonmel, across the river in the County of Tipperary.
Back to the telephone operator.
Too many Johnsons in the book, she said, but no ’Michael Johnson’.
I was desperate by this time: so close and yet so far!
“Put me through to the Garda, the police station in Clonmel, please.“
Surely, the police would know of him, or be able to tell me how to track him down. After all, a town here was really not much more than a village, I had learnt in recent days.
I explained my story to a constable who was grumpy over having been dragged to the phone. At first, he thought it was a crank call; he had more important things to attend to, he told me gruffly. There are 12,000 people in this town, for heaven’s sake, he grumbled; you‘ll need more information than that to track him down.
But how many Michael Johnsons could there possibly be in the town, I asked.
He sounded like he’d had a sudden shot of energy. “Michael Johnson? The retired school teacher? I’ve met him. A gentleman. A respectable man, him.”
He insisted on sending out a patrol car to track him down. Could I call back in an hour?
When I did, there was good news -- and bad. They had found the house, but he was away on vacation, it seemed, probably for the summer. No one was home; not a sign of life. Sorry. He gave me his phone number and the name of the neighbourhood … Lower Clonmel, in case I wanted to call later or write. No, they didn’t have street names or house numbers, not in the suburb he was in. Just write: “Michael Johnson, Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland”, and he’ll get the letter, I was assured.
I was disappointed somewhat, but not oblivious to how lucky I had been so far. To have tracked him down and obtained his phone number was nothing short of a miracle in itself, considering what I had started with. Contacting him thereon would be no problem, once I was back in Canada. That was definitely more than I had realistically expected to achieve in my wildest dreams.
Two days later, on our way to Waterford, we drove past a road sign indicating that Clonmel was an hour or two’s drive, heading southwards on a side road.
We took the detour on a whim, thinking that it would be nice to visit Clonmel for lunch, and see if we could find his house … and leave a note on the door.
Finding his house was an adventure in itself. But find it we did. If you’ve ever asked an Irishman for directions, you’ll know exactly what I mean. We had to ask several!
A neighbour confirmed that the Johnsons were away on vacation, but urged us to speak to Michael’s sister-in-law who lived a few miles away: “Michael would be pleased if you did that.“
We found her. She invited us in for tea. I wrote a lengthy note and gave it to her for Michael when he returned. As we were leaving, she said, purely as an aside, that it was a pity we weren’t staying around, and were leaving so early.
I stared at her, not sure what she was getting at. Michael, she mumbled casually, will be in town, very briefly later in the evening, on an errand. But late, very very late, she added apologetically. “To pick up his mail, you see! He does that every Thursday night. Before he heads off to the cottage again.”
It was Thursday.
Why didn’t you say so in the first place, I gasped.
“Well, can you stick around for a few more hours, then?” she asked timidly, realizing she could’ve been a little sharper with this gem of information.
Well. Needless to say, we stayed.
Mrs Burke, the sister-in-law, asked us to meet her later, after supper, at the Johnson residence. The lights were on when we got there; Mrs Burke had opened up the house for us. She served us tea and waited with us …
Until, finally, the front door swung open. And in strode Michael, formerly Brother Johnson. Grey. Wrinkled. Slightly bent over. Bespectacled. But, red in the face: exactly as I remembered him.
The last time I had seen him, he was a young man, I but a mere 15 years old.
Finding him and meeting him after all these years was by far the highlight of an utterly magical holiday.
How could I possibly leave the isle without believing in leprechauns and the proverbial Irish luck?
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 17, 2012, 1:50 PM.
Sher ji, what an absolute delight. I keep telling our grandchildren to lap every word that Sher writes as a model of expression on any subject, be it the 'Indian Cow' or scolding the likes of Teji Bindra. Let's have some more.
2: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), October 17, 2012, 2:33 PM.
Very engaging story. I kept thinking all the time, throughout reading it, if you actually ever met Brother Johnson or not. It would be nice to read how was it when Brother Johnson walked through the door and found you waiting. Did he recognize you? How did you introduce yourself?
3: P. Singh (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), October 19, 2012, 3:20 AM.
Dear T. Sher Singh, You can't end a great story on that note! Please, a part 2 is in order - I'm sure I'm not the only one who wants to read more about what transpired after Mr. Johnson walked in the door.