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Cold silent life of a football monk

Frank O'Shea |  11 February 2014

Mount Melleray Cistercian monasteryI can't remember his name, but I recall that he worked as a shoemaker in a local shoe store. All the girls in town were secretly in love with him, which was no wonder because he was tall and good looking and always well dressed. In a football-mad town, he played at centre half back on the local team and was in that position the year they were beaten in the championship final. After that game, he disappeared.

It was assumed at first that he had gone 'on the batter' and would turn up in a few weeks. Others said he had gone home to look after an aged mother, but then it was pointed out that he was an orphan and had spent some of his youth in an orphanage, which was where he learnt the shoe trade.

Finally, the truth came out. He had gone into Mount Melleray — a Cistercian monastery in the foothills of the Knockmealdown mountains in the South East of Ireland. Only a few of his friends knew and they were the kind who didn't take part in small-town talk and were quite happy to let the truth come out in its own time.

In those days, the Cistercians were the strictest of all religious orders of men. The monastery in Melleray was completely self-sufficient: all fruit and vegetables were grown in its own fields; milk, butter and cheese came from its own herd — the cattle were quite safe, because the monks were vegetarians. They dressed in a coarse woollen habit, white with a black scapular. They spun their own thread, wove their own cloth, made their own clothing and footwear. And they went about their daily work in silence from one end of the year to the other.

Their superior was an abbot, which is the same rank as a bishop and all the monks said the full Office every day — matins and lauds and compline and vespers and I can't think of the others. It was a life completely given over to prayer and contemplation.

Our mothers talked in hushed tones of what it involved and for all I know, tried to ruin our lives by secretly praying that one of their own might get the call. If our fathers had any opinions about it, they kept them to themselves, except that they were a bit annoyed when they discovered that their fine centre half back, who was friendly with their oldest daughter, had disappeared forever into that silence.

When I was in my last year of school, we had an outing to Melleray. It was in one of the cold months of the year, no doubt with the intention of highlighting the great hardship and hence the sanctity of the monks. Snagging turnips on the slopes of the Knockmealdowns in November is nobody's idea of an idyllic existence.

I remember our visit well because the chap from home was one of the monks who showed us around; they were allowed to speak with visitors as part of their work of hospitality.

He was as cheerful as I remembered, but he never asked me about the old town or how the football team was going or which of his friends had married or what had happened to any of his sweethearts. In the monastic pecking order, he was 'only a brother' — he did not have the education to become a priest and was not allowed to sit in chapter, whatever that meant.

He showed us the refectory with its plain wooden tables where the monks ate and one of the spartan cells where they grabbed a few hours sleep before rising at some unimaginable hour for the Office.

We saw the dairy and bakery, the bleak well-pruned orchards and the cold turnip fields; we saw one monk weaving at his loom and another fixing harness for the horses. There was a blacksmith and a tailor, a shoemaker and a carpenter. My friend worked in the fields, because as part of his sanctification he had not been assigned to the trade at which he had worked in his footballing days.

I often think of that young man who tidied up all his affairs before the championship final and then went off to spend his life in cold silence and contemplation. He may well be still alive and working with the same humility and cheerfulness that I recall.

Frank O'Shea headshotFrank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.



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Submitted comments

A beautiful article, one to "chew"on for the day.

Bev Smith 12 February 2014

Such stillness and sacrifice remains a source of inspiration at the centre of the church

L Duncan 12 February 2014

,what a wonderful story about the footballer, it reminded me very much of the superb book by Hermann Hesse "Siddhartha". I was hoping it also was going to evolve into a literary masterpiece which I could read and reread......OH well!!

philip thomas 12 February 2014

In those days, the Cistercians were the strictest of all religious orders of men. Was it not the Carthusians ?

Charles Jukes 17 February 2014

Lovely article. I am reminded of the many visits I made with family and friends to Mount Melleray while growing up in Waterford. It is indeed a sacred place.

terry spencer 17 February 2014

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