FIRST OF MAY: When I Was Small

When I was small we all looked forward to the first of May – long before the Bee Gees wrote their beautiful song – when the leaves were fresh on the trees and the sun seemed to shine most of the time, though sometimes it rained heavily as we made our daily pilgrimage to the Grotto in Castlegar, about two miles from home. We were right on the edge of Galway city and it was over the wall and through the fields that we made our way, taking time to play among the rock and bushes, dreaming up great fantasies and dramas from snake valley to mansions and boats carved out of stone.

It was a time when faith was woven fairly seamlessly into ordinary life as we were keenly aware of the Divine in our midst and we turned to the Mother of Christ for help in everything we had to undertake. For us children as we grew into secondary school, we needed her help with exams. We went to her in droves every day after school, though I didn’t fare too well in exams even after the most fervent of praying but it wasn’t her fault because I was made for things other than formal education and I didn’t put in the kind of effort that was necessary to do well with study.

At the age of fifteen I was already breaking in and out of innocence, familiar with teenage turmoil and the Grotto was for me a place of bliss where the birds sang as if in paradise and we were held beneath a canopy of green trees rustling in the wind. There were five stone steps for us to kneel on, one for each of the mysteries of the rosary and I would look up at the tranquil statue of Our Lady who seemed to be gazing into a distance that I felt to be my destiny. No other Grotto in the world has ever come near to Castlegar for beauty, atmosphere, mystery – not even the great Grotto of Lourdes. It has a power to awaken hidden memories of hope, hope that is born of God and has its fulfilment in God. I pray for everyone who has ever prayed there. Everyone who has gone there has done so with utmost sincerity, though some may have lost a lot on the way of life. We have all lost! May it be recovered and may each one be restored to that blessed interior innocence of the child of God and Mary. 


Place of beauty, moment of bliss
Birds singing

Sound of the Grotto
In May

I am fifteen
Nearly innocent again
Almost recovered

From breaking down
Still bruised
But breathing

Passing through the gap
From the rocky fields
Of play to churchyard prayer

Entering the gateway
To paradise beneath
A canopy of fresh green

Oasis in the desert
Deep pool where raging
Rapid waters cease

Five stone steps
To ascend
Five mysteries


I am on my knees
In unhurried prayer
Making this refuge last

Fending off  the future
As long as I can

“Will you mind me?”
I wonder

On the sixth step
I am Bernadette silently
Looking up to Mary
Looking higher still

The ultimate ascent
That I have yearned for
Since first I left it

But now I must descend again
To the old priest’s grave

And run for a further
Wordless glance to Jesus
In the sanctuary

The sound of the ticking
Pendulum clock
Reminding me of an old
Kitchen telling me its time