BY CARAGH BELL
ON September 29th of this ill-fated year, the convent chapel in Skibbereen went on fire. Black smoke billowed out of the abandoned building as the sky grew scorched from the hungry flames. The inferno then spread mercilessly to the old convent building next door.
People lined the adjacent streets, staring in horrified fascination, as the courageous fire services battled the blaze. By nightfall, the fire was extinguished. All that was left was a shell of a building, eerily silhouetted in the blue-tinted moonlight.
Designed by the renowned EW Pugin and GC Ashlin, the construction of the convent chapel began in 1867 and was completed in 1868. Perched on a hill, its external wall presided over the town and the meandering River Ilen beneath.
It was not only a place of worship for the resident Mercy nuns, it was also the chapel for the pupils of the nearby schools. Generations of school girls walked through the walled convent garden on their way to services.
It was in this garden that families gathered after events such as communions and confirmations. It was the place to take photos and mingle, dressed in your finest clothes, chatting to neighbours and friends, thanking God that it didn’t rain.
Then the convent was sold. The last of the nuns left in 2003. An economic crisis rendered the site derelict, as its new owner was unable to develop it. Years passed and it grew dilapidated. Broken windows in the once pristine building; the beloved garden demolished and replaced with a gaping hole in the ground. An eyesore, some called it. A terrible shame, was the general consensus.
A new sense of hope followed when the townspeople learned that the site had been purchased once more. The charming convent chapel would be preserved. The future was bright.
Then, like Notre Dame in 2019, an unexpected, relentless fire swept through the church, destroying all in its path. The wooden beams of the ceiling collapsed and the stained glass windows shattered.
You see, this chapel was very dear to me – indeed, it was dear to many. I attended both the primary and secondary school affiliated with the Mercy nuns. I sang hymns on the altar, kneeled and prayed. My Leaving Cert graduation mass was held in this sacred place. Countless visits and fond memories.
That’s why this fire was so devastating for so many. Not only did an irreplaceable building go up in smoke, so too did the memories of the local community. Prayers, psalms and giggling while the nuns weren’t looking. Receiving communion from the priest and solemnly making a Sign of the Cross. Staring at the small windows, akin to an arrow slit in a medieval castle, and imagining that Sleeping Beauty lived there, not nuns in habits.
Brendan Kennelly wrote an elegy to his dead father in which he makes the decision not to remember him as ‘broken,’ confined to his bed, frail and dying. Instead, he decides to remember him in his prime, dancing around the kitchen, energetic and smiling.
Even though cruel death had taken his beloved dad, death did not have the power to control his memories. He would remember him at his best.
So, instead of visualising a ruin, I will remember the convent chapel and garden in its heyday. I’ll see my seven-year-old self, standing by the statue of Holy Mary, dressed in my white dress and veil, my gloved hands clasped together in prayer. The exact same spot where my own mother stood thirty years before that.
I’ll see the colourful flower beds and the freshly mowed grass. Bishop Buckley posing for photos with my sister in her pink confirmation suit. Pierce Hickey Senior with his camera slung over his shoulder, taking official family photos for posterity.
I will hear Sister Veronica singing ‘Flowers of the Rarest’, leading the sixth class girls around the garden, celebrating the first of May. I will cast my mind back to a time before the tragedy and hear the echoes of children’s voices, raised in song, carried along by a gentle wind.
• Caragh Bell is a teacher and the author of several novels.