By Anne Fanning, December 2020
Many years ago I attended the National School in Shercock, the Cavan town where I was born. Each year as Advent approached we practiced the Christmas Carols with enthusiasm in preparation for the Christmas season. Of course we also wrote a wish list to Santa and helped or watched as the older family members cleaned, cooked ad put up decorations. In our house one child did up the Santa letter and the requests of every person in the family, including our parents, were listed.
Shercock is situated close to Lough Sillan and not too distant from Bailieboro, Kingscourt, Carrickmacross and Cootehill. As Advent progressed our local organist, Mrs Fidgeon, and one of our teachers Mrs McCann, arranged for a number of us to go carol singing around the local towns in order to raise money for charity. Each evening we packed into a few cars and upon reaching our destination went around singing while doing our best to keep warm. One attraction about the neighbouring towns was the fact that we could end each night with a bag of chips. There was no chip shop in Shercock back then.
For me one town in particular always brings back a special memory. Having spent time singing and collecting in the town of Cootehill we always walked up a hill to the priest’s house. After we had begun to sing our usual carols Fr. Dan Fitzpatrick would open the door, greet us with kind words and give us a generous donation – and always a bit extra for ‘a treat for the children.’ He then would request that we sing Lead Kindly Light. This we duly did, having practiced it specially for the occasion. He would stand pensively listening and then turn and walk quietly back indoors. The words clearly had a special meaning for him. As children, happy to have obliged Fr. Fitzpatrick, we’d rush down to the local chip shop for our treat.
Time passed, but those memories did not fade. The hymn Lead Kindly Light was composed by John Henry Newman in 1833. At that time Newman (1801-1890) was unwell. The ship on which he was returning from Rome to England was was delayed in the Straits of Bonifacio due to bad weather. In the hymn he refers his past failings ‘pride ruled my will’ – and he looks to a future life of hope ad trust in God. Newman, formerly a highly-respected Anglican clergyman converted to Catholicism in 1834. Later, for a number of years, he worked hard for the foundation of University College Dublin. In recognition of his faith and contribution to Christian thought he was canonized a saint on 13 October 2019; coincidentally the anniversary of my late father’s birthday and the day my brother Michael died.
Once again we are preparing for Christmas, but most of the talk is about a very contagious pandemic threatens us on all sides. We have no idea what the future holds. This year we won’t be singing carols together but the Newman hymn that we sang on those cold Cootehill nights so many years ago still has a message of hope and encouragement for all of us.
So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
o’er moor ad fen, o’er crag and torrent,
till the night is gone,
and with the morn those angel faces smile
which I have loved long since, and lost awhile
Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on;
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene: one step enough for me.