Friday, 6 August 2010

A saint?

Today I acquired a little booklet called “The Poems and Parodies of Brother Stephen”

His poems mainly consist of snapshots of a by-gone age in rural County Limerick “When we built the rick of hay” “Teapot by the fire” “The lifting of the latch” “The Oola Farmer’s wife” “The cattle dealing man” etc.

He was the nearest that I have ever come to meeting a saint. However, he was not always so saintly!

He was notorious where I come from but more of a ‘scamp’ than a villain. He was involved in certain anti-government activities and was incarcerated in Limerick jail, then the most secure jail in Ireland. He escaped, disguised as a woman. He was also a bit of a con artist, but most of all liked a drink or three!

Then one day he was in the snug (a small room in old Irish pubs, where one could have a drink in private) when he heard two of the drinkers in the bar discussing him. “Jim Russell (his birth name) is getting to be a right bum, these times” said one.

This knocked him back a bit. My mother said that it also coincided with his girlfriend chucking him. Anyway, he decided to change his ways and go into religion. One problem was his reputation and no local order would accept him. Eventually he found a small order in Warrenpoint, Co. Down, which is about as far away as from Kilmallock as you can get without being drowned.

The Alexian brothers were prepared to accept him but there was still one problem – they wanted a letter of recommendation from his parish priest. Naturally, the priest knew of his disreputable reputation and would not give a recommendation. Nothing daunted, Jim forged the letter!! He joined in 1945, got the habit in 1946 and was professed in 1948.

He spent the next 20 years working among and ministering to the homeless and the destitute in Belgium and the UK. He felt a particular affinity to alcoholics. One of his books of poetry was called “There but for the grace of God…..”

I first met him around this time. My aunt was married to his brother, so we were of close family. In height and physique he always reminded me of Churchill. Anyway, this old man came in to our kitchen and said to my mother “Nancy, I must be getting old. On my way down here I tried standing on the saddle of the bike, but couldn’t manage it”

He was well known for his humour and jolly outlook in life. He once performed at a concert in Effin (a local area) and came on stage walking on his hands while dressed as a woman, complete with bloomers etc. It really shocked some and a few Holy Janes complained to the bishop :-)

Some years later, he appeared on the Late Late Show on RTE. He gave a much sanitised version of his life, but it caused more complaints and the bishop silenced him for several years.

In the early 70’s there was another sex scandal in Britain. A call girl called Norma Levy was found to be having-it-off with a Government Minister, Lord Lampton. Norma’s real name was Noreen Russell – Brother Stephen’s niece. She later wrote a book “I, Norma Levy” about her life. She speaks kindly of her uncle.

In 1973, he was called back to Limerick by Bishop Murphy (another family connection. His brother actually nominated me for my first election in 1969). He was put in charge of the Simon Community Hostel in Limerick City. He and another brother did trojan work. Every night they would drive around the city until they had collected all the rough sleepers and take them back to the hostel, wash and feed them before putting them to bed.

He also ate with his clients and this may have been the cause of his death as he died of stomach cancer in 1975 – aged 64.

My memories of him are of a really jolly, but humble and caring person. If I visualise him, it is always with a big unsaintly smile.

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