Alice (from Muckross)
It’s very strange to be here, in the new building, talking to Dan Maloney as a woman in my mid forties and have him remember me because I was always in trouble. We speak together as peers and I think he must have been fresh out of teacher training college back then, because if you ask me, he looks like he could be in my social circle. Not that I have a social circle, being in my mid forties and all, but if I did have one, he would not look like the oldest man there, at all. My daughter saunters over to the concert hall (is it still called the concert hall?) with a hundred other twelve year olds to sit her entrance exam. She is not nervous. I don’t know if this is her personality or if it’s just the way with kids these days. I don’t remember getting nervous myself, (although I knew not one single soul coming into the school) but I do remember a certain brilliant girl turning to me with – I kid you not – blue trembling lips, saying
“God I’m terrified, are you?”
I was alarmed – was there something I had missed?
“Of what?” I asked with trepidation.
“Of this. First day.” She said.
“My God, why? “ I asked. “What will happen to us?”
“I don’t know”.
“Have you heard anything?” I was genuinely getting scared.
“I don’t know.”
“Wait. You don’t know as in you really don’t know, or…”
“It’s just that it’s SECONDARY SCHOOL!” She said, as if I was a fool.
I wanted to walk around the grounds during the exam, jig around memory lane – or maybe even the old smoking lane if it was still there. The ground was hoary – I’m not being poetic; it was actually hoary, only way to describe it. My husband tried to identify some plants and I tried to get my bearings. Was that the nun’s garden? Where CB got detention for climbing the apple tree? I had asked Dan Maloney about the old building. He told me its sad story, of the pre recession plans for it, before promised government funding ran out and left it, half gutted and redundant. We peered in the window of the old main door.
“There’s the stairs.” I said to my husband, as if he couldn’t figure it out for himself. “And we used walk along there every day, fifty times a day. There’s the old parquet floor…”
I smiled at my teenage self, bopping down those stairs, for years inadvertently admiring the carved swirl of the wooden banister. That’s when I saw her, appearing as if out of nowhere, as she tended to do: Old. White hair. Smiling. Apron. Where did she come from? And where was she going? Always headed towards the convent kitchen, the part of the house we did not know.
“Her name is Alice” people said.
“Who is she?”
“Is she a nun?”
“Don’t know. She’s been here for years.”
Someone might have said the nuns had taken her in when she was a child. Impossible story – she must have been a hundred years old. In fact, Alice Power was almost a hundred when she finally passed into the next world. I know that because my obvious first step in uncovering Alice’s tale was a phone call to Sister Barnabas.
Sister Barnabas said to contact Rosie Doherty who cooked in the convent for years; she’d know all about Alice. They had worked together in Muckross.
“Rosie Doherty,” said Barney, “she’s Ken Doherty’s mother.”
“Who’s Ken Doherty?” I asked, thinking she meant a teacher there during my time.
“Ken Doherty! The world snooker champion!”
Ah yes, of course: Jason’s of Ranelagh and all that. What other Doherty could it be? Since Rosie was in hospital, Barney couldn’t get in touch with her.
“Phone Ken,” she advised.
“Okay” I said meekly, quietly thanking God for the Internet. I left an email for the man himself, hoping that my Muckross status would stand to me. It did. He called me and suggested I visit Rosie where she was convalescing after a bout of pneumonia. I felt like a tabloid journalist, bothering this elderly woman, but I needn’t have worried. Rosie Doherty was a lady, a lovely lady, giving of her time and happy to have her old friend included in a book like this. Her face lit up at the idea that she might talk about Alice.
How close had Rosie and Alice been? Sister Barnabas told me a remarkable thing: when Alice died, she was buried in the Doherty family plot, along with Rosie’s husband. They lie in Deansgrange cemetery. I asked Rosie about it, this exceptional kindness.
“Yes,” she nodded. “How it came along was this; we went up every Sunday of our lives to see her. My husband sat there,” she gestured to one side. “Alice sat in the centre and I sat here, the other side. And she said this day, “I don’t know where I’m going to be buried. I’m going to be buried in No Man’s Land.”
It was a genuine worry. Alice’s mother died young and her grandmother reared her. She was, in Rosie’s words, her ‘soul heart’. At the age of ten, her grandmother died and Alice was alone. I thought about that. I think about it now. I have a ten year old. It is a needy age. She was sent to what I assume must have been a Dominican convent in Kilkenny. Rosie said,
“The convents took them, from convent to convent when they were able to work.”
I see her, a ten-year-old child, arriving at a convent with the Dominican sisters, heart broken, alone. I understand why her dying words were of thanks to the Sisters of Muckross. She loved the nuns and the nuns loved her. Sister Barnabas called Alice “a little gem.”
Alice would say to the novices, “I trained all of you; I was here before you and I’ll be here long after you.”
It was a long and happy relationship. More than seventy years long. They did all they could to love this woman, but they couldn’t bury her; that was law at the time. And Alice worried about being buried alone. On this day, when Alice spoke of her worries to Rosie and her husband, he said:
“Would you like to be buried with us, Alice?”
She responded by throwing her arms around both of them and kissing them.
“She said she’d love it. “ Said Rosie, “When she did die, we told Sister Martha and the nuns buried her in our grave. They paid for it all.”
When Alice was seventeen, she came to Muckross, where she was to stay for the rest of her life. There were only two or three nuns there at the time, Rosie said, as it had not yet become a school. When the students did come, it was Alice who kept them in line. Rosie chuckled at the memory.
“They used to get Alice to come down to the junior school but she’d only have to look in and point the finger at them, and she’d say
“You have to be good for the nuns”
And the sisters would say,
“We’ll send for Alice and she’ll get more severe than us.” That was their punishment. But she was a lovely person.”
Sister Barnabas herself was a boarder at Muckross and remembers this. When the children would tell Alice they had been bold (Barney, bold?) Alice would laugh and say “Oh no! Hop away there! You’re fine.” Though she could be cross with children who didn’t change their shoes, as she liked everything shining.
Two or three times people come into the room and walk out again. Perhaps they sense something; although I am sitting with a woman I don’t know, there is warmth between us I think; it is definitely a Muckross thing. Rosie’s connection with the school goes back many years, when aged seventeen she arrived there to learn to cook. She sent her own daughter Rosemary to Muckross. We discover she is younger than me. By about five years. I am ‘a lady – possibly a journalist - who wants to talk about Alice.’ I like being called a journalist, but I think, ‘I’m no lady – why, I’m only…I’m only… well, gosh – I am the class of ‘85. I suppose, I must be a lady. What else can I be?’
I see Rosie smiling at the memories and I ask her if Alice made her laugh.
“Oh she was funny, and she would tell you yarns. We did have good fun, but she did have a little bit of a temper if you said anything about De Valera. She loved De Valera. All the De Valeras went to Muckross and she used to look after them. She had a picture of him in the old kitchen, and we’d turn it around sometimes, backwards, to annoy her. She’d go mad. “Who touched that picture!” she’d say.”
I thought about this formidable woman, who could laugh at herself, who liked the simple things in life, like playing Ludo and making woolen toys and clothes for Rosie’s children. Ken also remembers her with fondness. Plus, the weekly trip to Muckross convent meant jelly and ice cream for the Doherty children. Did she ever regret not meeting someone and moving on? Rosie shook her head.
“She never regretted, you’d never hear her say it, and she thanked the nuns from the bottom of her heart before she died. She thanked Sister Terresita and Sister Martha for being so good to her. And they were all very good to her. Sure they treated her as their own.”
“And poor Sister Patrick did everything to get Alice her pension,” Said Rosie, “but she didn’t get it until ten years after she should have got it. All the baptismal things were burned during the time of the Custom House and it was very hard to get information. She didn’t get her pension for a long, long time, and it wasn’t much then. I think it was only seven and sixpence or something. And Sister Patrick kept at it until she got it because you see, she could prove that she was so many years in Muckross and that she was over seventy. You had to be seventy back then.” (I spared a thought for the unfortunate civil servant that was foolish enough to try to fob off Sister Patrick, who may have thought, ‘here comes a tiny little nun, I’ll have no trouble getting her off my back…’)
And all the while, Alice Power worked away, getting up at half six in the morning, putting on the fire for the irons. She’d light the stove and Sister Lucy would come down and between them they would do the ironing.
“But Alice always did the altar linen and it would be perfect, there wouldn’t be a crease in it.” Said Rosie, ignoring a phone call coming in on her mobile. It was a surprisingly rocking tune – no little old lady here.
“She was just an old friend and a real good friend; a sincere friend. I’ll never forget Alice. Never.” And then, at my insistence she answers. It is her daughter. “Hello Rosemary. How are you?” I tip toe away, grateful. So many people wondered about Alice. Alice Power, who returned to her soul heart on 18th September 1984. Her remembrance card is simple. In the words of St. Martin de Porres, it says:
What is death?
A wondrous mercy,
a coming home,
a divine welcome,
to a well-loved child.
Class of 1985