A New York Times Bestseller
"Love, longing, and rich scenes of daily life.... What could be sweeter than a trip to an Irish village packed with robust native characters." —The Christian Science Monitor
When a new highway threatens to bypass the town of Rossmore and cut through Whitethorn Woods, everyone has a passionate opinion about whether the town will benefit or suffer. But young Father Flynn is most concerned with the fate of St. Ann’s Well, which is set at the edge of the woods and slated for destruction. People have been coming to St. Ann’s for generations to share their dreams and fears, and speak their prayers. Some believe it to be a place of true spiritual power, demanding protection; others think it’s a mere magnet for superstitions, easily sacrificed.
Father Flynn listens to all those caught up in the conflict, as the men and women of Whitethorn Woods must decide between the traditions of the past and the promises of the future.
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MAEVE BINCHY was born in County Dublin and educated at the Holy Child convent in Killiney and at University College, Dublin. After a spell as a teacher she joined The Irish Times. Her first novel, Light a Penny Candle, was published in 1982, and she went on to write more than twenty books, all of them best sellers. Several have been adapted for film and television, most notably Circle of Friends and Tara Road, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. She was married to the writer and broadcaster Gordon Snell for thirty-five years, and died in 2012 at the age of seventy-two.
Father Brian Flynn, the curate at St. Augustine’s, Rossmore, hated the Feast Day of St. Ann with a passion that was unusual for a Catholic priest. But then, as far as he knew he was the only priest in the world who had a thriving St. Ann’s well in his parish, a holy shrine of dubious origin. A place where parishioners gathered to ask the mother of the Virgin Mary to intercede for them in a variety of issues, mainly matters intimate and personal. Areas where a clodhopping priest wouldn’t be able to tread. Like finding them a fiancé, or a husband, and then blessing that union with a child.
Rome was, as usual, unhelpfully silent about the well.
Rome was probably hedging its bets, Father Flynn thought grimly, over there they must be pleased that there was any pious practice left in an increasingly secular Ireland and not wishing to discourage it. Yet had not Rome been swift to say that pagan rituals and superstitions had no place in the Body of Faith? It was a puzzlement, as Jimmy, that nice young doctor from Doon village, a few miles out, used to say. He said it was exactly the same in medicine: you never got a ruling when you wanted one, only when you didn’t need one at all.
There used to be a ceremony on July 26 every year, where people came from far and near to pray and to dress the well with garlands and flowers. Father Flynn was invariably asked to say a few words, and every year he agonized over it. He could not say to these people that it was very near to idolatry to have hundreds of people battling their way toward a chipped statue in the back of a cave beside an old well in the middle of the Whitethorn Woods.
From what he had read and studied, St. Ann and her husband, St. Joachim, were shadowy figures, quite possibly confused in stories with Hannah in the Old Testament, who was thought to be forever childless but eventually bore Samuel. Whatever else St. Ann may have done in her lifetime two thousand years ago, she certainly had not visited Rossmore in Ireland, found a place in the woods and established a holy well that had never run dry.
That much was fairly definite.
But try telling it to some of the people in Rossmore and you were in trouble. So he stood there every year, mumbling a decade of the rosary, which couldn’t offend anyone, and preaching a little homily about goodwill and tolerance and kindness to neighbors, which fell on mainly deaf ears.
Father Flynn often felt he had quite enough worries of his own without having to add St. Ann and her credibility to the list. His mother’s health had been an increasing worry to them all, and the day was rapidly approaching when she could no longer live alone. His sister, Judy, had written to say that although Brian might have chosen the single, celibate life, she certainly had not. Everyone at work was either married or gay. Dating services had proved to be full of psychopaths, evening classes were where you met depressive losers; she was going to come to the well near Rossmore and ask St. Ann to get on her case.
His brother, Eddie, had left his wife, Kitty, and their four children to find himself. Brian had gone to look for Eddie—who now found himself nicely installed with Naomi, a girl twenty years younger than the abandoned wife—and had got little thanks for his concern.
“Just because you’re not any kind of a normal man at all, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to take a vow of celibacy,” Eddie had said, laughing into his face.
Brian Flynn felt a great weariness. He thought that he was in fact a normal man. Of course he had desired women, but he had made a bargain. The rules, at the moment, said if he were to be a priest then there must be no marriage, no children, no good, normal family life.
Father Flynn always told himself that this was a rule that would one day change. Not even the Vatican could stand by and watch so many people leave the ministry over a rule that was made by man and not by God. When Jesus was alive all the Apostles were married men, the goalposts were moved much later.
And then all the scandals in the Church were surely making the slow-moving conservative cardinals realize that in the twenty-first century some adaptations must be made.
People did not automatically respect the Church and churchmen anymore.
Far from it.
There were hardly any vocations to the priesthood nowadays. Brian Flynn and James O’Connor had been the only two ordinations in the diocese eight years back. And James O’Connor had left the Church because he had been outraged by the way an older, abusive priest had been protected and allowed to escape either treatment or punishment by a cover-up.
Brian Flynn was hanging in there, but only just.
His mother had forgotten who he was, his brother despised him and now his sister was making a trip from London to visit this cracked pagan well and wondering, would it work better if she came on the saint’s Feast Day?
Father Flynn’s parish priest was a gentle, elderly man, Canon Cassidy, who always praised the young curate for his hard work.
“I’ll stay on here as long as I can, Brian, then you’ll be considered old enough and they’ll give you the parish,” Canon Cassidy often said. He meant very well and was anxious to spare Father Flynn from the indignity of having some arrogant and difficult parish priest brought in over the curate’s head. But at times Brian Flynn wondered if it would be better to let nature take its course, to hasten Canon Cassidy to a home for the elderly religious, to get someone, almost anyone, to help with the parish duties.
Admittedly, attendance at church had died off a great deal since he was a young man. But people still had to be baptized, given first Communion, have their confessions heard; they needed to be married and buried.
And sometimes, like in the summer, when a Polish priest came along to help him, Brian Flynn used to think he might manage better alone. The Polish priest last year spent weeks making garlands for St. Ann and her well.
Not long ago he had been at the junior school at St. Ita’s and asked if any of the pupils wanted to become nuns when they grew up. Not an unreasonable question to ask little girls in a Catholic school. They were mystified. No one seemed to know what he meant.
Then one of them got it. “You mean like the movie Sister Act?”
Father Flynn felt that the world was definitely tilting.
Sometimes, when he woke in the morning, the day stretched ahead of him, confused and bewildering. Still he had to get on with things, so he would have his shower and try to pat down his red hair, which always stood in spikes around his head. Then he would make a cup of milky tea and a slice of toast and honey for Canon Cassidy.
The old man always thanked him so gratefully that Father Flynn felt well rewarded. He would open the curtains, plump up the pillows and make some cheerful comment about how the world looked outside. Then he would go to the church and say a daily Mass for an ever-decreasing number of the faithful. He would go to his mother’s house, heart in his mouth about how he would find her.
Invariably she would be sitting at her kitchen table looking lost and without purpose. He would explain, as he always did, that he was her son, a priest in the parish; and he would make her a breakfast of porridge and a boiled egg. Then he would walk down Castle Street with a heavy heart to Skunk Slattery’s newsagents where he would buy two newspapers: one for the canon and one for himself. This usually involved some kind of intellectual argument with Skunk about free will or predestination or how a loving God could allow a tsunami, or a famine. By the time he got back to the priests’ house, Josef, the Latvian caregiver, had arrived and got Canon Cassidy up, washed and dressed him and made his bed. The canon would be sitting waiting for his newspaper. Later, Josef would take the old man for a gentle walk to St. Augustine’s Church, where he would say his prayers with closed eyes.
Canon Cassidy liked soup for his lunch and sometimes Josef took him to a café but mainly he took the frail little figure back to his own house, where his wife, Anna, would produce a bowl of something homemade; and in return the canon would teach her more words and phrases in English.
He was endlessly interested in Josef and Anna’s homeland, asking to see pictures of Riga and saying it was a beautiful city. Josef had three other jobs: he cleaned Skunk Slattery’s shop, he took the towels from Fabian’s hairdressers to the Fresh as a Daisy Launderette and washed them there and three times a week he took a bus out to the Nolans’ place and helped Neddy Nolan look after his father.
Anna had many jobs too: she cleaned the brass on the doors of the bank, and on some of the office buildings that had big important-looking notices outside; she worked in the hotel kitchens at breakfast time doing the washing up; she opened the flowers that came from the market to the florists and put them in big buckets of water. Josef and Anna were astounded by the wealth and opportunities they’d found in Ireland. A couple could save a fortune here.
They had a five-year plan, they told Canon Cassidy. They were saving to buy a little shop outside Riga.
“Maybe you’ll come to see us there?” Josef said.
“I’ll look down on you and bless your work,” the canon said in a matter-of-fact tone, anticipating the best in the next world.
Sometimes Father Flynn envied him.
The old man still lived in a world of certainties, a place where a priest was important and respected, a world where there was an answer for every question asked. In Canon Cassidy’s time there had been a hundred jobs a day for a priest to do. And not enough hours to do them. The priest was wanted, expected and needed at all kinds of happenings in the lives of the parishioners. Nowadays you waited to be asked. Canon Cassidy would have gone uninvited and unannounced to every home in the parish. Father Flynn had learned to be more reticent. In modern Ireland, even a town like Rossmore, there were many who would not welcome the appearance of a Roman collar on the doorstep.
So as Brian Flynn set out down Castle Street, he had half a dozen things planned to do. He had to meet a Polish family and arrange the baptism of their twins the following Saturday. They asked him, could the ceremony take place at the well? Father Flynn tried to control his annoyance. No, it would take place at the baptismal font in the church of St. Augustine.
Then he went to the jail to visit a prisoner who had asked for him. Aidan Ryan was a violent man whose wife had finally broken the silence of years and admitted that he had beaten her. He showed no sorrow or remorse, he wanted to tell a rambling tale about it all being her fault, as many years ago she had sold their baby to a passerby.
Father Flynn brought the Blessed Sacrament to an old-people’s home outside Rossmore with the ridiculous name of Ferns and Heathers. The owner said it was nicer in a multicultural Ireland not to have everything called by a saint’s name. They seemed pleased to see him and showed him their various gardening projects. Once upon a time all these homes were run by the Church, but this woman Poppy seemed to be making a very good go of it.
Father Flynn had an old battered car to take him on his travels. He rarely used it within the town of Rossmore itself since the traffic was very bad and parking almost impossible. There were rumors that a great bypass would be built, a wide road taking the heavy trucks. Already people were in two minds about it. Some were saying that it would take the life out of the place, others claimed that it would return to Rossmore some of its old character.
Father Flynn’s next visit was to the Nolans’ house.
The Nolans were a family that he liked very much. The old man, Marty, was a lively character full of stories about the past; he talked about his late wife as if she was still here, and often told Father Flynn about the miracle cure she had once got from St. Ann’s Well that gave her twenty-four years more of a good life. His son was a very decent man, he and the daughter-in-law, Clare, always seemed pleased to see him. Father Flynn had assisted the canon at their marriage some years back.
Clare was a teacher at St. Ita’s and she told the priest that the school was full of gossip about the new road that was coming to Rossmore. In fact she was asking her class to do a project on it. The extraordinary thing was that from what you heard or could work out, the road would be going right through here, through their own property.
“Wouldn’t you get great compensation if it did go through your land?” Father Flynn said admiringly. It was pleasing to see good people being rewarded in this life.
“Oh, but, Father, we’d never let it go through our land,” Marty Nolan said. “Not in a million years.”
Father Flynn was surprised. Usually small farmers prayed for a windfall like this. A small fortune earned by accident.
“You see, if it came through here it would mean they’d have to tear up Whitethorn Woods,” Neddy Nolan explained.
“And that would mean getting rid of St. Ann’s Well,” Clare added. She didn’t have to say that this was the well that had given her late mother-in-law another quarter-century of life. That fact hung there unspoken.
Father Flynn got back into his little car with a heavy heart. This insane well was going to become yet again a divisive factor in the town. There would be still more talk about it, more analyzing its worth, claims and counterclaims. With a deep sigh he wished that the bulldozers had come in overnight and taken the well away. It would have solved a lot of problems.
He went to call on his sister-in-law, Kitty. He tried to visit at least once a week, just to show her that she hadn’t been abandoned by the whole family. Only Eddie had left her.
Kitty was not in good form.
“I suppose you’ll want something to eat,” she said ungraciously. Brian Flynn looked around the untidy kitchen with its unwashed breakfast dishes, the children’s clothes on chairs and a great deal of clutter. Not a home to welcome anyone.
“No, I’m great as I am,” he said, searching for a chair to sit on.
“You’re better not to eat, I suppose, they feed you like a prize pig in all these houses you visit—it’s no wonder you’re putting on a bit of weight.”
Brian Flynn wondered, had Kitty always been as sour as this? He couldn’t recall. Perhaps it was just the disappearance of Eddie with the sexy young Naomi that had changed her.
“I was in with my mother,” he said tentatively.
“Had she a word to throw to you?”
“Not many, I’m afraid, and none of them making much sense.” He sounded weary.
But he got no sympathy from Kitty. “Well, you can’t expect me to weep salt tears over her, Brian. When she did have her wits, I was never good enough for her marvelous son Eddie, so let her sit and work that one out for herself. That’s my view.” Kitty’s face was hard. She wore a stained cardigan and her hair was matted.
For a fleeting moment, Father Flynn felt a little sympathy for his brother. If you had the choice of all the women around, which apparently Eddie had, Naomi would have been an easier and more entertaining option. But then he reminded himself of duty and children and vows, and banished the thought.
“The mother can’t manage much longer on her own, Kitty, I’m thinking of selling up her house and moving her into a home.”
“Well, I never expected anything out of that house anyway, so go ahead and do it as far as I’m concerned.”
“I’ll talk to Eddie and Judy abo...
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Book Description Books on Tape, 2007. Audio CD. Book Condition: Good. 11 AUDIO CDs polished for your satisfaction. From the library collection. Some library markings to the box and the CDs. We will take care to clean the CDs for a clear sounding performance. Audio Book. Bookseller Inventory # BoTuCD805114161
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