Six hours on a cramped red-eye from Boston had Donovan in a foul mood—jumpy and irritable. He’d resisted this journey for 18 years; never thought he’d find himself back in Ireland with this mission. Still, he reasoned, if things worked out, this would be the first and last time he’d have to make the dreadful trek. For a man who hated to travel, once was plenty. All the more reason to make this one count.
He’d been jerked from a semi slumber by the screech of the landing gear on the Aer Lingus jumbo jet, slicing through the dense fog over Shannon airport. His wristwatch—which he’d set five hours ahead—showed “5:45 A.M., February 3, 2005,” as he vaguely tuned in the faux-British accent of the young stewardess prepping the passengers for landing.
Strapped pertly in her seat outside the cockpit, her short, green skirt showing off a pair of long, sexy legs, the stewardess rotely issued a litany of commands: “Please secure your tray tables and be sure your seats are in the upright position for landing. Check the seat pockets for personal….” Donovan tuned her out, reflecting on the pitiful irony of native social climbers still trying—and failing—to mimic the upper-class accent of their former British colonizer, fifty years after independence.
From his window seat near the front, Donovan smiled grimly at the familiar mosaic of green fields, brown fences, and silver streams decorating the luscious landscape of the Limerick dawn. As they came in for landing and taxied down the runway, he retraced—for the umpteenth time—the chain of events that led him to this ‘homecoming’ moment.
It was the image of Archbishop Flaherty on national television, prostrating himself on the altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, that gave him the first cosmic nudge. He never thought he’d live to see a member of the Catholic hierarchy come forward like this—admitting the truth: “Today I stand before you as a sinner to take responsibility for the abusers in our midst, to offer an apology to all who’ve suffered as a result, and to commit to making amends.”
Tears welled up in the anguished, gray eyes as the Archbishop raised his open palms toward the crucifix, struggling to gain control, before going on: “The abuses happened on my watch, in our chapels, in our diocese. I make no excuse, for I have none; I should have known. It was my responsibility to know, to protect the innocent. In that I failed. I failed myself and I failed all of you. I am guilty of willful ignorance, at best. No less a sin, no less abhorrent in the eyes of God. So today, I beg your forgiveness and ask Almighty God’s forgiveness, as I pledge to do better, to be a more worthy servant, not just for today, or for a year, but for the rest of what time God grants me on this earth.”
With that, the old man fell on his knees, bowed his head, and prostrated himself fully on the altar, arms extended toward the granite crucifix above his head.
When Donovan saw the news coverage of what was dubbed “The Spectacle at St. Patricks ” by the media, it was as though he was being offered a new lease on life, one without the shame, panic attacks, and loneliness—hallmarks of his existence since that awful May morning so long ago .
He still remembered—as if it were yesterday—the stained glass ovals and the crucifix bopping up and down through the fog of pain and terror.
Now here was the Archbishop of Dublin, one of the most powerful men in the Catholic hierarchy, offering a genuine, contrite apology. This, after everyone, from the Boston Archdiocese to the College of Cardinals in Rome, had closed ranks in ferocious defense of their pedophile brethren.
Donovan’s next-door neighbor, Jimmy Brennan, put it best: “Jesus, Billy, those sonsabitches weren’t only guilty of harboring known child molesters in their ranks, they were feeding ‘em fresh meat, rotatin’ ‘em around to new, plum posts, keepin’ ‘em one step ahead of the posse.” Jimmy was just giving salty voice to what was now common knowledge in every Catholic community from Ballydehob to Buenos Aires. Donovan had not responded. He didn’t trust what he might have said, or how it might have landed.
That was before the rage took hold, propelling him across the Atlantic, like a guided missile, only to find himself once again moving at a snail’s pace through the customs queue.
A suspicious official pulled him out of line for a pat-down. Donovan groaned at the thought of another delay and the tedium of answering yet another set of questions designed for terrorists. He was tempted to blurt out, “ What the hell is this! Do you think I’m the freakin’ IRA?” Instead, he stood mutely, watching the old man—his hands arthritic and shaking—rifling through Donovan’s faded shirts, slacks, underwear, and shaving kit.
After closely inspecting every nook and cranny of the luggage, the official finally turned to Donovan’s passport. He stared at the photo taken almost ten years earlier and, with a slight stammer, asked, “How long have you been away?” Donovan, in no mood for civility, snapped, “Well, as you can see, it’s been 18 years.” “Right, I see that Mr. Donovan,” the official replied evenly, “And what brings you home at this time of year, business or pleasure?”
“Oh, pleasure for sure,” Donovan said flatly. “Pleasure it is. Isn’t that what Ireland’s famous for? Can’t wait to get out of here to get started on the pleasure.” The sarcasm was not wasted on the customs agent, who nodded and decided to let it go. “Well Mr. Donovan, I hope you have a grand time of it and welcome home. Don’t leave it so long next time.” With that he smiled warmly, exposing a mouthful of blackened, rotting teeth, and Donovan suddenly felt ashamed of his own rudeness.
(Excerpt from Rites of Passage, a novella published in Rites of Passage: Five Irish Stories (2016), available on Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.