Brother Pat Guidera S.J. (born 1900, died 1992) was a familiar figure in Tullamore over a period of forty-two years from his transfer to Tullabeg College in 1948 up to its closure in 1990. Today the old college is falling to ruin. Many will recall its very good order up to the 1990s and thereafter it was used in part as a nursing home. Brother Guidera wrote a short ‘Story of my life’ in 1991 and this is an extract from that now very scarce memoir – of which there is a copy in Offaly Archives (courtesy of the Irish Jesuit Archives). The college was opened in 1818 and several volumes have been published on its history but few as intimate as that of Bro. Guidera. His memoir is interesting also for the marked distinctions in the religious orders between those fully ordained and those who were effectively providing support services in the college or convent. Brother Guidera was a carpenter cum painter and many will remember him carrying the usual large carton of cigarettes in the town for his colleagues in the college. His recollections of life in the Rahan area show the value of personal histories so why not give it a go.
Brother Guidera’s recollections of his early years
Away back in 1818, the Jesuits opened St. Stanislaus College at Tullabeg near Rahan in King’s County (now County Offaly). At the beginning it was the novitiate and a boarding school that was amalgamated with Clongowes Wood College in 1886. St. Stanislaus College then became the philosophate of the Order and that’s what it was when I went over “on loan” from Emo in 1948.
I was sent over from Emo to paint People’s Church which was attached to the College. That was a big job because the walls hadn’t been touched for years. I had to wash them down and give them three coats of paint all on my own.
Then I thought I’d be getting back at Emo, but the Provincial (Fr. Tommy Byrne S.J.) said that I might as well stay there for a bit to help with electricity. The D.C. plant was giving trouble and the whole house had to be re-wired. I remember Brother Bonfield saying to me: “Ah, sure you’ll be alright here with us, Pat. We’ll look after you”. But I can tell you that I didn’t fancy the idea of staying on at all.
The Brother’s life was a hard one in those days. You had to be up at half past five in the morning and you had to be in the house at half past eight every night. You couldn’t go out much, and even in the house the Fathers rarely spoke to you.
There were very standoffish. The “philosophers”, students going on for the priesthood, were fine lads, however, and I got on grand with them. They often gave me a hand. One day, for instance, I was painting the lower corridor of the house. It was over fifty feet long and over fifteen feet high. One of the “philosophers”, Ned Keelaghan – who is now Fr. Keelaghan S.J. and Superior of the house where I live – was up on a plank with me, helping to paint the ceiling. The plank was stretched between two step-ladders but didn’t one end of it slip off and the pair of us came tumbling down. A whole bucket of paint fell on top of poor Ned. I’m sure he remembers that day as well do I.
Anyhow, to get back to the electricity and to the rewiring of the house. Electrical supplies were still hard to find in those post-war years and we had to “make do” with all sorts of bits and scraps. We had no pneumatic drill and it took months and months to finish the wiring because the walls were so thick. The wires had to be run through gun-barrel tubing and approved by the engineer in charge. It was a firm through Dublin, Bective by name that was the main contractor. I had to help them a lot of the outside work too. We had to put a row of poles all the way down the back avenue, as far as Rahan village, to connect with the mains electricity.
Again I thought I’d be going back to Emo, but there were thirty-two bedroom to be painted and I was simply told to get on with them! No sooner had I completed that job and washed the paint off my hands than I was told than there were another thirty rooms to be painted and papered in another block of the house. This time, all the ceilings were badly cracked and I had to spend ages filling in the cracks before beginning to paint. The critics kept wondering why I was so slow.
Next I had to put up a slab partition to divide the refectory in two, no easy matter with such high ceilings, and then I had to put fireplaces into the staff bedrooms because they had no central heating. The “philosophers” had no central heating either. Each of them had a fifty-six pound, wooden butter-box full of straw under his table. That’s where they’d put their feet while they were studying. I can leave you to imagine what conditions were like in the Brothers’ quarters. . . . . .
In the 1950s, I did a lot of work out of doors, mainly in the vegetable garden where I built two large glass-house and a very large storage shed. The most interesting outside job, however, was the construction of the swimming-pool. Two of the “philosophers”, Tom Scully (whom the flats in Dublin are named after) and Paddy Cunningham (who died tragically in a plane crash over Vietnam) were very enthusiastic about the idea but the Bursar of the house, Fr. John Deevy S.J was a real Scrooge, so we had to be very economical.
Tom Scully had an engineer, but I read up all I could about the work to be done, all about water-levels, the reinforcing of cement and so on. We had a lot of fun making the “sightings” for the two miles of water-pipe. When we had the site for pool excavated, I borrowed a lorry from Peter Byrne of “The Hollies, near Rahan, and brought up all the gravel we needed for the foundations. And here’s a good one for you. Father Deevy had a machine in the farm for pulping turnips. I sort of pinched it for mixing concrete but there were ructions because they’d nothing to pulp the turnips with in the farm. Anyway, I attached a motor to this gadget and as a cement-mixer it worked like a dream, (Of course I left the machine back when I was done).
There was great suspense, then, when the time came to fill the pool. I’ll never forget it. It was a Saturday night and I walked the two miles across the Grand Canal with Tom Scully. It was my job to open that end of the pipe. Well! There came a rush of air out of it that nearly shot me up into the air! A kind of back-shot it was, bejaypers. But eventually it righted itself and the waiting crowds in Tullabeg saw a lovely, clean flow of water begin to fill the pool.
The next thing was to pipe water up to the house itself because they were going to install central heating at last. This meant laying another mile of pipe to the local water-main. To pump the water up the hill to the house I needed a special type of hydraulic “ram”. You’d nearly want to see it working: it’s too complicated to describe here. The machine was made in Wales by a Catholic firm by name of Lake. It cost very little, but it was a wonderful invention. I sent the plans of it to two Jesuits Brothers, Paddy McElduff and Jim Dunne, who were working in Zambia where the Irish Jesuits have a mission. As far as I know, they ordered two “rams” from Wales and have them working out in Zambia now.
The Irish Jesuits also have a mission in Hong Kong. That’s where Fr. Paddy Cunningham S.J. was working before he died. He helped to build a swimming-pool in Wah Yan College out there – but I doubt if he laid his hand on a turnip-pulper!
In those days we had laundry in Tullabeg which was quite a big concern. I installed a new, eighteen-horse-power engine for the laundry boiler because the old one was hard to start and would often stop. To get it going I had to turn a big wheel which was about a ton weight and it was dangerous. Sometimes I nearly got caught in the cam-shift. Three men came over from Moate one day and took it over to Peter McCormack’s garage. I don’t know what happened it after that: I hope it didn’t kill anybody.
One day in Tullabeg I had to go down the well, which was over ninety feet deep, to inspect the water. After opening the man-hole cover, I climbed down a metal ladder to the first landing which was about half-way down. So far, so good
Then I climbed on down to the second landing which was sometimes submerged by water. I stepped on the wooden planking there and didn’t the whole platform give way under me. With the fright, I dropped my torch and grabbed blindly for something to hang on to. By chance, I grasped an iron stay and was able to work my way back on to the ladder. My heart was thumping like a pulping machine. If I hadn’t managed to clutch that iron stay, I would certainly have been drowned and nobody would have known what became of me.
The Lord, however, had other plans for me because next day the Rector sent for me and said that the People’s Church needed to be painted again.
1954 was the year my mother died. It was also the Marian Year. In memory of my mother and in honour of the Mother of God, I decided to make a statue of Our Lady for the garden at Tullabeg. I had never attempted to do anything like this before, so it was quite a challenge. I managed to get hold of the special materials and tools needed for the sculpture and I was as amazed as everybody else by the result. People came from miles around to pray in front of that statue, so I felt very pleased that I had done my bit for the Marian Year.
I always had great devotion for our lady and during my years in Tullabeg I was able to go on my many Marian pilgrimages. I brought groups to knock seven or eight times a year and used to lead the prayers in the bus or on the train. In knock itself I would serve as and help in sacristy. I also used to help Mrs Annie Horan who was so well known to every pilgrim to knock over the years.
I was also on six or seven to Lourdes. I went with different groups from Laois, Offaly, Ardagh and Clonmacnois. I went there once with Oblate pilgrimage from Inchicore in Dublin. On this occasion I was working as a Brancardier, helping with sick people. One morning I was there at the grotto, just opposite the statue of Our Lady, with a lad from Galway. We were helping this little Italian girl who was suffering from polio and had metal braces on her legs. She was dressed in white. Suddenly the iron trappings which bound her fell from her
Legs and she stood up for the first time in years. I took her in my arms and embraced her and all the crowds started shouting out “A Miracle! A Miracle!” her father and mother took the little girl from my arms and hugged her. Then, without a bother, she walked over as near as she could get to the statue of the Blessed Virgin. I saw an old man with tears in his eyes walking behind her. It was a very emotional moment.
Another year, more recently, I went on a pilgrimage to Mejagore. That was a very moving experience as well. I was taken every day to the places of devotion and although there were many Masses and blessings and devotions and healing ceremonies and so on, I never felt tired. That was the amazing thing about it. I found the people of Yogoslavia very inspiring and pray for them a lot these days when they are in so much trouble. The highlight of the pilgrimage was the last night, a Monday night when we were to the Hill of the Apparition. It was a beautiful night with a full moon. There were thousands of people present, singing hymns and saying the rosary. At about ten o’clock a soft, white cloud appeared to encircle the moon and there was an awesome silence as the crowds just stood there in wonder.
I also have great devotion for Saint Patrick, my own patron saint. I went to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, at least nine or ten times and I’ve climbed Croagh Patrick twice. I’ll never forget the first time I climbed “The Reek” because it nearly destroyed me! It was about 1960, if I remember rightly, and I walked the two-and-a half miles up the steep mountain in the middle of the night in my bare feet: doing “the big fellow” I suppose. There was thunder and lightning first and then the rain poured down. When I reached the top I was so cold that I couldn’t say a prayer. Frozen stiff I was. I decided to keep on the move and come back down straight away. Unfortunately a fog descended and I lost my way. In fact I came down the back of the mountain which is very dangerous. My feet were cut to ribbons on the sharp stones but eventually I made it to the foot of the mountain and saw a nice green ward of grass below me. I jumped down on to it and sank up to my tummy!
It wasn’t grass at all: it was a huge bog-hole covered with a green weed. When I pulled myself out and pulled myself together, I managed to find a road and, believe me, I left a trail of blood along the Castlebar. If you don’t believe me, ask any of the Pellys of Castlebar. If you don’t believe me, ask any of the Pellys of Castlebar because they brought me in and gave m breakfast. They had a brother in the Jesuits so they made quite a fuss over me. It took months for me to recover from that pilgrimage. I had to have sixteen injections and wear a large pair of slippers, my feet were that bad.
The next time I climbed Croagh Patrick, let me tell you, I wore a strong pair of boots.
Other pilgrimages I made over the years were in honour of ancient Irish saints of the Midlands. One Holy Well of Saint Fintan was at a place called Cromoge, on the right-hand side down a bohreen on the way into Abbeyleix from Mountrath. There is a lovely shrine there and a Holy Well with spring water that is lovely to drink. Beneath the water there is a bed of lovely rounded pebbles. They were called “lucky stones”. The soldiers going out to fight in World War I used to take a pebble with them for safety. They all returned safely. Some were injured, certainly, but not one them died.
Many is the time I visited the other Holy Well of Saint Fintan at Clonenagh. This is a most unusual well because it’s half way up a tree. The bark of the tree is absolutely full of buried coins that have been pushed unto it over the centuries. I don’t know if it’s kind of superstition but you’re supposed to leave a coin for Saint Fintan if you want his cure to work. Anyway, his tree is well worth seeing – to make a pun. To find your way, ask for the graveyard at Murphy’s Cross on the road to Portlaoise from Mountrath.
Before going back to my story, I should add that I also have a very great devotion to the Sacred Heart and I pray every single day that Our Lord will send us some young men who would like to become Jesuit Brothers.
I believe there a lot of young men in Ireland who would find his a very rewarding way of life.
Back in Tullabeg, I did a lot of work as a carpenter, and liked it because I felt it was Christ-Like. For most of His Life, Jesus worked with his hands as a carpenter, and I often pondered about that while I was at work. I don’t want to bore you by listing all the jobs I did over such a long period of years. I could tell you about the six boats I built for the canal and about the acoustic ceiling I added to the huge refectory and about the rexine padding I put on the kneelers of the People’s Church, and on and on. But I’m sure you only want to hear the exciting bits, so let me tell you about the night Rahan Hall went on fire.
The old school-house in Rahan village was falling to piece, so John Monaghan – a great carpenter – and myself were asked to “Put some kind of a face on it”. This meant renovating it from top to bottom, inside and outside. We were told to build a stage so that the building could be used as a Local Hall for meetings and stage shows. The work took ages but it turned out fine in the end and the locals were very proud of it. Over the years some great acts were put on there, plays and dramas and pantomimes and all the rest of it. I played my part in all the scenic sketches, producing the side wings and the rest of the scenery just as I had done at home as a young fellow. Sometimes I’d be able to borrow back-drops from the College at Tullabeg where we had a stage the same size.
Well, one night in the winter of 1961 I was asleep in bed. My room was in the wing of the building nearest to the village. It was well after eleven o’clock that night when a sudden bang woke me up. There was a loud, cracking noise and when I looked out my window I could see flames rising in the distance. Brother Andy Bannon– our famous cook- was in the room next to mine and he was wakened too. The pair of us got dressed in an instant and sped down to Rahan on our bikes.
To my horror I soon discovered that it was the Community Hall that was on fire, with flames leaping into the air and the whole building blazing like a furnace. We couldn’t even approach it, the heat was that bad. The nearest Fire Brigade was in Tullamore but sure the whole building had burned to the ground before the firemen arrived. Everything was destroyed: all the scenery and the props and the stage I had built and everything. It was a great pity because all the local people had happy memories of the fun they had in Rahan Hall. It was years before they were able to replace it.
More excepts in 2023