Miss Mary Ann McGinty, “Missy,” was my Irish nanny. She came to work for my parents when I was only six months old and stayed with us until my younger sister, Carolyn, went off to boarding school. During those formative years of my life, I saw much more of Missy than I did of my own mother, who spent most of her waking hours pecking at a green Smith-Corona portable typewriter behind her closed bedroom door, trying desperately to conquer depression and write the Great American Novel.
Missy lived six days of every week in her room over the garage in our house in Coraopolis Heights, with a crucifix above her bed and a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall by her dresser, just a few steps away from our bedrooms so she could hear us if we cried. When I was at school or occasionally being looked after by my mother, she would sit there in her freshly-ironed white uniform saying her Rosary. Her beads were always with her, tucked into a pocket of her uniform. When she prayed, she would whisper the words softly, but always loud enough that we children could still hear them. When I was six, I asked my Protestant parents if I could have a crucifix to hang on the wall above my bed, announcing to them that I wanted to be a “Christian like Missy.”
Miss McGinty was a well-loved member of our household for twenty-one years. Nevertheless, upon reaching the age of seventy-five, after Carolyn went away to school, she returned to Ireland and lived with her nephew, Father Liam McCaul, the curate in the tiny village of Bruckless in County Donegal.
In August1960, just four years after Missy went home to Ireland, Carolyn and I made our very first visit there. Both of us fell instantly in love with Ireland, a love that has lasted ever since. I was coming to Ireland from Tel Aviv via Rome and London after traveling around the Middle East all summer. Carolyn had arrived in Ireland earlier, and I was to meet her there in Bruckless with Father McCaul and Missy.
The drive from Belfast to Bruckless was only about 130 miles across Northern Ireland and should have taken only three hours or so, but, between driving on the “wrong side” of what I thought were “bad” Irish roads and my stopping often along the way to see the sights, I took almost all day getting there. I realized as I drove through Omagh that I was only eight miles from Seskinore, my grandmother’s village, famous as the only village in Ireland with a post office, three churches and not a single pub, where most of my dour Protestant Irish cousins still lived and farmed. But Carolyn and I had planned to visit the cousins later together, after spending some time with Missy and her nephew, so I didn’t stop.
Seeing my dear old Missy again after four years was wonderful. She and I both shed happy tears as we met in the parlor of the Parochial House with Carolyn and Father McCaul. They had waited for several hours for my arrival, and Carolyn had even set out walking down the lane to the village, thinking that I might have lost my way searching for the house.
We spent several days there together, being entertained by the voluble priest and driven around the rugged landscape in his little black car. Missy loved outings and would always be ready to go in an instant, wearing her hat and coat and waiting by the front door. We crossed rocky highlands, treeless and barren except for scattered patches of heather and gorse. Father McCaul had been assigned to a Catholic mission near Salt Lake City, Utah, when he had left the seminary in Ireland and been ordained. To remind his listeners of his years in the Utah desert, He kept saying things like, “Ach, Lord, would ye look at that now! Why, we’re in Indian country!” He was a terrifying driver, frequently turning around to talk to the passengers in the back seat while still negotiating the curves of the narrow, hilly country lanes and avoiding the many sheep wandering across them. Fortunately, there was very little traffic in Ireland in those days. About the only people who drove “motor cars” in small Irish villages in 1960 were the priests and doctors, their version of “first responders.”
Catholic Bruckless was a very small village, inhabited mainly by sheep farmers and fishermen. Unlike Protestant Seskinore, however, it was served by several pubs. They were nothing like the cozy fireside pub in the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara classic, “The Quiet Man.” There were no prosperous, rosy-cheeked, tweed-clad, pipe-smoking country squires gathered around a polished bar enjoying perfectly poured pints of Guinness. There was no impromptu accordion player leading a harmonious chorus of “The Wild Colonial Boy.” No, when I ventured into the village and went into the nearest pub, it was like entering a dark, smoky cave, redolent with the odors of pigs, sheep, fish and human sweat, and guarded by a few solemn old men sitting around the walls on rough benches, trying to make their pints last forever.
It was during that first visit to Ireland that I came to appreciate the full significance of the old saying, “Make hay while the sun shines.” A typical weather forecast for a summer day in Ireland is “showery with sunny spells.” Driving around Donegal with Father McCaul, we would come over the top of a rocky hill and descend into a green glen that was enjoying a few hours of sunshine. People of all ages and genders seemed to have appeared magically from nowhere, wielding scythes and rakes and “saving the hay,” as Father McCaul put it. Many of the men stripped off their shirts and worked in sleeveless undershirts, their faces red and sweating in spite of the fact that the temperature was only in the sixties. Women and children were raking, bundling and stacking the hay so it would stay dry after the next shower, never very long in arriving.
On the 6th of November, 1979, our dear Missy passed away at a nursing home in Sligo, Ireland, aged ninety-eight. My two sisters and I later converted and became Catholics. Carolyn once said to me, “Missy prayed us all into the Catholic Church.”