My latest on Esker — in the current Connacht Tribune

In my recent article in this paper about the imminent closure of Esker monastery I briefly mentioned that the monastery was considered by many people as a place with a healing ministry. This ministry was intimately connected with one of the earliest Redemptorists, an Italian from the eighteenth century, Gerard Majella, who is now a canonised saint. My memory of the monastery in my young days was that there was always one particular priest associated with the gift, and who used a relic of the saint in his ministry. In those days it was a man called Fr. John O’Brien, who died in the nineteen sixties. He was reputed to have the gift, but only with the assistance of the relic.

Since the word of the closure of the monastery has gone public I have been contacted by people with stories to tell about what they considered miraculous healings. One dated from the early years of the last century was of a young woman who suffered from what we would now probably call a cancerous sore – it was at least one that wouldn’t heal. She visited the monastery three times and got blessed with the relic. The sore disappeared, and the priest gave the woman a picture of Gerard Majella, which my correspondent told me is still hanging in the house in an honoured position over a hundred years later. (I include a photo of the picture)

Another story, dating from the late nineteen sixties concerned a young man in his early teens. As a result of an injury to his leg he developed a very serious infection of the bone. Doctors concluded that in all probability it would involve amputation. In desperation, his mother came to Esker, and the then ‘healing priest’, Fr. Tom Creagh, went to visit the young man in hospital. The man’s memory, as he recounted it to me recently, is that Fr. Creagh rubbed some item along his leg (undoubtedly the relic of St. Gerard), and he felt a sense of heat going through his body. Within a day or two he found that the pain had gone, that strength has returned to his leg, and that he could now, to the consternation of the doctors and nurses, walk around freely. The infection seemed to have disappeared. After some time he was released from hospital, but warned by the medics that he should be very careful with his leg, and not to play sport that involved contact. On the contrary he went on to have a very successful twenty years involvement in his favourite sport, achieving at a very highest level. When he rang me recently with his story I told him where Fr. Creagh was buried, so he visited the grave to thank him and to say a prayer.

Along with having the healing gift Fr. Creagh was a character. In those days life in the monastery was severe. But Tom was known to slip out the back door of an afternoon, when they were all supposed to be at their prayers, hop on his bike and go visiting. On his rounds he often called to my mother, who knew that a glass of whiskey was the favoured beverage. By the time Tom returned to the monastery after his round of visiting on his bicycle, if there had been a breathalyser, he would surely have failed. But people loved him.

The other big feature of Esker’s healing reputation was Dominic’s Well. On the 6th of January each year the well was blessed and people came in large numbers with their bottles and cans to stock up for the year. The water was considered to have special power in relation to land and animals. We always had a plentiful supply of it in our house. A cow due to calf would be sprinkled, and any sick animal would get blessed with it in the hope that it might avoid having to call the vet. In my young days, and more so in earlier years, there was a good bit of superstition around, particularly in relation to land and farming. It was believed that a curse could be put on a farm by somebody burying eggs in the land, or hiding them in a haystack, or by other means. If there was a run of sickness among the herd it was often blamed on a curse by a neighbour with whom they had some dispute. Another common one was the failure of the cream to turn into butter by churning. This too could be attributed to some neighbourly curse. The Esker water was reputed to be a protection against such curses, so it was greatly prized by people of a superstitious bent. In recent years the priests tended to downplay that aspect of the holy water, so as not to be promoting superstitious beliefs. The well-known Fr. Vincent Kavanagh, now deceased, was a great promoter of the beneficial qualities of the water in the well. He was cute in the way he presented this aspect of the tradition. While clearly stating that he did not believe in superstition, he would manage to refer to this particular beneficial quality of the water. While he might not approve of the motive, he wasn’t going to deter anyone from coming.

I wonder if this healing power is ultimately linked to the priests in the monastery, or to the place itself. Only time will tell.

Tony Flannery