By Laura Lynch
This Christmas will be a tough one for many people living in Ireland. The economic crisis there isn’t helping to lift what is a gloomy holiday season. It’s even more challenging in Limerick, the city that featured in Frank McCourt’s memoir “Angela’s Ashes”.
The poverty, unemployment and deprivation portrayed in the book are still features of daily life in the suburb of Moyross. And that’s exactly why a group of men from New York have moved in. Not just any men though – they are Franciscan friars from the Bronx.
People riding in an open air carriage pulled by a horse might be considered quaint if it wasn’t an indication of the troubles that beset the suburb of Moyross. Horses are sometimes used for transport, but they are often abandoned and left to wander through the gritty neighbourhood or a nearby field.
That is also where the drug deals go down.
Burnt out and boarded up houses are easy to find and so is poverty. It is just the kind of place the Franciscan friars of the Renewal were looking for.
“And we were shown this area Moyross and it seemed like a perfect place: there were burnt out houses there was graffiti on walls there dogs and horses wandering around aimlessly sometimes kids wandering around,” said Brother Shawn O’Connor. “So I said this is a good place for us to be.”
O’Connor and four other monks opened their friary here in 2007 by converting three abandoned houses into a simple residence and chapel. Shortly before they moved in, they got a reminder of how tough the neighbourhood was.
Two children were nearly burned to death when three teenagers firebombed the car they were sitting in. But O’Connor and the others saw a need and over the last three years they have worked hard to get to know the community.
Out on the street, O’Connor is trying to use the offer of cookies and chocolate to get a group of boys to talk about the meaning of Christmas — with mixed results.
“Tell me one thing about Christmas” O’Connor said.
“Uh, you get stuff from Santa,” one boy replies.
O’Connor presses on, asking them what they need to do before they can have a cookie. “Say please and thank you,” says another. After more coaxing, O’Connor gets the answer he was looking for as the troupe began to pray.
The boys, small and freckle-faced, sound like well rehearsed angels. But just steps away are a reminder of that appearances can be deceptive.
The friary’s statue of the Virgin Mary is missing her hands. One of the other boys living near here cut them off a few months back.
“Many of the young people here just have no real proper guidance that’s one thing we found,” admits O’Connor. “They’re very wild. They’re great and they’re wonderful kids but they don’t have any discipline, they don’t have any sense of right or wrong.”
The monks persist with the kids, not shying away from a bit of soccer, or football or some good old fashioned roughhousing. They do it all wearing their grey hooded robes and beards and shaved heads.
Brother Cyril, born Jason Grandell 30 years ago, said he got a bit of a shock when he moved here from New York eight months ago.
“They had horses walking around the front yard, all the dogs barking at night versus the car alarms going off and the police sirens in the Bronx,” he said.
Brother Cyril became a monk four and a half years ago after tiring of life as a ski bum.
“Breckenridge, Colorado there was 54 bars and a population of three thousand people,” he said. “I don’t know if it was so much hedonistic as what debauchery would be but it was a good time. I could never go back and do that lifestyle again.”
The monks come from mixed backgrounds — one performed in a punk band, another was a Marine. And Brother Thomas Joseph was a self-described frat boy. He has been in Moyross for a year and a half.
“I was kind of shocked to see what was there it was I didn’t expect this place in Ireland,” Joseph said. “I thought the Irish were the happy go lucky people who had nice little thatch roof cottages and then you see the things happening with some of the youth and they were struggling.”
The monks have built a community garden and a youth center. They’ve endured the teasing, the jokes and the rocks that were sometimes thrown through the windows. Joseph likens it to the kind of college hazing he remembers from his frat boy days.
“Anytime there is a new brother too, the young people test him. You have to go through somewhat of a crucible and rightly so because you have to earn the peoples’ love and respect.”
That may be especially true in Catholic Ireland. But amidst tales of scandal and sexual abuse by priests, the friars are finding both popularity and celebrity.
In 2008, they appeared on a national late night talk show that also featured U2. The monk’s American street cred seemed to charm the audience. The host asked them to describe their vows. Poverty, chastity and obedience, came the reply. Then one friar offered another version.
“Or like we say in the Bronx, no money, no honey and a boss,” and another, the former rap artist, gave his own slant, “no bling bling, no sweet thing and I gotta serve my king.”
These days, Moyross residents like Lorraine Fitzgerald seem comfortable with the monks in their midst, but she admits she couldn’t take them seriously at first.
“I was laughing I have to say it, I was roaring laughing,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s strange looking at men coming in with long dresses and big beards you know, but I mean they are great sports they are.”
17-year-old Nicole said she’s grateful for their presence too. Young people her age are dropping out and drinking, she said, but the monks share their own experiences in order to warn her of the pitfalls.
“You know like it’s not good but you just try your best to stay away from it,” said Nicole. “That’s what the brothers do. They teach us stuff like all that stuff is bad.”
Earlier this year, the monks organized a rap contest in the neighbourhood. It’s the kind of small gesture that the monks believe gives people in Moyross a sense of pride and hope for the future. It is still a troubled place and the economic troubles will not make life here any easier in the coming years.
The monks of Moyross say they are staying put and keeping the faith.
(Photo: Laura Lynch)