Getting woken at 2 a.m. by a drunk man, finding a woman passed out in a confession box and writing begging letters to your mum from college.
It’s all par for the course in the life of a cleric.
So says Father Michael Collins in his new book featuring a collection of stories from the past seven decades.
‘Life, Death and the Bits in Between’ has just been published by the Columba Press.
There’s a saying you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and with its yellow, pink and blue title page you wouldn’t instantly expect this to be penned by a retired priest.
But inside you’ll find a collection of tales that will not only make you laugh, but Father Collins’ honesty as (in his own words) “death is at least peeking in my direction” makes this an intriguing book you’ll want to read and read again.
Father Michael Collins spent 50 years working in the Diocese of Derry. 18 of those were spent at the Long Tower Church where he was in charge for many years during the Troubles.
He retired in 2011 and last year published a book of archive pictures ‘Travellers in Time and Eternity.’ He’s also written a book containing his regular contributions to #Thought for the Day’ for Radio Ulster. However this most recent book marks a new departure for the Derry priest.
Partly autobiographical, the book tells tales from his life as boarder in St Columb’s College right up to the present day.
“Every story in this book is true. And some of them actually happened, “ he said.
For instance, one of the first chapters in the book details Collins’ time surviving the meagre portions that were served to the boys of St Columb’s College, Collins is quick to point out that as the war had just ended food was scarce and many things were still rationed. “But we were perpetually hungry,” he says.
“The man who could write his parents a good letter home... would see it bear fruit in the form of food parcel.”
So the priest began to write his mother a letter. He tried to take inspiration from some of the many prolific letter writers from history but mostly his letters ended up short and banal. And ended with the postscript: “Please send a parcel and some more money.”
He doesn’t tell us whether he ever got his parcel, but he believes his mother saved the letters. Maybe one day they’ll come back to haunt him.
Indeed Mrs Collins features prominently in many of the stories from his life.
If it wasn’t the letters, it was the embarrassing moth-bally raincoat that his father wore on honeymoon that she fitted to him when he had grown out of his own, or it was the disastrous day he and his brother took her to the movies.
I won’t spoil the story but you can imagine what happens when the two lads conspire to take her to the picture house to secure her moral seal of approval for their much loved Western movies, only to find out they got the dates wrong and what in fact was showing was a “disaster movie” where randy sailors are jumping in and out of bed.
However it is the Derry priest’s time serving in the Bogside during the Troubles which are the most fascinating.
A priest can often be expected to be woken in the middle of the night to attend to a sick call. But what Father Collins didn’t expect to find when he made his way to the front door in his “well worn dressing gown” at 2am one morning was a drunk man and his girlfriend begging for a lift to Shantallow.
The man claimed they couldn’t get a bus or a taxi adding that Collins should give them a lift because “sure no one would hijack a priest”. One can imagine the thoughts of Father Collins at that moment, but needless to say he dropped the pair home, believing that was the only way he’d get some peace himself that night.
A similar scene occurred not long after the incident with these ‘stragglers in the night’ when he and a colleague were summoned to the Long Tower Church in the middle of the night when the burglar alarm unexpectedly went off.
Inside they found a woman praying at the altar. It seemed the woman had partaken in some Dutch courage before she went into the confessional box to speak to a priest. The woman had then fallen asleep inside the box, slept through the Mass which started at 7.30, and even when the sacristan had locked the church up for the night she hadn’t roused.
Throughout the book Father Collins reveals his regret he didn’t keep a regular daily diary while he was serving parishes in Derry. But it’s clear that at 78 his memory is as sharp as ever.
Read how the cold saved his life on Bloody Sunday and fascinating obituaries of some of the special people who were part of his life.
Available in bookshops and online.
Extract - The One Legged Man and the Middle of the Night
It was three o’clock in the morning and as I struggled into consciousness it seemed to me that I had been wakened by a loud unfamiliar banging noise coming from the front of the house. I could not identify it, so I sat up in bed and waited to hear if the performance would recommence and sure enough the banging started once again from the same direction followed by the furious ringing of the front door bell. Some of my colleagues will insist on getting fully dressed before answering the door bell in the middle of the night. Myself I just struggle into a worn out dressing gown and stagger down the stairs hoping pessimistically, that there will be some tiny iota, some minute trace, of reason and sanity behind this disturbance. Sadly, there rarely is, and in this instance the opening scene did not give much promise for a happy finale.
Standing on the doorstep, or more accurately, leaning against the door frame, was a one legged, highly intoxicated Scotsman, who proclaimed to the world in his hiccupy voice his total dissatisfaction with the revolutionary violence around him and with current Church thinking on the theology of the just war. And he indicated his intention of here and now making his own unique contribution towards a resolution of both these timeless dilemmas.
I took him into the waiting room and sat down, and for half an hour he lectured me on the church, the clergy, the sad decline in public morality and his general unhappiness with the state of the world.
And just as I was about to pull down the curtain on his meandering monologue I remembered the banging noise. Had he heard this? “Aye, that was me., I was banging on the windy with me crutch. I could nae find the doorbell.”
This merely reinforced my determination to call a halt to his performance so I informed him that the interview was now terminated and I was going back to me bed since unlike himself I had to get up in the morning.
He disagreed strongly with this line of reasoning but I insisted that enough was enough and he had to go; with the proviso, that if he wished to call at a more responsible time preferably in daylight hours, I would be happy to accommodate him.
He obviously expected a better service, but he finally departed under duress and I went back to bed.
I had barely wrapped the sheets around my weary body before the banging noise started up again only this time it was even more noisy. I endured the turmoil for about a minute but eventually I had to rise and investigate. Once more I donned the trusty dressing gown and headed for the front door. And standing in the middle of the car parking area I found my one legged Scotsman balancing himself on his useful leg and throwing the crutch that served as his substitute leg at the window.