Like a Tree Cut Back: Memoir of A Lost Ireland

the poetry business

Like a Tree Cut Back

By Michael McCarthy

The Poetry Business, Sheffield, England

smith-doorstop, 2021

Father Michael McCarthy’s memoir, Like a Tree Cut Back, takes its title from the motto of his alma mter, Carlow College, where he prepared and studied for the priesthood. Rescissa vegetior assurgit – ‘that which is cut back burgeons forth more abundantly’. There are many meanings one may derive from this aphorism, which has Gospel allusions of pruned trees and souls bearing much fruit.

Most of the book is taken up with his childhood on the McCarthy family farm in a bucolic and faithful – and now much lost – Ireland, with large families, local private schools, leading up to his days in the seminary, which took place right in the midst of the Second Vatican Council. Michael was ordained in 1969, the year the Novus Ordo Mass was promulgated in its editio typica Latin version (almost never said, for various reasons – the English vernacular with which we are familiar was issued in 1974).

Hence, Father McCarthy’s life is a bridge between two worlds, the pre and post conciliar Church, and, as well, before and after the cultural and social revolution in Ireland (and across the world).

But he does not talk about this much, with the focus of this brief memoir (161 pages) being his own memories and reflections, in what is primarily an interior journey of his formative years. There is a brief glimpse towards the end, on his decades of priestly ministry (Father McCarthy died in July of 2018), and one sort of wishes for more of his take on the Church and her priesthood in the modern world.

His writing is engaging and descriptive, providing the reader with vivid imagery in a few words. The younger years are written from the perspective and language of a child, with the narrative maturing along with the author and narrator. Even if Father Michael does not focus on all the ecclesial and cultural transformations taking place around him, these are offered indirectly through the struggles and changes within his own soul.

Besides his priestly ministry, he is also a poet, an avocation, if you will, he chose soon after ordination, and selections of his works are provided in the final pages. They are in blank verse, but display a fine rhythm (to this layman’s ear). Like his prose, they provide colourful and insightful descriptions. Here is an excerpt from one titled ‘The Gift’ that struck me:

                      And love, she said, was not

                      waiting for what had been expected

                      but more like listening to the river

                      that ran beneath your skin

                      was not the silver birch

                       spine stiff with anticipation

                       but more like the shiver of its leaves

                       upturned in the mid-morning wind

There are others that are somewhat more prosaic:

               The scores as we lined up for Vespers on Sunday night. 

               The lecturer, low key, sets up the equipment, introduces the class.

               He shows us a video clip: Traditional, from Fiddler on the Roof.

               We split into groups, discuss the layered meaning of the word.

               After the break, he slips in another word: Conventional.

               Compare and contrast! We’re being led deeper.

               Back then theology taught us what to think.

               Now it is teaching us how to think.

There seems a false contradiction between the last two lines, for theology should teach us both what and how to think – at least one’s philosophical formation should – and one wonders to what ‘conventional’ refers. There is something of a critical spirit in his memoir and poetry, with allusions to meeting a parish priest in the ‘old style’, who still prays the breviary in Latin (even though this is still the expected mode, according to canon law and Vatican II).

But all in all, Father McCarthy displays a love of Christ and His Church, to her moral precepts, and seems to have been faithful to his promises and his vocation to the end – not a mean feat in our world. His words, and his poetry, offer an invaluable and intimate glimpse into how our Church – in Ireland especially – has changed, in some ways for the better, in others for the worse.

We should, as Christ exhorts, strive to keep what is good, and reject what is not so, even if both are mixed – the wheat and tares – unto the end of time.

We would do well to walk with Father Michael McCarthy, his prose and poetry, for a while, in our own pilgrimage of life, as we journey towards that day when we all may meet merrily in heaven, where memories, song and verse unite in perfect harmony.