Offering a Helping Hand

By John Scally

The Tipperary village of Bansha was famous back in the 1950s because Canon Hayes a founder of Muintir na Tire lived there. He was not actually from Tipperary, he was from Limerick but as the locals said that was not his fault. John Hayes was born in a Land League hut.

After the eviction of the Hayes family from their farm in Moher, Murroe, Co. Limerick, the local Land League moved quickly into action, erecting a wooden hut on the side of the road at Ballyvoreen for them. They were to live in this temporary accommodation for nearly 13 years until they returned to Moher in 1894.

During their time in the hut, four more children were born to Michael and Hanora Hayes, including their son John Martin, who was born on the 11th of November 1887 – St. Martin’s Day.

After he was ordained in 1913 Fr Hayes quickly immersed himself in community activities. This led him to establish the first unit of Muintir na Tíre in Tipperary town in November 1937 to nurture the development of communities in rural Ireland. It quickly became part of the fabric of national life.

In 1946, Canon Hayes left Tipperary Town to become Parish Priest of Bansha and Kilmoyler. A priest, even a parish priest, was one thing, but a Canon was the ultimate in ecclesiastical and social grandeur. People spoke about the Canon’s soutane, with the red buttons down the front and silky red satin peering demurely from under the flaps. Others remarked about the delightful swish of a resplendent red monsignorial cassock. The cynics said it was the ultimate clerical status symbol for those who knew deep down that they would never rise to the elevated status of a bishop.

Initially everyone seemed to be talking about the great honour for the parish to have a Canon. In truth no one knew exactly what the difference was between a Canon and a parish priest. Symbols give us our identity, self-image, our way of explaining ourselves to ourselves and to others.

Symbols determine the kind of history we tell and retell. Canon Hayes believed that the Church was God’s house and one of the first things he did, in the interest of equality, was to end the practice of the wealthier families paying to have their names put on pews and benches – which was a powerful symbol.

The canon’s first Mass was carefully dissected by the parishioners. ‘A nice man’ was the evaluation every cleric coveted. However, even then he still was not out of the woods. The initial warmth quickly dissipated if he earned the reputation for being ‘fond of money’, the ultimate put-down for any priest.

He has the most priceless gift a preacher can have, a striking ability to illustrate the most complex idea through a simple lens. His concerns roamed through the world of the homeless, the unregistered, the unwanted and the constituency of the rejected.

Everything about his personality was full of warmth and conviction. His sympathetic and understanding nature made him an appropriate confidant. He believed that it is not so much human effort that counts, but God’s work in people and if his parishioners really grasped that God loved them without strings, then they might get the strength to go beyond any normal conception of the possible.

His preaching made people aware of the life that made them live, the expectation of a new beginning, new birth and hope and the inexhaustible potential that is all around us. His sermons were a welcome opportunity to savour the energy, joy, and trust that characterized his personality.

His genius as a priest was that he was able to communicate and transmit this passion to his flock. His appeal was enormous because he expressed himself simply and in a way that everyone could understand. His messages were universal – faith, family, trust, love, caring, sharing and goodness – but he prevented them from becoming abstractions and gave them a real flesh and blood quality and original beauty.

He could empathise with loneliness and despair, with a sense of crisis and being on the abyss. He knew the struggle between darkness and faith, between passion and hope and between the real and the counterfeit.

He believed that if we are not part of the solution we are part of the problem and that to do a good deed and help somebody in real need. He was particularly conscious of the wisdom of Brendan Kennelly’s incisive words, ‘Self knows that self is not enough.’ He was also a man of principle, a believer that some general notion of decency is needed to support his instinctive certainty and a man of deep understanding of the traditional imperatives of family life.

Part of this was that he had a healthy scepticism about his own importance. He was not a man whose utterances suggest a mere nodding acquaintance with everyday reality or one who had to peer through the cloud of self-absorption to face the world. He was a private man, living a public life by virtue of his job. His rich wellspring of humanity prevented him from raising a moat against the outside world. He had an authority about him. He was not the most tall man but it was not his physical presence that did it. Nor was it that he spoke voluminously or loudly.

What drew people to him was something intangible. By instinct he had an exceptionally firm grasp of human psychology and how to appeal to it. He was a Renaissance like figure with an engaging sense of humour, a healthy dose of modesty and an enormous appetite for life.

He had great charisma and was way ahead of his time with his emphasis on community co-operation and community integration. He was a major advocate for sharing and voluntarism. His philosophy was that you start building a society brick by brick from the bottom up. You would put up with a lot if you have a community – a balanced community he used call it with young and old, rich and poor.

To be a member of that community was to be in touch with the poor and those in need – but he was worried that we were not in touch anymore. It was taken for granted that the old were treated with respect and that the strong took care of the weak, regardless of age or social status. Those who marched to a different drum and to an outsider might be considered eccentric were neither ridiculed or feared but were accepted as just one other face of the varied community.

The canon died in 1957. He dominated the parish, a Colossus in a small area. His funeral was a national media event. Not alone was news of his death covered on Radio Éireann, but they announced a few days previously that he was critically ill. He was a most unlikely and unwilling candidate for celebrity status on a grand scale; not the kind of man to have her head easily turned by adulation. As he spoke he exuded a decency and a warmth that is not always associated with people who never seem to have a moment to call their own. He was a reluctant ‘star’ with no time for the pretensions or arrogance that is normally associated with star status.

The grief for the canon though intensely personal was generously shared. The local community as always responded magnificently in times of adversity. Everyone rallied around. Some were weeping. They had good reason to the crowd were not there that morning to be sad.

Rather they were there to make an act of faith in his life, what he lived and died for and their essential purpose was to make an act of faith in his resurrection. It is given to few mortals to become eternally remembered after their stint in this vale of tears is over, even fewer as a consequence of their achievements in Bansha. Memory is our way of holding on to those we love. Canon Hayes’ true epitaph is written in the memory of his people because community is about people.

His philosophy is as relevant now as it was 60 years ago because it was about encouraging people to ask: how can we help?

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