Akha Village

My guide and I pitched our tents high above the village of Hwe Lon as darkness fell.

The light from camp fires identified the location of the numerous small farm holdings nestled in the valley below. Peace and tranquility descended on the mountain community as it drifted into sleep.

Weary after a long day’s climb, I snuggled into my sleeping bag. I gazed at the stars through the flap of my tent as the warm breeze filtered through the opening. The aroma from the mountain blossoms filled the air and the tall trees rustled in the light wind. I thought about the remoteness of my location and wondered what inevitable surprises lay ahead. I suppressed all anxieties and entered a deep sleep.

Early next morning I awoke to the sounds from the Village as it started a new day. The cries from hungry children, the noise from water buffalo sloshing around in rice fields, the rasp of an angry voice, the crackling from camp fires, the familiar sounds and sweet smells as breakfast was prepared. Dogs barked, children played and farmers went to work in their fields. Two Vultures circled high above in search of carrion and the sound of birdsong filled the air. Tall multicoloured grasses blew gently in the wind and the flooded rice fields glistened  in the early morning sun. All was peaceful in this picturesque valley high on the border of Burma and Laos as we broke camp. However, numerous lives had been lost to ethnic violence in this very region the previous month. An ongoing feud between Muslim and Buddhist communities discouraged visitors to the region and we entered the village to gasps of surprise as villagers gathered to catch a rare glimpse of strangers in their valley.

The Village Chief greeted us with trepidation initially. A firm handshake, direct eye contact and a warm smile, from the first Irishman he ever met, changed his demeanour and we were soon invited to his house. My guide spoke his language and we produced gifts of farm seeds and household essentials. A broad beam lit up the Chief’s face at the sight of gifts and I couldn’t help but laugh at his big toothless grin as I presented him with tubes of toothpaste. The irony of the gift wasn’t lost on him either as he bent double with laughter. Soon I was surrounded by curious children and their giggling mothers.

A short time later the door burst open. A woman with a serious leg injury and bleeding profusely, was carried into the house on a makeshift stretcher. She had hacked her leg with a machete while working in the fields and she needed immediate medical attention.The wound was long and deep and she was in a state of shock. The unflappable  chief, who was also the village Medicine Man, examined the injury. He worked methodically using primitive methods. He stopped the haemorrhage, sutured the wound and gave the woman a foul smelling mixture to drink for her pain. He covered the wound with a poultice and dressed the injury with a variety of leaves, strapped in place by a latticework of thin vines. When he was finished he went to a corner and produced a makeshift crutch carved from the branch of a tree and he handed it to the grateful husband along with a concoction of medicines to bring home.  The whole ‘operation’ took little over half an hour and the woman was carried back to her house, in a semi conscious state, to recover. This was emergency medical intervention Akha style and the only option available to mountain tribespeople. 

The villagers are very superstitious by tradition and this was evident wherever I travelled.

Women wear ornate silver headgear to frighten off evil spirits and primitive symbols adorned the entrance to every household to protect their inhabitants. I found one custom particularly barbaric and hard to grasp. Amongst the tribal communities  twin babies are considered to be a bad omen and the action to stop the spread of evil is both cruel and  swift. When they are born, the babies are taken from their family and  placed in a hole in the ground. They are then put to death by covering them with hot ash. The family is immediately shunned from the Village and ordered from the district. The community believe that such action restores balance and that evil spirits are expelled as a consequence. The Government has outlawed such traditions but locals maintain that these practices still exist. In spite of such customs the mountain tribes are a very gentle and hospitable people. I spent the next few days travelling between various tribes and never felt threatened during my stay.

On the day of our departure we set out early for the long trek back to Kengtung.

We anticipated reaching the town before darkness and we traversed steep mountains and narrow dirt trails to speed up our decent. By mid day the heat from the sun was intense and my rucksack of camera equipment weighed heavily on my back. We came to a junction on the path that overlooked a steep ravine. The trail was arduous and unstable and rock fell continuously from the mountain above. It was more of a Goat track than a mountain trail. As we edged our way around the sharp bend I heard a sobbing voice crying out from above. We looked up and saw a woman, wearing sandals, trying to descend the sheer cliff face. Her shoes gave her little purchase on the gravel and she was in danger of falling. My guide called out to her and told her to stop and sit on the ground. After a quick assessment of the situation we decided to climb up to her and help her down to the track. We unhitched our rucksacks and, carrying a rope, climbed to her position.The woman was distraught and there was fear etched in her eyes. We tied the rope around her and gently made our way to the relative safety of the mountain pathway. Once down I figured that the woman would be calm but the reverse occurred. She started screaming and sobbing and was clearly in great distress. Fortunately my guide spoke numerous tribal dialects and he started to settle her.

As she calmed, her story emerged. She explained that her teenage daughter had been abducted by child traffickers some hours earlier and she was trying to make her way to the nearest town to alert the authorities. There were no communications in her village and the only way down was on foot. Her precarious journey would have taken another four hours and she was in danger of sustaining an injury, or worse, on the mountains. I had been in Burma for nearly three weeks at this point and I had never established a mobile phone signal outside of Yangon. But on that day and on the edge of that ravine, I got a strong phone signal and my guide, who was fluent in numerous languages, started making calls. It took some time and a number of phone calls to International operators to establish contact with the regional police divisions in both Burma and Laos. The woman was able to give  a description of both the van and her daughter’s abductors and the police in both countries said that they would co ordinate an immediate response in all major towns and at border crossings. An hour later, when the phone calls finished we were confident that there would be a happy outcome for both the woman and her daughter. The woman was euphoric and couldn’t believe her luck. What were the chances of her meeting somebody who could help her? What were the odds she would meet two strangers, one with language skills and the other with an International Mobile Phone?  What  was the possibility of getting coverage on the side of a mountain, when I had been unsuccessful during my entire stay in Myanmar? We helped the woman back to the nearest village and she was overcome with emotion as we said goodbye to her.

A few days later I got a call from my guide advising me that the girl had been found and was reunited with her family.

My trip through Burma had been an amazing experience and a photographers paradise, but the heart lifting news I had just received capped everything  and I boarded my plane for home with both a sense of elation and relief. Against a backdrop of a parents worst nightmare, a mother and her daughter had been reunited through a combination of good timing and good luck and I was glad  to have played a small part in that happy outcome. I settled into the long journey home with a smile on my face and satisfaction in my heart and I looked forward to returning home to the warmth of family and the excitement of Christmas.  I regularly think of that family in Burma and I shudder to imagine what might have happened to that teenage girl had we not opted to take that precarious path on that faithful day.

The Campfire

The cold drizzle fell incessantly and the cars whisked by at speed. Joe Doran and his wife Mary, a quiet and gentle couple, were huddled by a campfire. Their home, a small canvas-covered wagon, was parked by the busy roadside on the outskirts of the city.  Their donkey grazed in a nearby field and a cat purred on Joe’s lap as he spoke softly about his life.

Joe was a Tipperary man and a tin smith by trade. He spent his life on the road and he particularly feared the onset of the winter. They had no worldly possessions, save the donkey, their cat, a few pots and pans and their well-travelled cart. They had two children: a seven-year-old girl Dorothy and a nine-year-old boy named Eamon. Both were in an orphanage run by nuns at The Mount in O Connell St. They hoped to visit their children the following day but it was a long walk, the weather was bad and the road was dangerous. Joe recalled the ‘old days’ when people had time to talk and he had felt welcome wherever he went. Mary was shy and discussed the hardship of life on the road. Her eyes welled up with tears as Joe spoke about their children. She apologetically excused herself and said she would boil some water for a mug of tea.

The symbolism of this poignant scene was lost on passers-by as they scrambled to purchase presents in the last minute holiday rush. There were no stars in the sky that night as darkness fell. The cold wind blew the flames of the campfire and the flickering light cast dark shadows on Joseph and Mary as they squatted by their donkey and cart on a lonely Limerick road that Christmas Eve.

Barrington’s Pier

Along the Shannon runs a path paved with my life’s memories.
If trees could talk they would speak to me as friends,
Of childhood recollections and sunny Sunday walks
Where I ran and played Hide and Seek with my sister,
Where I strolled with my parents burdened by the grief of her loss,
Where I rowed as a schoolboy and watched sunsets on the river.
Where I sprinted, as an athlete, with Olympic dreams-
Where I sat with my father and talked about his grave illness.
Where I walked hand in hand with the girl who would become my wife.
Where I held my baby son as he took his first steps.
Where we spoke of dreams and plans; our future looked so bright.

The years passed and a new life beckoned in a distant town:
Happiness, success, our plans fulfilled with little reason to frown,
I returned and trudged that path again with news that rocked my world.
Time stood still, disease had struck, my wife gone to the Lord.
For a moment the mighty Shannon beckoned that November day-
The impact on my son helped keep those thoughts at bay.
Time moved on, that darkness gone, my mind is yet again clear.
Two little girls brightened up my life with laughter and good cheer.
I want to hold them by the hand and walk that path once more
And speak of fairytales and dreams and stories of before.

The Blind Musician

He squatted on the cold ground that freezing winters day.  He was indifferent to the weather and oblivious to the traffic that passed close by. He was lost in his music, and captivated by the rhythm and melody of the tunes that were his living and his life. The sweet sounds came from his very soul and his two brothers played along in perfect harmony.  He was an uninhibited banjo player and he played as if it was an extension of his body. But those who were knowledgeable claimed that his best instrument was the Fiddle and described him as one of Irelands finest musicians. Occasionally he would introduce some diversity into his performance with a few tunes on the Tin Whistle. He could play classical music if he thought he had a knowledgeable audience but mostly his raw talents were lost on the unresponsive passers by.

His name was Joseph ‘Hanta’ Dunne and his large family depended on the daily contents of his shoebox and the kindness of strangers. He and his brothers were settled travellers and they had inherited both the gift of music and the curse of blindness from their forefathers. They were known as the Blind Dunne brothers and no festival was complete without their presence. They had a deep routed love of the traveller style of Irish music and the melodies just flowed from them. Such talent deserved a national platform and the rewards of countrywide success.

No such luck for these inoffensive performers! Through accidents of birth their stage was limited to the streets of Limerick. No records, no concerts, no recognition, no fans. They were unwelcome in some quarters, persecuted by Gardai for busking and scorned by a spiteful few. But their music and culture prevailed. They were torchbearers and the flame that passed from generation to generation remained unquenched. They have long departed this world but their legacy remains. A new generation of musicians have inherited their talents and a more enlightened and educated society has given silent recognition to Hanta and his brothers for helping to influence the spread of Irish music and keeping their traditions alive.

The Tin Whistle Player

The rain dripped from the brim of his well-worn hat. The pockets of his long tattered coat bulged with his rations for that day. He shuffled from foot to foot in a futile effort to keep the cold at bay. His grubby fingers crushed a Woodbine cigarette as they moved effortlessly over the notes of his battered tin whistle. His well-worn features and the stubble on his face bore witness to a man who had endured hardship and pain along life’s path. His intense stare penetrated the gaze of all who made eye contact with him: a silent plea for small change that would see him through another day.

He called himself a traveling musician. Nobody knew his name or hometown. He was uncomfortable with small talk and unwilling to engage in conversation. His reluctant audience wished his vow of silence extended to his tin whistle! The noise that masqueraded as music penetrated the ear drums of those nearest to him.  Their squirming features clearly showed a lack of appreciation for the musical talent of this tall stranger. The few coins in his shoebox were the measure of his competence!

A short time later peace was restored. With a toothless grin he thanked those who were nearest to him. He gathered his meagre belongings in silence and slowly made his way through the arched gates. As he departed a nearby merchant handed him a bag of fresh fruit and bid him season’s greetings. Somewhat embarrassed, he lifted his hat in acknowledgement and melted into the crowd, happy to remain an anonymous visitor to Limerick’s Christmas market.

Glenco Stag

The temperatures were sub zero on Buchaille Etive Mor, in the valley of Glenco. The wind chill penetrated my layers of clothing and my fingers froze on the cold chrome of my camera.

I had seen this majestic stag on various occasions over a number of days and for me he encapsulated the beauty and the harshness of this rugged landscape.

Wildlife photography requires patience, long protracted stay’s in cold damp hides deprived of food and comfort, quite often without success. Masters of this form of photography are repeatedly disappointed but never dejected. Determined, they return day after day until finally they snare the hard won reward of the classic image they have etched in their minds eye.

I’d like to say that such determination led to my photograph of the Glenco Stag but that would be flexing the realms of truth to an absurd fiction.

My photographer friends and I sat at a blazing fire, in the comfort of armchair’s in The Kings Inn lounge overlooking Buchaell Mor, that cold winters day. We had indeed seen this stag, from a distance, some days earlier as we photographed the beauty of this Scottish Landscape.

The snowstorm came suddenly in the early afternoon and we retreated to the sanctuary of the Hotel. The Stag got closer and sought shelter from the storm. I grabbed my gear and braved the elements in an attempt to capture an image of this majestic animal. My friends watched and laughed at me through a Bay Window as they sipped their pints and I stumbled through the deep snow. I ventured a hundred yards or so from the hotel, The Stag continued towards me, more threatened by the storm then my presence.

The snow fell, the wind howled and the chill quickly got to my very bones.
The Stag got closer and closer. I fired off a number of shots before he bolted from my viewfinder.

I made a quick retreat to the warm Hotel fire as my friends doubled over with laughter at my antics and declared me ‘ certifiable mad’ for putting my nose outside the door.

They had their ‘Pints and Laugh’ but I got my shot.

In a nearby valley, on a bleak Scottish Mountain, a young hiker froze to death, taking shelter in a mountain bothy, that very winters night.

The Monks of Mount Melleray Abbey

The ringing of the Church Bells broke the silence of the night as I listened to the soft pitter-patter of rain against the window.

The whistling of the wind and the rustling from the trees were pre dawn indicators of the inclement weather outside my sanctuary. I looked at my watch – my blurry eyes registered the time at 4 am.

The Bells chimed once more for a final call to prayer. This was an ungodly hour for most people to rise but it was the start of just another day for these men of God. The chanting of the Monks echoed through the corridors of the monastery. Their feeble voices betrayed their diminishing numbers and advancing years. These pious men had sacrificed their lives for a greater goal and were cloistered from the world. To the observer, their faith appeared to be  un-tarnished by church scandal and indicators were that their souls were un-sullied by Man’s greed. I watched, transfixed, as their daily ritual of prayer commenced.

Life in Mount Melleray differs little from the traditions established by the first Cistercian monks who arrived in Co Waterford in 1855. These monks embrace the discipline of monastic life and dedicate their daily lives to “seeking God through prayer.” Their day is segmented into time for worship as the sounds of hymns, psalms and scripture punctuate the silence of the monastery. Oblivious to the complications and stress of ‘normal’ life, these elderly men have abandoned everything to offer intercession for the world and help rekindle the memory of God.They have left their individual lives at the gate to to their monastery and have forsaken all things mammon in search of a more spiritual existence.

Fr Celestine encapsulated all I envisaged in my pre conceived idea of a cloistered monk. His eyes were clear and his face betrayed little of his 90 years on this earth. He is a thin frail man, who walks supported by a stick and his full beard, framed by his black and white cassock, adds drama to his image. In 1941, when war raged throughout a turbulent Europe, many idealistic young men responded to a call to arms and met their fate on battlefields of France. That same year, eighteen year old, Norman O Leary, from Blackrock, Co Cork, responding to his faith, answered a call from God and sought the tranquility of Monastic life. He entered the Cistercian Monastery in Mount Melleray, Co Waterford. Upon his ordination he was given the name Celestine and for 72 years he has devoted himself to a life of prayer. His religious philosophy is as simple as his life. Seeking reassurance about my own faith, he responded to my questions about religion. He looked me in the eye and with a gentle smile said,” God is Love, that’s all you need to know, nothing more – nothing less”. He told me that his life was fulfilled and said he would change nothing if he had the opportunity all over again. As I was leaving his company he posed a question that stopped me dead in my tracks. Who’s the present Taoiseach he asked? I replied with a laugh and walked away thinking deeply about the attractions and  benefits of monastic life.

Fr.Celestine had one wish, to visit the nearby Grotto at Cappoquin, which he had helped build many years ago. I asked the Abbott, a friend of mine, to grant this gentle priest permission to leave the monastery. I promised I’d make sure the 90-year-old wouldn’t do a ‘runner’ on my watch. The monk greeted the news of his pending visit to the Grotto with the excitement of a child at Christmas. He suggested that we should go early the following morning to ‘avoid the crowds’. He slept little that night. The following day he told me he was feeling troubled and unwell. The thought of leaving his sanctuary had brought on a panic attack overnight. After a lot of reassurance, we departed on our ten-minute journey and to his surprise we were the only visitors.

Fr Celestine embraced the atmosphere of the Grotto with the love of a father greeting his long departed son. He was at one with his surroundings and the silent energy and faith projected by this frail priest was palpable.  Two hours quickly passed and he was ready to go home. As he climbed the steep path towards the car he paused, looked back at the Shrine once more and his eyes glazed over as he said a final silent prayer, mindful perhaps, that he might never see his beloved Grotto again. Once home, he went immediately to the Church and give thanks to God for fulfilling his desire.

At 93 years of age Fr Boneventure is the oldest monk in the community. A small man, with a sharp eye and quick intellect, he originally came from Co Meath. I was told that as a seventeen year old boy he paid a visit to Mount Melleray with the family of his girlfriend. The conflict between his love of God and that for his girlfriend was answered during his short visit. He joined the monastery but the two were to remain friends for life. Upon his ordination he chose the name Boneventure. Around the same time his girlfriend decided to join a convent and also chose the name Boneventure, when she took her final vows. Two parallel lives, a pious Monk and a devoted nun, brother and sister in Christ. One cloistered in an enclosed community devoting his day to prayer and the other travelling extensively spreading her knowledge and beliefs as a teacher and a nun. Both sharing their love in a deep-rooted faith and a supreme God. Both united for life in a special friendship that has lasted more then seventy years, a friendship that will remain steadfast until their parting breath.

Such men live behind the impressive Monastery perched in the rolling landscape of County Waterford. Given the changing world, I questioned the future and very relevance of this secluded community. The Abbott frowned with the strain of a man faced with finding answers to an such an imponderable dilemma. And he placed his faith in God.

On the day of my departure I rose at 4.30 am and watched the sunrise on the monastery. The first rays of dawn cut through the early morning  mist and the golden hues painted the ancient bell tower with their glow. My subconscious replayed the chants now embedded in my brain as I listened to the sounds of the wakening dawn.

I recalled hymns and prayers which were symbolic of my youthful  religious comforts and I thought of the life devotion my parents had to a Church that subsequently betrayed their trust. My week long stay in Mount Melleray was at an end. In a country which has grown cynical of religious and traditional values, I had made a short return to the simplicity and values of my upbringing and I felt enriched by the experience.

My thoughts were interrupted by the chiming of the Bell. It was the early call to prayer. I visualised the silent shuffle of the elderly men as they made their way to Church. I returned to the Monastery to observe the small community of Cistersian Monks devote another day of prayer for the redemption of sinners. Steadfast in their belief, they chanted their hymns and recited ancient Psalms, and I envied the Monks their deep-rooted faith. I questioned my own religious convictions and yearned for solace in my faith.

After breakfast I bade farewell to my new found friends.

I promised that I would return,sans camera, to further explore and develop my personal spiritual needs. As I drove from the Monastery I felt a sharp uncomfortable pain in my back. A short time later I was diagnosed with very rare blood cancer but that’s another story.

Upon hearing of my illness the Abbott, Fr Augustine, reassured me that he believed I had an abundance of faith and he told me that I could outsource my praying requirements to his Monks in County Waterford. Now, from a hospital bed, I get some  solace from that thought and I visualise the monks as they intercede on my behalf. I recall, with gratitude, the tranquil week I spent in the presence of those gentle and humble men. Now, at the most vulnerable period of my life, I have asked myself the question I put to Fr Celistine some months ago. If I was given the opportunity, what changes would I make to  my life. I thank God that my response would be the same as his. Not a thing!

After all “ God is Love – no more no less” and I have been fortunate to experience an abundance of love in my life.

My quest for my religious convictions will continue and I hope the Monks prayers, coupled with my feeble efforts, help me find an enlightened answer before the good Lord finally calls me.

Pa McCarthy

The young Traveller stood at the corner, legs crossed, trying to look nonchalant. He had sleek black hair, wore pin-stripped trousers and had an open neck shirt under a mock leather jacket. His collar was turned up, Elvis style; very much the lad about town.  His casual manner appeared to make him all the more attractive to a group of girls standing nearby.  He quickly became the focus of their attention and he loved every minute of it. He flirted with the girls and filtered out each one until eventually he snared a mini skirted teenager who caught his fancy. A short time later they walked hand in hand, while the rejected girls stood in an animated huddle, unimpressed with their friend for abandoning them for this trendy adolescent. He had his life before him and all was well with his world that summer’s day.

It was New Year’s Eve 1993. Pa McCarthy had grown up in an untroubled environment, along the Canal Bank, a quiet and restful place where the Guinness barges used to dock in years gone by. Many found it an escape from the city, and a haven for those with trouble on their mind. Fifteen years had passed since that day in the marketplace when he strutted his stuff.  The boy had become a man who possessed anger and rage and he went seeking trouble that night with revenge in his heart. There was a violent exchange, the flash of a blade, the scream of pain; a frantic rush to hospital and Pa’s life was no more.  His brothers bore witness to that senseless killing. His family sat around the campfire, mourning his loss the night he was buried. Two faceless men emerged from the shadows with murder on their minds. The blast of a shotgun and the crack from a handgun broke the stillness of the night and another brother lay dead, with many more wounded. Two young children escaped uninjured from the mayhem. Gardai rushed to the location with flashing lights and blaring sirens. Before them was a scene of bloody chaos, an attempted family massacre, silent witnesses, a tarnished city, an outraged public and a very unhappy New Year.

It was the start of Limerick’s gangland feud.