The Path To Rome - 23rd Sept. 1950


The Path To Rome: Text Version

23rd September 1950


Over three weeks ago I dashed off three sets of notes for the "Limerick Leader," and then asked myself: what will I have to say when next I sit down to pen a column for my readers? I asked myself that question because I was about to depart for Rome, and realised that if all went well I should return home enriched by many unforgettable experiences. All went well, a bhuidhe le Dia, and I shall now endeavour to give you my impressions of what has certainly been a memorable journey.


The pilgrimage in which I travelled was organised by Cuallacht Muire (the Irish-speaking Sodality of Our Lady), Gardiner Street, Dublin, and Cuallacht an Scabaill, Clarendon Street. It was an all-Irish –speaking pilgrimage. Seventy-six Gaelic speakers drawn from all parts of the country, from Belfast to Cork, took part in it. Not since the days of the Wild Geese did such a large body of Irish speakers travel to the continent. With the party were five priests: An tAthair S. Mac Amhlaoibh, S.J., Clarendon Street; An tAthair D. O Floinn, Professor of Irish, Maynooth College; An tAthair E. Mac Fhinn, University College, Galway; An tAthair T. O Muiris, President of St. Patrick's College, Thurles; An tAthair P. Mac Loingsigh, Strabane.


On the evening of Thursday, August 31, the pilgrims assembled at St. Andrew's Church, Westland Row. Each one was wearing a badge on which was written: "Dia is Muire is Padraig linn. Eire. Oilithreacht chun na Roimhe, 1950." The badge was green with gilt lettering, and from it descended two ribbons bearing the Papal colours. Following Benediction, and a short address in Irish by an tAthair Mac Amhlaoibh, S.J., we set out for Westland Row Station. Two flags, the Irish tricolour and the Papal white and yellow, were borne at the head of the group, as well as a shield with the inscription: "Cuallach Mhuire agus an Scabaill, Eire (Irlanda)." We waited impatiently at the station for the train to come, conversing with well-wishers who had come to see us off. At last it arrived; and soon we were on our way to Dun Laoghaire –- and to Rome.


Arrived at Dun Laoghaire we trooped aboard the waiting "Cambria." In a little while she was under way, and we went on deck to see the lights of Ireland recede and be swallowed up in the depths of the night and the sea. The sea was calm as a mill pond, and we were none the worse of our voyage when, some hours later, we docked at Holyhead. Without delay we made our way to the train, the famous Irish Mail. Twenty minutes or so elapsed, and then we were speeding through the darkness in the direction of London. It was a long, tiresome journey. Some slept on the way; others were not so fortunate. In the grey dawn we reached the outskirts of the great city; almost an hour had still to be travelled before we reached Euston Station, and alighted. Three 'buses were waiting for us, and whisked us off to a little church, where we heard Mass.


After Mass we had a hurried breakfast, then boarded our 'buses again and set off through London for Dover. As we passed through the city we caught a distant view of St. Pauls, and saw the huge edifice that Britons are building for next year's Festival of Britain. We saw, too, the open spaces, and the heaps of rubble, that marked the spots where the Germans had brought war to the heart of an Empire. With the Papal and Irish flags flying proudly from the roof of the foremost 'bus, we sped along the romantic Dover road. One never seemed to get into the open country; restaurants, petrol pumps, shops, hoardings and advertisements dotted every inch of the way. We were glad to reach Dover and to board the vessel that was to take us on the next stage of our journey.


We set sail, and the English coast slowly slipped away from us. We went down to have a meal, and when we went on deck again the French coastline was plainly visible. So this was the Continent, the Mainland of Europe! Out there on that land mass lived the French and the Germans, the Italians and the Belgians; yea, and the Russians. Out there over that advancing white coast war and terror had swept again and again; out there lay the nameless graves of ten thousand Wild Geese, the men of Limerick and Clare. And here, within a stone's throw, was France, the land to which they had given their swords and their love and their red heart's blood. Children gathered on the pier and waved to us as we approached. Suddenly the announcements over the ship's loud speaker came in French. We heaved in. French porters burst in among us crying: "Porter," "Porter." We were in Calais –- and on the mainland of Europe.


Without delay, we had passed through the customs, and were making our way to where three more 'busses were waiting for us. We were too excited to make a proper mental note of Calais as we passed through it. We noted, however, its ruined houses, grim reminders of the war; its tree-lined streets; and the number of its citizens who reclined out of doors on chairs and seats. When we were on the road hurrying through the French countryside we began to ask ourselves how it differed from the Irish scene. In France there were no ditches to the road, none to the fields. Away before us, on each side of the road for as the eye could see were two lines of trees. The trees were planted at intervals of twenty feet or so, and were not very tall. No branch was less than ten or twelve feet from the ground. Around each tree trunk a white band was painted as a guide to motorists. From Calais to Rome was 1,250 miles, and for almost every mile of the way trees lined the roadsides.


The houses were tall, generally two-storeyed, and roofed with red ridged tiles. The windows all had timber shutters, resembling Venetian blinds. These shutters were a feature of every house we saw on the Continent. Their use is to keep out the intense heat, but to admit the sunlight. That part of France through which we travelled on our way south from Calais was very flat; though later it gave way to a gently undulating landscape. Every inch of it was tilled. Mile after mile we sped, and still we saw garden succeeding garden. We realised now why no boundary fences or ditches were needed in France. The corn stacks that stood in the fields were very tall, and tapered to a point. We passed through Abbeville, a town of many ruins, for here the storms of recent war had raged in all their fury.


We stopped at a little place called Poix, admired its war memorial, and sampled its coffee, which most of us thought very strong. Night was falling when we resumed our journey; and it was many hours later before we strained our eyes to catch the first glimpse of the magical lights of Paris. Paris captivated us completely. We spent the night there, and in the morning we attended Mass in the convent of the Rue Du Bac, where Our Blessed Lady presented the Miraculous Medal to St Catherine Laboure. In a glass casket, under one of the altars in the church, we saw the incorrupt body of St. Catherine, and touched the chair on which the Blessed Virgin sat during the apparitions.


Before continuing our journey we went to see the beautiful garden of the Tuilleries, ablaze with flowers, and surrounded by graceful and lovely buildings, one of which is the Louvre. Then we drove down the glorious tree-lined avenue of the Champs Elysees, circled the towering Arc de Triomphe, and returned to cross the indescribably fair and brilliant Place de la Concorde, with its fountains and statues and noble bridges spanning the Seine. The splendour and elegance of it all took our breath away. No wonder, we felt, that Paris has been called the most beautiful city in the world. Half reluctantly we turned our back on the glory and the grandeur of the French capital, and set out on the road to the South. In a little while we saw Paris airport on our left; and, ere long, the splendid forest of Fontainbleau had spread its leafy arms around us.


Our road led through Orleans, the city that was freed from the English so long ago by St. Joan of Arc. With the sandy banks of the Loire on our left, and a soft drizzle falling, we reached Nevers, where we had lunch. Afterwards we attended Benediction in the convent church, and saw, in a glass casket, inside the altar rail, the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette. We set out again. Soon we were in Burgundy, the famous wine producing country. It was dark when we crossed the broad bridge of the Saone and entered Macon. But we still had many miles to cover before we reached Bourg, where we spent Saturday night. Early on Sunday morning we were once more on the road. The day was fine and warm. On all sides of us were vineyards, heavy with countless sprays of delicious grapes. Then, away in the distance, we saw range after range of hills climb into view -– the mighty Alps.


In our 'bus we were singing Irish songs and hymns, and Gaelic conversation was being wafted to places that had never known its accent before. As our road wound itself up over the slopes of the Alps you might have heard melodious voices flinging to the breeze such pieces as: "Ar gCreideamh nAthardha," "Aithri Sheain de hOrdha," "Cill Cais," "Oro Se do bheatha abhaile," "Maidean i mBearra," "Sean O Duibhir a' Ghleanna" and "Cruacha Glasa na hEireann." We spoke Irish everywhere we went, and to everyone we met. We left English to the English. If another language had to be spoken then it was French or Italian –- but not the Sacs Bearla. Higher and higher our road led. Suddenly, the first gleaming white peak burst into view, then peak after peak appeared. We were now in the region of eternal snow. When we alighted at Modane for lunch a cold breeze sweeping down from the frozen mountains chilled us to the bone.


Leaving Modane we still continued to climb higher into the folds of the snow-mantled Alps. We travelled on the brinks of valleys that were half a mile deep; we wound round terrifying and unprotected bends. Great forests of pine and spruce covered the slopes in many places; churches, castles, fortresses and villages stood perched on beetling and inaccessible crags. We saw snow on the roadside; and a man, seeing our wonder, smilingly tossed a snow ball to us. Then, singing "Sean O Duibhir a' Ghleanna," and with the Irish and Papal flags flying bravely from the roof of the leading 'bus, we crossed over the Mt. Cenis pass, 7,000 feet above sea level, and sped along the descending road that led into Italy.


Signs of the recent war were evident here in the shape of ruined villages, bullet-marked houses and gun emplacements. A familiar sight in the frontier were the houses, roofed with large irregular-shaped fag-stones. The cattle, we noticed, had bells hung round their necks. On the Continent two or three children could always be seen minding the cows. It was a very picturesque sight. We passed through the French customs without delay and reached the Italian frontier. The officials here were most informal and friendly. We took their photographs, taught them Irish phrases and danced a Siege of Ennis for them. Once into Italy the first thing that struck us was the number of motor bicycles on the road. They flashed by in thousands. There was one particular green scooter-like vehicle that seemed to be everywhere.


In Southern France and Italy we saw oxen ploughing, and drawing carts, in hundreds of places. The landscape here began to take on a reddish appearance; the heat increased all the time. It was dark on Sunday night when we arrived in Turin. We had dinner in the open, under a spreading tree with lights hanging from its branches. Next morning we saw women carrying baskets poised on their heads. Everything was so strange and so beautiful! All along the way, from the time we reached the foothills of the Alps, crosses stood on the tops of the mountain peaks. There were crosses and memorials in all the towns and villages of France and Italy, too, but they were to the memory of the fallen of two world wars. At one place we encountered a company of colourful Continental gypsies.


Beyond Turin we joined the autostrada, one of the famous roads constructed by Mussolini. Streams of traffic raced along it. Advertisements lined both sides of it, standing one behind another, for miles of the way. New roads and new bridges were everywhere under construction. Electric trains shot past us on nearby railways; twenty of thirty laden lorries approached us at the time. At mid-day on Monday we reached Genoa and got our first glimpse of the Mediterranean. Genoa is a beautiful city with very tall buildings, a city of flowers and fountains. Along the centre of the streets were lines of shrubs and the most exotic blooms. Beds of flowers stretched along the edges of the footpaths. Open air cafes were everywhere. If I wanted to describe briefly for you the villages, towns and cities of the Continent I'd say: trees, flowers, fountains, statues and open air cafes.


From Genoa onward the scenery was breath-taking. On our right was the blue Mediterranean; on our left a line of terraced hills speckled with white villas ands covered with all the magnificent and luxuriant foliage of that sun-kissed region: cactus and palm and flowers without number. This is really part of the Italian Riveria. We had lunch in the open air at Rapallo. Beside us, on the edge of the sea, was an ancient castle that had been built to repel the Saracens. Before we left Rapallo we stood under the blazing sun in the piazza and sang: "Oro Se do Bheatha Abhaile," "Rosc Catha na Mumhan" and "Amhran na bhFiann." For hours we travelled by that glorious coastline. Night fell. We descended a winding road into Spezia. The whole Mediterranean coast was a blaze of twinkling multi-coloured lights. It was like fairyland. At last we reached the beautiful town of Viareggio, and rested there for the night.


In the morning the streets began to fill with motor cycle-drawn trailers, laden with wines, grapes, pears and peaches. As usual, we made an early start. Not far from Viareggio we turned sharply to the left, and there before us we saw a tall white building that seemed just about to fall on its side: it was the famous leaning tower of Pisa. As soon as we reached it we raced up its spiral stairway. The view from the summit was wonderful. Red roofed houses and red hillsides spread away in all directions. The numerous vineyards and olive groves splashed it with green. We visited the nearby Cathedral, and here we had our first taste of the glory and the grandeur of the Churches of Italy. The Cathedral of Pisa, we learned, was built in 1063 to celebrate a victory over the Saracens.


A long drive on a traffic-packed road brought us to Grosetto, where we had lunch. The sun blazed in a cloudless Italian sky. Irish songs cheered us on our way when we had resumed our journey. Looking out at the red parched hills of Tuscany we sang fondly of "Cruacha Glasa na hEireann" and "Ban Chnuic Eireann Oighe." We passed through Civitavecchia. Night stole on us. Then through the darkness of the evening of Tuesday, 5th September, we saw ahead of us the sea of glittering lights. It was Rome, Roma Nobilis, the great Eternal City.

(Next week, D.V., I shall tell of our sojourn in Rome).


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