Grass And The Grotto

4th August 2021

The lack of athleticism in my cycling is shocking to behold. I am in no rush to make progress, and reject all markers of competition or ambition.

I reserve the right to jump on a train at any moment. I languidly pore over ordnance survey maps like they were three-star tasting menus. Just yesterday morning I had breakfast at 7am, yet did not finally leave my hotel until 11. Intermediary tasks included buying water at Dunnes, showering, listening to a coronavirus podcast from The Times of Israel, and writing up yesterday’s hair-raising adventures as I side-saddle through the heart of Ireland’s Torso.

Such lethargy has strategy sewn in. I have learnt that rewarding journeys have gentle beginnings.

Perhaps this is the reason I sought the very best emplacement for lunch in Drumconrath, a small village on the Meath / Monaghan border.

It was not a lengthy enquiry, as there was only one street, and no seats.

I ended up entering the cast-iron gates of the village grotto, refurbished in 2019, and plonking myself on the ground, flanked by two angels.

I do not know the Catholic Church’s position on eating sandwiches in grottos, but I do know my position on the egg sandwiches of Drumconrath service station.

They are sensational.

I had asked the young lad behind the counter when they’d been made. ‘Today’ he intoned, the enthusiasm in his voice carefully avoiding sales-ery. His GAA jersey added to his credibility.

The 2019 grotto committee had made some bold choices, and I pondered them, cross-legged.

The absence of a single seat was one.  But the more absorbing decision lay beneath my feet.

This ancillary house of god was almost entirely covered in synthetic green Astro turf, little oases of planting here and there offering only scant relief. I was not convinced by the result, which lent the place a crazy golf feel, despite the supplicant angels, with the open arms of Jesus above them.

Enjoying my sandwich, a question vexed me. What exactly constitutes a grotto? Must Mary be present? Does a grotto commemorate an event, or does it simply represent an invitation?

A lady passed by, groceries in hand, and we greeted each other. Her warmth made me secure that eating here was not breaking any bylaws.

‘Would you look at those weeds’, she said to me.

I realised that the plants which I took for landscaping were actually weeds, breaking through the synthetic surface of Astro green. Looking closer, it was clear that Nature was in pitch battle with this turf that isn’t turf.

‘I presume they wanted to reduce their work by putting the plastic grass in’, she commented, confirming that indeed there was a 2019 committee. ‘But I’d just love to get in there and do some weeding’.

I playfully welcomed her to join me so that the work might begin immediately, but she smiled and continued on her way.

I reached around to take a good look at the outstretched arms of Jesus.

Under his feet, a plaque commemorates the original construction of 1933, with invitation to ‘pray for the donor’.

On the smartphone, I found a Meath Chronicle article of that year, describing how the Sacred Heart and worshiping angels were funded by an anonymous woman and installed ‘by the men of the village’ to celebrate the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. The result was unveiled the following year on June 29th, the parish’s ‘patron day’.

I was not aware that parishes had patron days. Or that donors requested the prayers of others. Or that Jesus, in a certain stance, becomes the Sacred Heart.

The slow ungirdling of church and state in our society found wind in the 1970s, growing to helter-skelter urgency by the late 1990s.

So many of the power systems in Ireland have changed since this enclosure in Drumconrath first came into being.

Yet still, the people muddle through, their human honour everywhere to be seen. In the optimistic turf decision of the 2019 grotto committee; in the jersey-ed young man who might sell you a sandwich; or in a weed-conscious lady, giving time of day to a stranger as she slowly ambles by.

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