Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Fr Willie is back home in the hills

http://cdn-01.independent.ie/regionals/wicklowpeople/news/article35323664.ece/ee09a/AUTOCROP/h342/2016-12-28_wic_27399934_I1.JPGThe tan is a little deeper than that of most of his neighbours in Donard, hinting at a climate sunnier and warmer than west Wicklow. 

Yet the voice remains pure Irish, carrying the accent of the place where he grew up and where he returns for Christmas.

Willie Walshe sits in the kitchen of a tidy bungalow in the village where he grew up in the fifties.

His mother Catherine has the warmest seat in the house, snug beside the glowing stove which keeps the winter at bay.

At 95 years of age, she remains a cheerful presence in the corner, rising spryly to serve tea and cake to visitors.

She is happy to have the company of her younger son at home in Donard for slightly longer than usual this year.

This time he arrived from Kenya booked to have a hip replacement operation in an Irish hospital with First World standards of care.

So the missionary priest allowed himself around six months of a break from his work in Africa rather than the few weeks which has been his custom in recent times.

At 68, he would have every excuse to call himself retired, but there is work still to be done in his adopted far-off land.

Like some migratory bird heeding the call of ingrained instinct, he will soon be heading south on a flight to Nairobi and leaving Donard behind.

'I was born in what is now the credit union,' he reveals, harking back to a time when Ireland was not as wealthy as it is now.

He went to the parish primary school in Donard and then on to 'The Tech' in Baltinglass, where the curriculum came to an abrupt halt after Group Cert.

Hungry for education, he went to Scotland in search of the O Levels, which were his passport to St Patrick's Missionary Society.

His ambition to see the world as a priest was ignited by a 'Vocation Day' talk in Baltinglass by a visiting cleric.

'It was something that appealed to me, the thought of working in the missions,' he muses, without having any ready reason as to why he responded to the call.

The fact that he had been to a technical school rather one run by a religious order made him slightly unusual in his class at Kiltegan.

It was a time when the Roman Catholic Church had no great difficulty recruiting and there were 14 young hopefuls in Willie's class.

Though the order was based in Co. Wicklow, he was the only local among this band of brothers drawn from all over this island.

The training, which was split between Kiltegan and Cork, took seven years to complete with a stint of novice teacher placement in the secondary at Hacketstown along the way.

So it was 1973 before he was ordained a priest ready to receive a posting overseas, with a head full of the theology and philosophy which were the mainstays of lectures.

Others in the same batch of ordinands were dispatched to Nigeria or Brazil, but Fr Walshe was soon bound for East Africa.

'I was appointed to Kenya - and I am still in Kenya.' It proved to be quite a culture shock as he was picked up at the airport in Nairobi in an old Volkswagen Beetle.

'Kenya was a very different world to Donard,' he laughs. 'The light, the heat and the red soil.' 

The initial impression was followed by other themes such as the poverty, the tribalism and the corruption of a society which often extends little pity to the underdog.

He was bound north and west of the capital to a parish called Matunda, with the Beetle heaving up into hills to reach an elevation 6,500 feet above sea level.

Willie's new base was 20 miles from the city of Kitale, which is the main centre of the diocese to which he was assigned. The high notions of Kiltegan philosophy and some of the finer points of theology soon went out the window in the face of one very practical consideration.

'A lot of people in Kenya speak English but out in the sticks you need Swahili,' he says simply.

He took to the language, after taking a course in Tanzania, and he preaches in Swahili each Sunday when in Africa at joyful Masses which run for two hours of prayer, song and dance.

In 1976, his vocation was tested to the full by the onset of diabetes which confined him to the hospital in Kitale.

He might all too easily have been obliged to abandon the missions for health reasons but he was fortunate to receive treatment from two skilled doctors.

They were Ugandans, who had fled from the ruinous regime of the dictator Idi Amin and the Irishman was grateful for their expertise.

The need for a life of regular routine dictated by the disease finally pushed him into teaching, away from the night calls and erratic demands of the parish.

'I am the accidental teacher,' he laughs. 'I enjoy it.' His speciality is English, passing on his love of Irish poet Yeats to Kenyan teenagers.

He has been doing it for four decades now and his zest for the job remains undimmed as he battles to give children who spring from poor backgrounds a glimpse of a better life.

He has moved around the diocese, transferring in 1979 to St Joseph's in Suwerwa, where the boys and girls of peasant farmers were offered schooling.

Among the children was the sister one of the most famous athletes to come out of this land of great runners.

After Paul Ereng won 800 metres gold at the Seoul Olympics he came to St Joseph's with his medal.

Father Willie's life as a rare white man among so many black faces has been made easier by the fact that he shares the love of running.

Indeed, he confesses that the need for an artificial hip is probably a consequence of his training on that hard red earth around Kitale. 

He reveals that when another great talent came along, Ereng was happy to take the call which paved the way for Wesley Korir to gain a US scholarship in Louisville.

In 2012, the faith that his teacher and the Olympian shared in their protégé was rewarded when Korir won the prestigious Boston marathon race.

The marathon man now serves as a member of parliament in Kenya but has been known to drop to see his old English teacher despite the demands of his high office. 

Not everything in Willie's time abroad has been as satisfying as his involvement in athletics.

A stint living on campus of one school ended after a group of men arrived in the night, breaking down doors and waving their machetes.

Such events can play on the mind and he coped with the fright by obtaining a transfer to a different school.

He gains particular satisfaction from his current posting which he has taken on despite the fact that, because of his age, he is not entitled to any government salary.

The St Patrick's Mixed Day Secondary School in Makunga was started from scratch in 2010 offering a good start in life to poor local children.

It now has 363 students on the roll with more to come when term starts in the new year as more families are persuaded that their offspring can benefit.

Fr Willie's influence is seen not only in the classroom where he continues to pass on his immaculate English.

He is also heavily involved in the administration and financing of St Patrick's with the assistance of the folks back home in Ireland.

The school in Makunga has the fingerprints of Donard all over it, with buildings named after Wicklow landmarks and locations. 

The school chaplain has forged the link thanks to all his friends in Ireland, making the third Sunday in August their walk for Willie day each year.

The part played by the long established sponsored walk is marked on a notice which reads: 'We pay tribute to all those in faraway Ireland who contributed to the building of St Patrick's.'

While he enjoys time with family and old friends, he ponders on Christmas in the high lands half a degree north of the Equator, where 12 degrees centigrade is as low as it gets.

The birth of Christ is well marked in Kenya but Catholicism is just one among a selection of Christian faiths all vying for attention along with Islam, Hinduism and local faiths.

He prefers to work with the other religions, seeing wealth rather than belief as the principal dividing line in Kenyan society and adopting 'education for liberation' as his watchword.

'Kenya is home and I am very comfortable there - but I always think of the hills of Wicklow.'

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