WHEN Wexford native, Sr Carmel Kehoe moved to West Clare over three decades ago, it wasn’t so much a new departure, as another stopping-off point along the road less travelled. A member of the Community of the Sisters of St John of God, Carmel has always taken an independent approach to her work. As someone who is passionate about art, writing and all things creative, she also developed the habit of documenting her extraordinary life and has just published a memoir. Much of the book deals with Carmel’s life and times in Clare, where she is well known and much loved for her teaching and community activities.
Carmel’s busy life has seen her work in hospital chaplaincy, teaching, and has even involved a short, but successful, stint as a jockey. “That was as part of a fundraiser for people in religious life,” Carmel recalled. “I was asked to get involved and, even though I had never won anything in my life, I won a race in Norwich.”
The location of that win was particularly significant, at that time, for the young nun. She had been working as a hospital chaplain in Cork, but had been let go from the position. In a characteristically compassionate move, Carmel had given her bed to the mother of gravely ill patient, so that the woman could stay close to her daughter. “My superior didn’t approve and my chaplaincy ended,” Carmel said. “I was writing to the chaplaincy board to ask them to reinstate me when someone gave me a prayer from Julian of Norwich, ‘All Will Be Well’. It was such a coincidence that I won that race in Norwich and I was reinstated to chaplaincy.”
Describing herself as “a free spirit”, the New Ross native never doubted her vocation, but she did find life in a congregated setting a struggle. “Life in a community just wasn’t for me, even though the sisters were great women. I always wanted to live in an ordinary house. At the time, that just wasn’t the norm. But then, I saw Jim Connolly from Rural Resettlement on the television and I persuaded my superior to let me get involved and I moved to Kilbaha.”
After three years working with Rural Resettlement, Carmel returned to teaching. Over the course of 13 years, she worked in with children in Barefield, Crusheen, Ruan and further afield. “I had had a serious car accident in 1989 and I was out for a year. I got a permanent job then in Scropul National School close to Mullagh. I was teaching nine children which was ideal. After that, I was in Quin and through outreach worked with Clooney and Dangan schools too. Producing a book of children’s creative writing at Dangan was one of my greatest joys.”
Carmel also realised her dream of having her own home when she secured a council house at Waterpark View. Over the course of 19 years, she opened her doors to neighbours and friends. “I was very attached to the people there. There were some Traveller children locally who came to visit regularly. There were three homes for people struggling with mental health issues and they would come and talk to me and I was very close to them.”
Finding time to write is something that Carmel has always managed to do. “I’ve written about things that move me and people I’ve met like my dear friend Ambrose O’Mahony. He was a Franciscan from Cork and a great painter. Before he passed away he had Alzheimer’s. His work is beautiful and I arranged for it to be donated to hospitals including Cahercalla, where there are 32 paintings and the day centre, where there are another 19.”
A love for the creative arts came from Carmel’s mother, Ciss. “She could have been another Van Gough if she’d gotten the opportunity. I don’t say that lightly. She won a scholarship to an art college in London when she was in her teens, but it just wasn’t the done thing for a young girl to leave home like that, so she didn’t get to take up the opportunity.” Carmel’s father gave her a love of horses. “He was always buying and selling horses. He had a kind heart, but he was what might be described as a ‘respectable gambler’. He wasn’t coming home drunk, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a problem. It was just less noticeable.”
Carmel now lives in Cuan an Chláir in Ennis where Pauline McNamara and Mary O’Sullivan look after residents. “Fr Tom Hogan offered me a place at Cuan. Pauline and Mary are wonderful and believe that nothing is too good for older people. They have the biggest hearts.”
With the support of John Bradley of Clare Roots Society, Carmel’s book, entitled Memoirs, will soon be available in shops around the county. “John has been amazing. I’d give most of copies of the book away and would never have thought of putting them in the shops.”
Deeply personal, moving and uplifting Memoirs is chronicle of a life well lived.
“The book is who I am. I suppose you could say I’ve had a kind of unusual life.”
Memoirs. Singing the Song of Life, Prose and Poetry with Patches of Colour by Sr Carmel Kehoe is available in local book shops from this week.