A true story about a lovable old presbytery dog who used to scare HELL out of the altar boys.
Strolling down the main street recently on a warm summer’s day I was attracted to the sight of an intelligent-looking old dog chained to a post outside the Premier Hotel. I did a double take!“No!” I whispered the exclamation. “No! it can’t be Father O’Leary’s dog. The good father died years ago!” Certain aspects of my association with THAT dog revive childhood memories, and the dog I had just seen brought them flowing through again in an almost cinematic form.
He must have had a name. The parish priest loved him so much that I'm certain he would have given him a name. Anyway, we kids simply called him "The Presbytery Dog".
Father O'Leary was the parish priest in a large country town situated north-west of Sydney, Australia. That was back in 1930, yet I remember the events I am about to recount as though they happened last week
The good Father resembled his dog in many ways: a bit long in the tooth; eyes glistening with resignation; still active despite his comfortable build and easy gait both on the altar and off. The Presbytery Dog was always on the altar during Sunday mass, much to the nervous discomfort of the altar boys. And quite often they'd both be wearing knowing smiles: you know, the sort that seemed to say "I've worked it all out, but YOU'VE still got a way to go!"
Sometimes, however, the grin would disappear and be replaced by a drawing-back of the lips and a darkening of the brow. I'm including the dog in this description because it was just another feature of the resemblance that I'm after mentioning.
This drawing back or curling in the lips was always done to facilitate the emission of a surly growl of displeasure. In the case of Father O'Leary it would indicate that you had passed wind in the process of carrying out your altar boy duties; or that you had forgotten some part of the ritual of the mass; or that you had gone to sleep on your knees (that sometimes happened at seven o'clock mass); or that he was in a bad mood because the Sunday collection was down. Anyhow, whenever the priest displayed these variations of mood, the dog followed suit This had the effect of taking the altar boys (I was one of them!)from a state of calm, spiritual reflection to one of distinct apprehension.
In retrospect, I think that the dog was only being playful as he bounded towards us like a tiger on a bloody rampage. Then Father O'Leary would ratchet up his rage on the bar of displeasure and stage-whisper out of the side of his curled mouth, "Get him off! Get him OFF!!"
In a half-hearted endeavour to placate the prodding priest, we altar boys would advance towards the hound and utter words like "shoo" and (sotto voce), "bugger off!". And so, this Gilbertian game would go on for some minutes: the priest whispering instructions; the dog and the altar boys alternately gaining and losing ground until finally, the recalcitrant rogue would retire to the side of the altar and settle himself on his special cushion: unafraid, unbeaten, unconcerned.
In a post-mortem after mass we used to grind our teeth in frustration. It was only later in my more mature years, when recollecting those confrontations with The Presbytery Dog, that I was able to admit to myself that he had been using us as playthings.
A couple of years ago I heard that Father O'Leary had died sometime during the late forties. I never ever heard what happened to the dear old Presbytery Dog, but I sincerely hope that the good Father himself is in Paradise preaching to the saints and the angels (maybe even to God himself!) and urging them to pay their Easter Dues. Perhaps his dog is there, too, thanking the Almighty for the opportunity to put a bit of mild terror into the hearts of the heavenly hosts, but this time, this time for all eternity.
Footnote: I often thought of suggesting to Father O'Leary that he should increase the size of the weekly collection by charging the congregation an entertainment tax. I didn't follow through on that, though, because, in those days, the priest would have considered such a tongue-in-cheek suggestion coming from an eight-year-old altar boy as both impudent and imprudent!
(c)Patrick Talty 2005