I met this lovely, saintly, unpretentious woman near Oxford in the 1980s, a nun from the Aran Islands then in her seventies. She told me that she saw a car for the first time the day she went away to enter the convent, when she was about fourteen, the secular meeting the spiritual.

A Nun Takes the Veil

That morning early I ran through briars
To catch the calves that were bound for market.
I stopped the once, to watch the sun
Rising over Doolin across the water.

The calves were tethered outside the house
While I had my breakfast: the last one at home
For forty years. I had what I wanted (they said
I could), so we’d loaf bread and Marie biscuits.

We strung the calves behind the boat,
Me keeping clear to protect my style:
Confirmation suit and my patent sandals.
But I trailed my fingers in the cool green water,

Watching the puffins driving homeward
To their nests on Aran. On the Galway mainland
I tiptoed clear of the cow-dunged slipway
And watched my brothers heaving the calves

As they lost their footing. We went in the trap,
Myself and my mother, and I said goodbye
To my father then. The last I saw of him
Was a hat and jacket and a salley stick,

Driving cattle to Ballyvaughan.
He died (they told me) in the county home,
Asking to see me. But that was later:
As we trotted on through the morning-mist,

I saw a car for the first time ever,
Hardly seeing it before it vanished.
I couldn’t believe it, and I stood up looking
To where I could hear its noise departing

But it was only a glimpse. That night in the convent
The sisters spoilt me, but I couldn’t forget
The morning’s vision, and I fell asleep
With the engine humming through the open window.

from Selected Poems (Faber, 2008), © Bernard O’Donoghue 2008, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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