Is it about a Bicycle? is rooted in the soil of Co. Derry, but reflects a landscape which includes Flann OBrien as well as Seamus Heaney. It evokes resonances of the Old and New Testament Scriptures and of the early Irish tradition, both written and visual. Oliver Crilly speaks from a wide-ranging experience as a teacher, a publisher and editor, and a curate and parish priest in the troubled society of Northern Ireland. His close involvement in issues of prisons, hunger strikes and the confrontation over parades and marches, brought him into contact with church people, government people, and both loyal orders and community activists. The brief reflections arising out of a particular set of circumstances and illustrated by story and image are the tip of an iceberg: they may appear to be an easy off the cuff comment, but they articulate an awareness which has come from years of observation.
Oliver Crilly is a reader, not just of books, but of people and situations: a sincerely interested reader of the society of which he is a part, and about which he feels deeply. As he articulates the pain and the challenge of transforming that society, he always does it with affection and humour.
Oliver Crilly is parish priest of Tamlaght O’Crilly (Greenlough) in Co. Derry. He has a BA in Celtic Studies from Maynooth, and an M.Pil. in Irish Studies form University of Ulster in Coleraine. He was on the editorial team of Irisleabhar Mhá Nuad when the magazine in Irish under the guidance of Dr Brendan Devlin. He taught in St Patrick’s, Maghera, before going to Dublin to work in Veritas Publications, the publishing arm of the Catholic Communications Institute.
Is it about a Bicycle?, with just over 40 reflections, would make ideal Lenten reading. Oliver Crilly writes from a wide experience of life and of ministry as a priest particularly in the troubled society of Northern Ireland. There is food for thought and prayer in abundance here. Deep conviction about the inestimable value of human life, about the importance of compassion and about the great need for reconciliation in our world underpins these reflections. St. Anthony Brief, February/March 2004.
This is a delightful book which is a pleasure to handle as well as read, as it is so well produced. That is, of course, reflected in the price of a volume of 144 small format pages with plenty of space in the layout, but do not let that put you off this is a gem. Oliver Crilly has a gift for observation. He can write interestingly with a very light touch on a matter of apparently little importance and engage the reader completely. Turn the page and he is in Rwanda in the aftermath of genocide and you can feel him there also, now barely containing his anguish and sorrow, though it is implied rather than described, but the reader knows and feels for him and with him. Is it about a bicycle? is a strange title for a book of thoughts for the day, but a good one. But I am not going to explain it; you must read the book yourself! Be it enough to say that Oliver Crilly has the ability to tell a good story, and gently, so gently, make a point. I leave you with another tantalising picture: Is the world a better place for more roundabouts and fewer crossroads? P.S. The answer is on page 49. Review by John Mann appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette on 5th March 2004. Church of Ireland Gazette, March 2004.
Fans of Flann O Brien should not be misled by the title of Oliver Crilly s Is it About a Bicycle?. The allusion is, of course, to the sinister sergeant in The Third Policeman. Readers of that book will recall that it is comic in the same sense as Dante, for the protagonist is destined to live out a hellish repetition of events, the sergeant being a charming version of Satan himself. With the lightest of touches Fr Crilly rides over the bumpy roads of many hellish places, from parts of his native Ulster to Rwanda. But by bicycle he carries the essential message of the faith. With deceptive simplicity, the experiences of a lifetime are expressed, essay-by-essay, in a handful of paragraphs that are always insightful, often very moving. The Irish Catholic, February 2004.
- Chapter one: Is it about a bicycle?
Theres a plaque on a house front in the Bowling Green in Strabane which marks the home of the writer Brian ONolan, or Flann OBrien. In OBriens very funny book The Third Policeman, the desk sergeant in the police station greets every enquirer with the same question: Is it about a bicycle? In the age we live in there is something innocent and refreshing about the sergeants assumption that crime statistics exclusively consist of no lights, bad brakes, and at worst loose handlebars.
At the beginning of Lent in 1995, I was infected with the same insanity as Flann OBriens policeman. If Lent was not about a bicycle, at least there were several cycling memories which seemed to be related to Lent. The previous July, as we cycled in France, my brother Pat and I came across an article in a French magazine entitled La Sagesse de fa Bicyclette - the wisdom of the bicycle. This wisdom, said the article, has to do with the combination of solitude and movement. Aha, says I to myself: Lent involves time for prayer and reflection, but also movement - a bit of progress. Were making an effort, and hopefully we should be going somewhere.
A more painful memory from that summer of 1994 was of the time I spent with a Trócaire delegation in Rwanda. Was it about a bicycle, you may ask? Strange as it may seem, in the midst of the hunger and disease and the refugee camps on the hills, there were a lot of bicycles. The day after we arrived in Cyanika, where the Medical Missionary sisters had their clinic, we went to visit the nearest camp, where several thousand people had erected little temporary huts of twigs and leaves. There at the foot of the hill a man was repairing an upturned bicycle - a solid machine with a well sprung saddle and rod brakes, and a very large carrier, a metal structure extended by the addition of wooden planks.
All the bicycles we saw had large carriers, suitable not only for a bag of rice or beans when they could be got, but also for carrying items of furniture during the long journeying of the displaced. We saw bikes with tables and chairs, and in one case even a complete iron bedstead, tied to the carrier. The overloaded bicycle almost symbolised the awful situation of war and famine and displacement. Lent reminds us of human situations we would rather forget. It should also remind us that we dont just fast for ourselves, but to share with the hungry and the anguished.
Lent is difficult. But then life is not all downhill either. There are times when we all need support. When the pressures on, the solitude of the bicycle needs to yield to teamwork. The secret is not to go it alone: Christianity is about sharing the effort. Lord, be with me on the road; help me to keep pedalling, and give me the sense to let you control the handlebars.
Chapter Two: The Lure of the Hills
I was born and reared in the foothills of the Sperrin mountains in the North-west of Ireland.
From my home in County Derry we could look in one direction across Lough Neagh to the mountains of Mourne, and in the other direction towards our favourite local hill, Slieve Gallon. I have happy memories of Sunday afternoons in summer when we set out on bicycles to explore the slopes of Slieve Gallon, walking some of the steeper hills on the way up and enjoying the exhilaration of the downhill swoops with the wind in our faces on the way back.
In the summer of 1994 my brother and I reclaimed some of those early memories when we went on a cycling holiday in France. We explored the beauty of Burgundy on two sturdy mountain bikes, heading up into the hills by quiet country roads through fields of wheat and sunflowers and many little vineyards. The very first winding hill took us up from the river Yonne into the mountain village of lrancy, where a friendly countrywoman invited us into the little cellar which was the focus of the familys winemaking business for seven generations. We heard the gurgling of the vats where the last seasons vine crop was working in the darkness as the next seasons was ripening for the harvest.
After a week among the gentle hills and vineyards of Burgundy, we left the bicycles behind and took a train south to Toulouse. We still felt the lure of the hills, and early one morning we took a little train up into the Pyrenees as far as Lourdes. As the train pulled into the station, we saw a crowd gathered along the street, and we realised that they had come to see the start of a stage in the Tour de France cycle race. Fresh from the mountain bikes of Burgundy, we couldnt resist joining the crowd, and we had the pleasure of seeing some of the worlds great cyclists, including the eventual winner of that years Tour, Miguel Indurain, pedalling easily up the hill to the starting point.
Afterwards, we went down to the grotto of our Lady in Lourdes, a centre of faith and healing, thronged with pilgrims, including the crippled and the sick. The contrast was stark. We had just seen some of the worlds strongest athletes at the peak of their fitness setting out to cycle up the great hills of the Pyrenees, and here were some of the worlds weakest and most infirm. I saw a child on a stretcher whose hand had to be moved by the nurse as they approached the grotto. Its not that we had to deny the energy and the joy of the cyclists in their physical achievement in order to appreciate the suffering of the invalids. But we had to struggle to accommodate the two extremes of human experience, and to recognise the presence of the same God of power and compassion in the strength and in the weakness.
Chapter Three: In the Hill Country of Rwanda
In August 1994 I visited Rwanda. From Nairobi we flew into Burundi and spent the night in Bujumbura. The following day we travelled by road through the hills into the South-west of Rwanda. The hills were steep and densely forested: great, dramatically beautiful mountains. Later, when we had arrived in the Gikongoro area, the hills were not so large and not so forested. The red earth was visible and many of the hills had camps of refugees or displaced persons living in little temporary huts of branches and leaves. We saw even more of the little huts when we arrived in Cyanika to visit the clinic which was being run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary.
Thousands of people were gathered in the area, and the Sisters treated about twelve hundred in the clinic every day. During the few days we spent there we visited the camps, and we prayed with the Sisters and listened to the story of their experiences, and the many stories of the pain and the courage of the Rwandan people among whom they lived.
Sister Josephine, who was looking after the prenatal programme, told us about a young Rwandan couple who had arrived at the clinic just the day before we came. They had walked from Butare, a town about 25 kilometres from Cyanika which had been in the front line of the conflict. The wife was pregnant, and near her time for giving birth. Sister Josephine examined her and settled her in the clinic, and left her assistant to keep an eye on the young woman while she went down to the house.
The baby came sooner than expected, and Sr Josephine was called and went back up to the clinic. The child had been safely delivered, and the mother was resting on the floor of the clinic, on the only available blanket, which was an old blue plastic raincoat. She was holding her child on her shoulder. To Sr Josephine, she was like an image of our Lady in Bethlehem, a displaced person - an exile in her own country - giving birth to her child without home or comfort, without hope or prospects, among the steep hillsides where 600,000 people had found a precarious stopover between the massacres and the September rains.
In the anguish of that birth there is something of the tragedy of human life, just as, in the story of Mary, the anguish of the cross on the hill of Calvary was already mysteriously present at the manger on the little hill of Bethlehem. Its a long way from the sentiment of the plaster image we often see of Mary. And yet, out of the earthy realism of that birthplace, something flowers, as the glory of Mary flowered out of the suffering she shared with her Son and with Joseph.