The Literary Sheep-Shearer

 Michael Joe O'Malley

I spent a couple of weeks on a wee tiny island off the west coast of Ireland this spring. There's a beautiful yoga retreat there, built on the land that once belonged to a man named Michael Joe O'Malley. A couple owns the retreat, and the wife, Ciara, knew Michael Joe when he was alive. She and another guest at the yoga retreat had stories to tell about him that were so colorful and improbable that I don't even care if they're true. The kind of stories that tend to get inflated with every retelling, until Michael Joe is elevated to the status of a legend. On the other hand, maybe every word is an absolute fact. Clare Island is dropped way out in Clew Bay and accessible only once or twice a day, weather permitting, by ferry (on one of two ferry boats, run by two feuding families.) People can get eccentric, isolated like that.

I'll tell you what I know about Michael Joe O'Malley, with sincere apologies to those who knew him if I've gotten anything wrong.

Michael Joe was a writer, a scholar, a farmer and a sheep-shearer. He invited writers and artists to come and stay with him on the island. His extensive library included works by Karl Marx, Lao Tse, scores of Irish poets and writers, and an early translation of Patanjali's yoga sutras. However, one would not call his place a salon or a retreat, exactly: he lived in what might best be described as a shed, with the line somewhat blurred between inside and outside. That can be problematic in rainy Ireland. He brewed his own hooch, and ate all his meals from a grimy teacup. But he was comfortable in his home, and that made everyone else comfortable.

Back in the 70s, the lady artists would come to visit Michael Joe, getting off the ferry in mini-skirts and go-go boots, and the farmer men on the island would line up at the dock and stare. Ciara was an 18-year-old aspiring writer when she met Michael Joe. It is fitting, all these years later, that Michael Joe's land is now being used for yoga retreats, thus ensuring that a stream of women continue to come off the ferry. The farmers still find an excuse to come down to the dock for its arrival.

Michael Joe had no use for the Catholic Church, and he knew its history well enough to quote facts about church-instigated invasions and atrocities throughout the ages. He once went streaking past the church on a Sunday morning, ostensibly to protest.

In the early 80s, Ciara was staying at Michael Joe's half-inside, half-outside house piled high with books. One day, the young parish priest comes to the door. Apparently the priest makes annual visits to all those who have not been coming to mass. On Clare Island it is also a tradition, twice a year, to hold mass in someone's home.

So the priest comes to the door, which is standing wide open, and Michael looks up from his reading, gives the man a nod, and returns to his book. Ciara is there, too, and can't help offering a hello and a comment on the weather, feeling all the while as though there's a scarlet A on her chest. The priest is clearly uncomfortable, but finally gets around to it. He doesn't suppose, he says, that Michael Joe would be interested in hosting the mass in his home. Michael Joe acknowledges that this is a longstanding Irish tradition and after all, these are his neighbors. So he says yes, he will do it. The priest looks around the place and tentatively suggests that a few of the ladies from the church could come over and help with some cleaning. Michael gets angry at this, and declares that if his home is good enough for him, it's good enough for everybody else.

As the date for the mass looms nearer, Ciara decides that she really needs to do some cleaning. She starts with the walls. With the first soapy swipe of the sponge, the dirt flows down in muddy streaks. She tries to clean Michael Joe's teacup, and it falls apart, its cracks all having been held together with accumulated grime. Each attempt at creating some kind of order produces disastrous results.

The night before the mass, Michael Joe says to Ciara that the one thing she didn't do, that she could have done, was to clean the floor. Ciara was surprised: she thought the place had a dirt floor. Michael goes out into the cold, drizzly night and returns back inside, dragging the garden hose. He hoses down the whole floor, revealing a pitted, uneven concrete slab. Mud puddles form in the low places.

In the morning, mass is scheduled for 11:00, and one early parishioner shows up at 10:30. Michael Joe has not yet even stirred. Ciara welcomes the parishioner, and goes to let Michael Joe know about the arrival. Michael Joe says that's fine. More parishioners arrive, and more, and then the priest shows up. Then the service starts, and still Michael Joe has not put in an appearance.

Finally, during the sermon, Michael Joe saunters into the kitchen and begins his morning ablutions. He is standing at the kitchen sink, shaving, as the priest starts in about loving thy neighbor. Michael, with a face full of shaving cream, gives a snort. "Love thy neighbor? Hmmph." His continues with editorial comments and asides, along the lines of the priest having no right to offer such advice, coming as he does from the Catholic Church. He keeps up his commentary until the mass effectively grinds to a halt, the timid priest being no match for Michael Joe. 

Then Michael Joe breaks out the home brew. All the parishioners begin drinking, and the priest gives up and leaves.

Here's another tale that one can only hope is true:

Michael Joe had a government job. He was the official in charge of making sure all the farmers dipped their sheep in some kind of chemical bath once a year to prevent a certain parasite. Well, he decided that there was no way he could personally make sure that every farmer dipped every sheep. So he just filled out and signed the certificates each year and handed them out to all the farmers. Efficient.

One year, an anthropologist--perhaps Dutch, perhaps German, certainly female--was researching life on the island, and spent the day with Michael Joe. It was the time of year to hand out the sheep-dipping certificates. At the end of the day, Michael Joe and this anthropologist went to the pub, and Michael Joe sat at the bar filling out his stack of official documents, pint in hand. He finished one and handed it to the gent sitting just behind him. The anthropologist asked what these certificates were all about. Michael Joe earnestly explained that the government was very concerned about the declining population on the Clare Island. So it was his job to go around and inspect all the men. At which point, the man who'd just been handed the certificate turned around and said to Michael, "Hey, you put me down as 7 inches, but I wasn't fully erect."

I wonder if a reference can be found somewhere in an obscure German or Dutch anthropology journal about this unique Irish government program.

No book has yet been written about Michael Joe O'Malley, though one should be! It was clear that the stories I heard barely scratched the surface. I hope I have gotten the facts straight in my retelling of these few tales. Then again, I can imagine that Michael Joe himself never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Michael Joe's farm today. Now it's home to a family farmhouse and yoga studio, along with guest cottages, horse barns, and polytunnels to extend the organic garden's growing season.