I spent six years avoiding going to Lourdes. My aunt Mary had been going for almost thirty years, helping kids with mental and physical disabilities on their pilgrimage to the holy town. When we were younger she would come back and teach us the songs that the kids would learn over there. We heard all about Noah and the his ark and all the animals that would be going on his boat. We read some small books about Lourdes and saw pictures of the place and the people that Mary was helping.
After I finished school and went to U.L., Mary was onto me to go on the pilgrimage. I had excuses at the ready and more often than not just didn’t respond in time to go. I wasn’t too pushed. I was in college and wanted to spend my Easter drinking with school friends or drinking with college friends. After college I went to America and so was unavailable for Mary to try and pressure. As I returned at the start of this year, one of the first things Mary and I talked about was me going to Lourdes. She hadn’t gone in a number of years due to helping take care of Nana at home. I again gave a vague answer with no real desire or inclination to go. I thought that I could just ride this one out aswell, letting Mary forget about it.
Then, the application forms came over. I said to myself and then to Mary that I would fill them out and then let her know if I was going. The deadline was coming up and the people organising the pilgrimage needed to know. (There are different groups from around Ireland that go on the pilgrimage to Lourdes. There are 9 kids with various disabilities in a group and about 12 carers. I was going to be one of the carers in the Limerick group.) I dropped over the form on the Wednesday evening and specifically told Mary that I would let her know the following evening if I would go. I woke up Thursday morning to an email, a missed call and a text welcoming me to the pilgrimage and asking me to fill out training forms and send money for the trip. I wasn’t happy about it but I couldn’t do anything about it. It looked like I was going to Lourdes for a week.
Thank God I did.
Initial feelings of nervousness, caution and worry were quickly erased at Shannon airport. All the other carers were nice and I was immediately thrown into my idea of the deep end when I had to bring a few of the kids to the bathroom. I waited in the bathroom with them as they did their business and then met another carer outside as we all walked back to the group. This was the whole week in a nutshell; being beside the kids at all times and making sure that none of them go missing while making sure everyone enjoys themselves. It was tiring but extremely rewarding.
There was little time during the day to make connections with the other carers but at the end of the first night I got a knock on my bedroom door to go down for a few pints in the hotel bar. I was right at home with the Limerick group.
We went on a number of excursions throughout the week. We went up a cable car to the top of the Pic du Jer. The cable car, or finuculaire, went up an ascent of a 1’000 feet. The finuculaire itself is over 100 years old. Some of the kids were afraid of the climb but once we reached the top everyone was O.K. Pictures were taken, ice creams were bought and the craic was had.
A few of us walked up the path to the top of Pic du Jer. A beautiful view of the surrounding countryside and the mountains in the distance were like something out of a fantasy movie. It was breathtaking. It was one of the lasting memories of a lifetime.
On the Wednesday we headed to the beach. The group took a two-hour bus journey from Lourdes to St Jean de Luz, a small town in Basque country. Every year the different groups usually take this trip to the beach where the kids could unwind and have a bit of fun outside of the holy town. We picked our spot on the beach, took off our shoes and messed around for a couple of hours. Some of us played hurling, some ran down to the water and some chilled out by our things. Everyone seemed to have a good time, even the kids who swore they wouldn’t!
After soaking each other at the beach we went to one of the local restaurants and had our dinner. Sitting at the table and seeing all the kids happy and in their element was a proud moment. While it may have been a tough week, emotionally and physically, it was only a week out of our lives. Their parents are on call every single day. I’m not saying that the kids were nightmares as they were anything but; they were pleasures for the most part. What I am saying is that if I felt such pride and happiness at seeing these kids enjoy themselves so much in a little fishing town in France, then I can’t fathom how their parents feel when they’re having positive days.
Thursday was a fantastic day. We had our usual walk down to the Grotto and then around the grounds. A couple of us went to the baths to get dipped in the holy water. Myself, two of the other helpers and three of the young fellas went in, and while I’d love to give you a description of why it is so significant, I can’t. The freezing cold water knocked everything out of me. I felt like I had been punched in my throat, chest, stomach and crotch all at the same time. I think it absolved me of my sins or something. I hope so.
That night we had the fancy dress party. Yours truly was dressed as a clown, complete with tri-colour wig, glittery beard and massive pants. The kids and carers all dressed up in their own outfits. There was a Robin, of Batman and Robin, a scary priest, a cool dude on the town, a hippy, a cow and many others. It was another night where the kids were in their element. Some of the kids grew as the week went on and you could see their development, especially that night.
Afterwards, once the kids were in bed, a few of us went down to the historic spot of ‘La Bamba’. The nightclub was the stuff of legend and it didn’t disappoint. We drank copious amounts as you do when you’re blowing off steam and danced the night away. I can tell you now that the hangover the next day was a killer but it was totally worth it.
The last day kind of passed by in a blur. We had our last mass with Fr. Brian and then went to the Grotto. We lit candles also and offered them in our prayers for our family and friends. We got the kids all packed for the trip home in the morning and had a few pints together before turning in ourselves. It felt bittersweet. It felt good to be going home and to know that the kids had a good week but it felt odd. Sort of like leaving school at the end of the year. It’s great to be finished but you’ll miss all of your friends and the craic that ye had.
This feeling was compounded at the airport the next day. The kids were so happy to see their families again and to be going home. As was I and the rest of the carers. Maybe it was because it was my first year but I felt a little hollow. Almost as if I wanted there to be just one more night.
Maybe I’ll have to go back next year to get my fill of Lourdes again.