Dominic Greer: The Man with a Grip on Reality
The voice at the other end of the phone was North Dublin, commanding, and a bit loud. Could be a senior NCO in the Irish army, I thought, or possibly a Garda. A big, athletic man, anyway. Probably in his early sixties, like me.
Dominic Greer had read my account in the Brandsma Review of the three-day walking pilgrimage from Notre Dame de Paris to Notre Dame de Chartres which takes place every Pentecost, and wanted to know more. How did one get involved? How much would it cost? Were all the Masses in Latin? Was a Pontifical High Mass celebrated actually inside Chartres Cathedral? Did one pray lots of rosaries on the hoof? How did you get fed? And washed?
His final questions were asked slowly, with great emphasis.: What about training walks? Surely you need to build up to it gradually, to be capable of covering 25 miles in a single day?
Well yes, I replied, it’s just as well to do that. Around about March, I begin going up to the Dublin/Wicklow mountains, increasing the distance and gradients week by week. (This wasn’t strictly true , but it was certainly what I was aiming for.)
Dominic was impressed. Could he join me on my next walk? He didn’t have a car.
Yes of course, I responded, my heart sinking a little at the thought of this hulking individual racing up Lugnaquilla, leaving me panting far below.
We agreed to meet at Glenageary station, Dominic having walked from his home in Marino to the Dart at Killester.
So one cold, blustery Tuesday morning in early spring, on to the platform at Glenageary stepped a little old gnome in his mid-70s, of about five feet two, the size of my mother. He was wearing a stout pair of boots, leggings, a thick overcoat with a pink plastic cape on top, a scarf, and a woolly hat. On his back was a massive heavy rucksack, which I later discovered accompanied him everywhere.
Would he even be able for this outing, let alone Chartres? I wondered..
I drove along the old coach road towards Roundwood, parking in a layby near the path up to Djouce mountain. Dominic and I got out, trudged up the track and reached the open moorland. When we encountered the final steep approach to the summit, it was as much as I could do to keep up with him. At the top we ate our sandwiches. (Dominic insisted on taking half an hour over this, while I shivered impatiently.) At last he had finished, and we began our descent.
The wind was by now blowing ferociously, and for the first time I found myself outpacing Dominic, who was staggering to keep upright. He had difficulty with the steep downward gradient, which was clearly troubling his ankles. (Now that I’m in my late 70s I have the same problem.)
We chatted all the way home in the car. I began to realise that this was a man of formidable intellect, an impression that increased exponentially on subsequent “training walks”. Apologetics lessons had led to an abiding interest in scholastic philosophy and theology. His knowledge of English literature was eclectic and impressive, and I’m told by those in a position to know that his fluency in the Irish language was excellent—for a Dubliner.
His favourite authors were Boswell (Life of Johnson) and P.G. Wodehouse, from both of whom he could quote extensively. He would entertain me with the sayings of Dr Johnson, Bertie Wooster, and Jeeves, all delivered in the same deep Marino tones. “Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig. Why all this childish jealousy of the power of the Crown? The Crown has not power enough!” Or perhaps he might refer to Bertie’s purple socks and his “rather fruity scarlet cummerbund” which made Jeeves shy like a startled mustang.
Listening to him, I began to realise that my own rather expensive education, for which my parents had made a considerable sacrifice, was not really superior to the one the Irish Christian Brothers had given Dominic at Synge Street in the 1930s. It had stimulated his intellectual curiosity, as well as his piety—and if an education doesn’t do that, it’s no more than a possible key to a lucrative job. Which from the perspective of eternity, is not worth that much.
Dominic came on the Chartres pilgrimage perhaps half a dozen times. He was the oldest Irish pilgrim, and became something of a mascot. Sometimes he would fall several miles behind the Irish chapter, until the French co-ordinators would order him on to a bus, much to his chagrin. On one occasion I myself and a middle-aged lady fell out, overcome by the heat on the dusty path across La Beauce. Whom should we see, still striding manfully up the hill, but Dominic Greer, who marched right past us, walking stick in hand. It was then I began to realise that my own Chartres pilgrimage days might be numbered.
That stick had quite a history. It had been given to me by my friend Peter Maskens, a London policeman who became a social worker. His main hobby was the making of walking sticks. I had lent this one to Dominic and hadn’t the heart to claim it back. It was a really fine stick, made from a blackthorn from Epping Forest, topped with a sheep’s horn for a handle, fixed to the shaft with strong black plaited twine tied in a Turk’s head knot. At first it was rather too big for Dominic, but it gradually wore down and became shorter and shorter until it was only just long enough for him to use.
Dominic worked as a civil servant in the Department of Agriculture. He never married. He told me he had once lost his heart to a girl, but she married someone else and that, as far as he was concerned, was that. The Irish chapter was greatly amused when, at one of the pilgrimage campsites, he became extremely friendly with a young woman doctor, a member of the Lithuanian chapter. Dominic confided to me that for the first time in half a century, his affections were somewhat engaged. “If I’d been 40 years younger…” They corresponded for several years.
All his life he lived in the same house in Marino, which had belonged to his father and mother. When they died, he and his brother and sister left his parents’ bedroom unoccupied, and he and his brother continued to share a room.
He was a man of equable temperament. The only time I saw him quite angry was on the Chartres pilgrimage when the British and Irish chapters started singing insulting songs and throwing water at each other. Dominic protested loudly that this was no way to behave on a pilgrimage, and peace was quite quickly restored.
He had no time for the organisational rivalry between different associations promoting the traditional liturgy, which has sometimes been quite bitter. He supported both sides generously, and attended their meetings as well as their Masses. At one AGM a hothead suggested that an apology should be demanded from a rival association for some real or imagined slight. “What you need to do,” said Dominic, “is to get a grip on reality.”
Reality caught up with Dominic unpleasantly some years ago when he was collecting for St Vincent de Paul outside a supermarket in Fairview one January afternoon. A gale gust blew him off his feet and he fell heavily to the pavement, fracturing his pelvis. He recovered sufficiently to hobble around with the aid of sticks, but for the past couple of years had to retire to a nursing home, and get around in a wheelchair. He continued to attend the Traditional Latin Mass, thanks to some good friends who picked him up every Sunday, and took an active interest in all the pro-life organisations, including Life, SPUC, the Pro-Life Campaign, Family and Life, and Youth Defence.
Dominic died in late January, fortified with the rites of the Church. He was in his early 90s. I understand that he has left me all his books, dozens of which he had originally bought from me through Francis Book Sales in the Brandsma Review. I’m touched and grateful, and I’ll enjoy looking through them: but wherever shall I keep them?
Anima eius, et omnium fidelium defunctorum per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace!