“By this love you have for one another Everyone will know that you are my disciples.”


Long shot of whiskey being poured into a glass with ice.

“By this love you have for one another
Everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Our religion is – or should be – the most complete possible expression in our lives of the love that God has shown to us. Sadly, it is not always so; there have been times when religious difference has caused people to fail enormously in love for one another. Even people who call themselves Christians have sometimes failed to love other Christians of a different stripe. Nowhere has that been more true in our own lifetime than in Northern Ireland, which is where I happen to come from. Certainly, the conflict in Northern Ireland is much more complex than we sometimes read in the newspapers – it is two populations divided by differences of race, class, economics and social grouping; but partly also by religious differences. But just now and again, there is a great moment which transcends that and two communities find themselves unexpectedly and gloriously united. That was the story of my great Aunt Moya.

My great Aunt Moya was a nun - one of the really old-fashioned sort that they don’t make anymore - probably for good reasons. When I knew her she was, I think, 89. And, in the summer of ‘76, great Aunt Moya was coming home from America to Northern Ireland. At this point, she had been the Mother Superior of a convent of nuns in New Jersey for about 20 years. So, it was a bit like the Queen coming to visit on tour: each branch of the family would have to take her for two or three days and entertain her in a style that would befit her.

Therein lay the problem - just how to entertain her? In our little village of Cushendall, only two things ever really happened: golf and fishing. Neither seemed entirely suitable for an 89-year-old nun. So my father, bereft of any sensible ideas, suggested a trip to the local distillery in Bushmills. My mother was appalled - you can’t take a Mother Superior to a distillery!

But, we had to do something and she had no better suggestions. So the great day came and great Aunt Moya arrived with a 70-year-old minder - both fully kitted out in the full penguin outfit - black crinoline from tip to toe. We loaded them into the car and off we went.

Well, I ask you, how were we to know that this was going to be the one really hot day of the Irish summer? There’s always one; there is never more than one and you can never predict when it’s going to happen. But, today was the day. So, by the time we arrived at the distillery - only about 15 miles down the road - it was already hot. We started the tour – up iron stairs, around steel gantries, past the steaming boilers and cauldrons in which the whisky mash was being fermented, hot and steaming, all under sheet steel roofs roasting in the hot sun. It was boiling hot, sticky and unbearably humid. And the tour went on and on and on for about two hours in the sweltering heat. The two old nuns stuck to it gamely. Every so they often they had to stop and have a little rest and fan themselves with their prayer books. But they were determined to finish what they had started. Like I said, they don’t make ‘em like that any more.

Finally, at last, at long last, at very long last, we came out of the last building, walked down the final gantry and were back in the car park. All we ever wanted to do was to get out of the place, go home and have something (or probably several things) long and cold to drink. Oh, and by the way, NEVER AGAIN!!!!

But, just as we were poised to flee to the car, our tour guide said in enticing tones, “now I’m sure you’ll want to come and spend a few moments in our tasting room”.

Well, you could see the upper lips stiffen. And you could see just one thought going through the minds of the two old penguins: “once more round for Jesus”. And off we trooped, forlornly and unwillingly, for the one last stop on the tour.

The tasting room was a fairly snug little bar with maybe 15 or 20 men sitting in little groups and as the two nuns walked in, the conversation suddenly froze into the most absolute silence. And we suddenly remembered the other thing that we should have known: Bushmills is right in the heart of serious Unionist country. Anyone with the faintest tinge of foresight (by which I mean anyone who was not my father) would have known that this is not the place where two nuns in the full battle-dress of popery could expect an instant welcome.

But the two nuns, fresh from America and unfamiliar with local intolerances, just didn’t know that. They simply sat down exhausted at the nearest table to rest. The silence thickened and darkened, like quick-drying concrete. I wondered briefly if we were all going to end up as an item on the Nine O’Clock News.

The barman hesitantly approached their table, obviously unsure of what he was supposed to do next. He looked to his left. And he looked to his right. And he found no inspiration. So he did the only thing he really knew how to do: he poured – a small tasting-glass of Old Bushmills for each of the two sisters. The two penguins picked up their glasses containing the strange unfamiliar orange fluid. They looked all round the glasses, sniffed suspiciously and looked at each other. An almost imperceptible nod passed between them and they both took a tiny sip. They looked at each other again; there was a rather more perceptible nod and they both had a slightly less tiny sip. And then another and another and then a few more and finally, after a couple of minutes, a positive slurp.

The silence was not broken, but it seemed thinner and lighter – like quick-drying concrete when you’ve got the mixture wrong. The barman returned and almost managed a smile as he refilled the glasses.

Well, 40 minutes later, everyone in the bar was gathered around the two old penguins and the craic was great. And they sang for them: ‘Soul of my Saviour’ and ‘Faith of Our Fathers’. The locals responded with ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and ‘The sash my Father wore’. And in the following two hours more was done for the cause of genuine ecumenism than could be achieved in a thousand years of theological commissions. And when we finally came away and took the road home, we did so with a crate of the oul’ stuff wedged into the back seat for Auntie Moya to take back to the convent in New Jersey.

It is funny how even the greatest barriers can be overcome when people find that they have something in common - especially when that something just happens to be a taste for Irish whiskey.

Just for a moment, I would ask each of us to think of our worst enemy. We all have one - most of us probably have a selection - I have a photograph album! And just reflect for a moment and consider what each of us could find in common with that person. And just what could be possible if, one day, we happened to call round to see them bringing along whatever is the equivalent in each of our lives of a bottle of Old Bushmills Irish whiskey.

“By this love you have for one another (and for a decent whiskey)
Everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

Paul O'Reilly SJ