The next event on my horizon was to leave home, leave Strabane and go to college. But, before I would go, it seemed the decent thing to do to meet our townful of neighbours on a more individual basis – better than the shallow kind of chat you might get with the crushing crowds on a race day.
Again, the Electricity Board came to my assistance. Because they supplied electricity to everyone in town they needed to know where every single house was. So they made use of a very large ordnance survey map, which was replaced every few years – I guess to accommodate the possibility of new places being built. They threw the old ones away which is how they came into my possession (they might as well have kept them since the likelihood of anybody building new houses in Strabane was pretty remote!)
The map allowed me not to miss anybody over the next few months. I found there was no correlation whatever between what people really believed and their social status, denomination or politics. When I arrived at somebody’s front door unannounced with Bible materials (and of course the Board’s map) on the carrier of my bike there was simply no telling what they would say.
Funnily enough, nobody took me for a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon – I just didn’t fit that image. One guy seemed vastly relived that he could now talk to somebody about the Bible which he had read privately at home for years. One woman told me where to get lost because she thought I was soft in the head. Overall, the experience was an eye-opener, or maybe best said, an ear-opener. There was no such thing as the general public. Everyone had their own sense of where the dial stood as they measured their relationship with God. Some were stuck, some unsure, some open to try a Bible view on the subject. But many were open to chat. I didn’t run into many atheists.
Some Donegal people regard Strabane (and not Lifford) as if it were their county town. The border was so thin you could hardly see it. It struck me that people in the surrounding Donegal towns would be as open to talk as the Strabane locals were. So, by the time I left home I had acquired a working familiarity with the hinterland of Lifford. Same bike, same Bible, no need for a map (it’s hard to miss Donegal). But since everything was further away it required a weather forecast.
A few months later I had a sudden wake-up call to the fact that not everybody was as open to chat. I had just left Strabane (and Donegal, the Board, the lot) behind me forever to study in Trinity College Dublin. They processed you in your first week, getting you fixed up with a library card, a schedule of lectures, lab hours (I was going to study microbiology) and an appointment with your tutor who would sign your form as being in loco parentis – in the place of parents (couldn’t help thinking, “Good luck with that!”)
Nobody had told me about this “tutoring” thing. All I knew was what you see in popular culture about Oxford and Cambridge where a ring of dutiful, doting students arrange themselves around an avuncular professor who dispenses knowledge to them in mercifully bite-sized chunks. I was curious to know how they would do this with microbiology. I walked over to what they call the “back” of College to meet my tutor in his office (curiously, in the Physics department).
He signed the form as per normal and then asked me what I’d like to do after I graduated. By now you know that I said. “I want to be a missionary”. That didn’t suit him at all. “I hope you don’t start that kind of thing around here!”, he replied. “Well, actually, I hope to do just that. Indeed, I have a Bible here in my pocket for when I need it”. I had just lit the touch-paper on his explosive rocket.
The next full five minutes was a rant against Christian faith, missionaries and the Bible, to which he took great exception. “If that were to be published today it would be banned as obscene!” he now roared. The onslaught was so total that all I could murmur was, “I believe the Bible from beginning to end so I’m going to have to take my business elsewhere” and I walked out, although I had no idea of where I would “take my business”.
Now I had a new question – had I scuppered my chances of a college education because I couldn’t have a civilised conversation with my tutor? I asked around and found that my tutor would have little to do with my college career. My appointment with the tutor was merely a perfunctory obligation and I already had from him all I needed – his signature on that form. I never saw him again in my life.
Little did he know it, but the tutor’s intervention strengthened my resolve in one matter. I would treat the citizens of Dublin just as I had learned in Strabane and Donegal. Before long I had an arrangement to share time on a city-centre book-barrow that offered a good range of portions of the New Testament on O’Connell Street. Of course, to trade like that on the street you needed a certificate (now called a casual trading licence). Which makes sense of my diary entry for later that year which notes that I had “almost forgotten to renew my pedlar’s certificate”. Horrors!