CONFESSIONS OF AN ALTAR BOY

EXTRACT FROM MY BOOK ‘THE SHINY RED HONDA’:

Religion was taken seriously in those days. Every season brought is own festivities and duties.  March, for example, usually signified the beginning of Lent and weeks of fasting and devotion.  Each of us owned our own prayer books and rosary beads, mother’s missal was stuffed to bursting with relics and Holy pictures.  Blessed Martin himself had never been kissed as many times as had that faded picture of him she carried around with her. She had great faith in his powers as a healer. Whenever one of us was sick she kissed his picture and placed it on the afflicted part of our body.  Holy water, Lourdes water, water from the healing well in Mothel lurked in every corner of the house and was dished out like tonic.  As soon as sickness appeared she reached for one of her bottles and administered three sips to us.  Never mind that it tasted like bog water, it still had to be swallowed.

            The coming of Lent heralded a change of attitude in the lives of almost everyone in the community. From the priests whose sermons became more vociferous to the women who beat a path to the altar daily now, their eyes downcast, their heads shrouded in black veils.

            We children denied ourselves too, no sweets or chocolates, no sugar in our tea.  When the Master asked Tomjoe Power what he had given up he said smoking, and got walloped for his cheek.  It was true though; a lot of the bigger boys could be found in sheltered spots during the breaks dragging on butts they had somehow got hold of.  

            This was also the time when the evangelists appeared; the Redemptorists, the Franciscans, and the Jesuits. And all breathing fire and brimstone at the retreats now held up and down the country.  Billy Graham was in Ireland too, filling Croke Park fuller than the Waterford hurling team ever did.  Several local women went.  Farmers’ wives, who walked around for weeks afterwards as if they had corks up their arses. ‘You’d think butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths’, remarked John Mullins. ‘And sure maybe it wouldn’t. Frosty is as frosty does’.

            We travelled occasionally to Dungarvan for a retreat, usually by train, or hiring Martin Galvin’s hackney car if one wasn’t available. Apart from the chest-beating and the wailing as some Jesuit or Redemptorist  tore moral strips off the multitude the memory that lingers most is of that slow old steam train  chugging out from Carroll’s Cross, colouring the air with thick billowing smoke, and filled to the brim with pilgrims, the driver blowing his horn at every level crossing, the engine snorting and whooshing as she picked up speed, the wheels pounding out  their  message

                        We’re on our way to heaven

                        We’re on our way to heaven

            We’re on our way to heaven

                        We shall not be moved.

            One year one of my cousins had to go and be ‘churched’. For some reason that nobody would talk about she had given up going to Mass and the Sacraments and had, to all to extents, been kicked out of the church.  Excommunicated – the shame of it.  ‘That strap’, my mother vented her anger, ‘she’ll have her mother in an early grave’.

            That her mother was Aunt Kathleen made matters even worse; any slur on her family was a slur on us.  You couldn’t have the neighbours talking behind your back.  How could you hold your head up knowing that was going on?  It was alright to talk about them of course, but not the other way round.

            The errant cousin was coaxed back into the fold by getting her to go along to one of the retreats. ‘A good talking to be one of them Jesuits is what she needs’, I heard grandma say. ‘They’d put the wind up the divil himself’.  The upshot was that she had to creep back into the church one Sunday after Mass.  I always thought that being ‘churched’ was the result of some serious transgression and for many years I wondered what she had done.  It wasn’t until much later that I learned it was a purification ceremony that the church carried out on women who had given birth. This is what I read. ‘The woman who has just had a child must first stand outside the church door and only when she has been solemnly purified by sprinkling with holy water and the prayers of the priest is she led back into the church’. Apparently it goes back to the middle ages when the church decided that women who had given birth were unclean and therefore had to be ‘cleansed’. I had often seen women before, dressed solemnly in black, kneeling in the vestibule at the back of the church after Mass, waiting for the priest to come and attend to them, but it never occurred to me that the church was punishing them for having children.

I had to follow the priest about with the vessel of Holy water, while he placed a lighted candle in M’s hand, and recited the Gloria Patria and the Kyrie as well as the Our Father before sprinkling her with Holy Water and inviting her into the chapel with the words, ‘Enter into the temple of God, that though may have eternal life’. However, he made sure she was veiled before letting her pass, and I have since read that women who refused to cover their heads were often ex-communicated.

The ceremony ended with a blessing for us all and the priest telling us there was more rejoicing in Heaven when one lost soul returned to the fold than if a thousand righteous ones gained entry. Six months later, when she ran off with a married, man he was humming a different tune.

I never stopped to wonder at the time why there were no Altar girls. I suppose it was to do with the Church’s attitude to women even then, as exemplified in the ‘churching’. Thank God things have changed a bit since my youth.

            On Ash Wednesday the whole school lined up in spindly ranks and marched the hundred yards to the church, where we heard Mass. Afterwards, we formed an orderly queue to the altar.  Here the priest made the sign of the cross over our heads and put the imprint of a cross on our foreheads with a thumb dipped in damp ashes.  We looked like a nation of aliens when he had finished, those black crosses prominent between our eyes.  ‘Ye have the mark of Zorro on ye now’, John Mullins teased, leaning on his shovel as we marched past.  It didn’t seem too bad later though when we saw many of the grown-ups displaying the same marks.

            ‘Power. Where is Thomas Power?’, bellowed the Master after we had returned from one such trip. ‘I did not see him in church. Has nobody seen him?’

            Nobody had.  Tomjoe was lazy and insolent, bullied us smaller boys mercilessly, and mooched off whenever he could get away with it.  The trip to the church was ideal; he was probably asleep in the coal shed, his favourite hiding place.

            ‘Go outside and find him’.  Jim Kiersey was despatched to do the necessary. ‘I will not have shirkers in my class’.

            Jim had barely got outside before Tomjoe came hurrying in, looking as if he had been sleeping in a ditch.

            ‘Where have you been?’  roared the Master.

            ‘At the church sir’, stammered Tomjoe. ‘I got shortaken on the way back’.

            By now the whole class was tittering.

            ‘Silence’, came the roar.  He moved quickly to Tomjoe, grabbed him by the ears and dragged him into the centre of the room. ‘What is that…’ He jabbed at Tomjoe’s forehead with his free hand… ‘ there?’

            ‘Ashes sir.  Holy ashes’.

            ‘Is it now?  And what does it say?

            ‘I don’t know sir.  I can’t see’.

            ‘And who put it there?

            ‘Father Sinnott, sir’.

            ‘Did he now?  Did he indeed?’  By now he had dragged the helpless Tomjoe to the front of his desk and was searching his drawers. Within moments he had produced a hand mirror and held it to his victim’s face. ‘Now tell me what you see’.

            Tomjoe could now see what had the rest of us tittering.  The letters FUCK written large across his forehead.

            ‘It’s a swear word sir’.

            ‘And our parish priest put it there?

            ‘No sir’.

            ‘Then who did?

            ‘I don’t know sir’.

            ‘Why not, Power?’

            ‘I was asleep sir’

            ‘You were asleep!  You glangeen, you amadan, do you think this school is run to suit your slothful habits?’ By now the canes were in his free hand.  ‘Get down on your knees and say an act of contrition’.  And while Tomjoe snivelled his way through the prayer he reddened his hand with a dozen mighty slashes. ‘Now go and see Father Sinnott.  And leave that…’ he pointed to the offending word…’there’.

When Tomjoe had gone he turned to the rest of us. ‘Now’, he said, ‘I want the boy or boys – it couldn’t be a girl – who wrote that disgusting word to come forward’.

            Nobody Did.  There were a lot of whispered conversations but nobody seemed to know who did it. Or if they did they weren’t saying.  Eventually he lost patience.  ‘Okay’, he said, ‘nobody leaves this classroom until we find the culprit. We shall stay here all evening if necessary’. Neither did this threat work. Besides, we knew it wasn’t going to happen.  His bus left at half-past four and unless he was planning to walk home he would have to be on it. Shortly before that time he conceded defeat. Nobody ever owned up to writing FUCK on Tomjoe’s forehead.  Maybe he wrote it himself.  Everyone said he was stupid enough. One thing though; he never slept in the coal shed again.

            For forty days there was no escaping the season of penance.  Mass every morning; Devotions two evenings a week, the congregation following in the priests footsteps around the church as he stopped at each Station of the Cross and said a decade of the rosary, us altar boys leading the responses. Confession, usually heard on a Saturday night, was extended to several nights.  The priests prowled the public houses and the dance halls with a vigour that bordered on the hysterical. Very few dances were held during Lent, and those that took place were usually in defiance of the religious – so much so that you nearly had to go in disguise for fear of repercussions!  It was as if the collective sins of the whole community were being gathered in and squeezed out of us in those few weeks

            Holy Week saw the religious fervour intensify.  It began with the celebration of Palm Sunday, proclaiming Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey.  To celebrate it a mound of palm leaves lay heaped behind the altar rails.  They were blessed during Mass and given out to the congregation afterwards.

            And so it went on.  Right through to Holy Thursday and Good Friday;  men and women now openly prostrating themselves before the altar, begging forgiveness.

            On Good Friday time seemed to stand still. Nothing moved; no cars, no people.  Nothing opened; no shops, no pubs.  The only sound was that of the solitary church bell counting down the death of Christ.  We fasted all day, breaking our fast only when midnight had passed.

            Easter Sunday was a celebration.  Christ was risen; all his pain and suffering was over. And all our starving too.  The first thing that mother did was reach for her box of Woodbines, which had been gathering dust on top of the dresser. All our sins had been forgiven us, we were now free to let our hair down again for the coming year.

            After Mass we gorged ourselves on Easter eggs and got ready for the procession later in the day. Every building in the village had been dolled up for the procession.  Streamers and bunting criss-crossing from telegraph-pole to telegraph-pole, Holy pictures in every window along the route.  Even the parish pump had been decorated.

            At the appointed time the band struck up and the long snake of people set off.  Headed by the priests and altar boys then the school choir and the schoolchildren. We stopped for prayers and benediction at various points, slowly making our way from the priest’s house to Newtown Cross, and then back to the school. Here, an open-air altar had been erected, and more prayers and hymn-singing were conducted, culminating in the whole congregation singing ‘Faith Of Our Fathers.

            Part of our duties as altar boys included taking the filled collection boxes into the sacristy  nearing the end of Mass and putting the money into a bag for the priest to take away. After I had been doing it for a while I found it easy to palm the odd shilling or two and slip it into my pocket under my surplice.  I don’t remember if I ever stopped to consider my actions, or if I felt a pang of guilt as I subsequently devoured packets of Rollo’s and crisps, but I know I didn’t confess the sin at me regular confession.  Here was a ready-made sin but I was still dreaming ones up to impress that impassive face on the other side of the confession box.

            ‘Bless me father for I have sinned. It is two weeks since my last confession.  I cursed three times last week…I had bad thoughts about Shiela Kiersey…I pulled Frances’s Power’s hair in class…’

            ‘These bad thoughts my child, do they involve any…ah… physical activities?’

            ‘No father’.

            ‘Good my child. When these impure thought come into your head you must say an act of contrition straight away. And offer the bad thoughts up.  Now for your penance say five Our Fathers and Five Hail Marys’.

            When I asked Tomjoe what the priest meant about ‘physical activities’ he said he meant was I pulling my wire. Then he grabbed hold of me and said I hadn’t any wire worth pulling anyhow.

In due course Thomas Kirwan and myself discovered the pleasure of a little wine-drinking. We usually served together, and were responsible for filling the jugs with the water and wine to be used during the mass.  When Father Sinnott officiated very little water but nearly all the wine would be used. However, with Father Power it was the other way round and we were able to transfer some of the wine to a spare vessel we kept concealed in a recess, topping up the priest’s jug with water.  We returned later in the day, retrieved the wine then sat amid the gravestones drinking it.  Sometimes it made your head spin, and when you added the occasional illicit Woodbine everything started to revolve.  Trees, poles, even the gravestones; whirling around so fast you had to hang on tightly to something for fear of taking off.

            I was eventually kicked out of the altar boys, though it wasn’t for stealing.  One evening, before Devotions, I hid behind the sacristy door, one of the long-handled collection boxes raised above my head.  I had intended to give Thomas Kirwan a fright as he came through the door – only it was Father Sinnott who walked through first.  In my terror I crowned him with the box.  Needless to say that was the end of me. Luckily for me the Master was off sick at the time.  When he eventually returned I had finished my Primary exams, never to return.  

 

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