extract from my book THE SHINY RED HONDA, which is available on Amazon
It was the school’s responsibility to supply altar boys to serve Mass at Newtown church. Newtown was the seat of the parish and Father Sinnott lived in a big house across the road from the chapel. It had a large driveway with apple trees lining both sides of it; trees heavy each autumn with apples much bigger and sweeter than those to be found in Cullinan’s orchard. The difficulty was getting at them, for they were in full view of the house. And the housekeeper had eyes like a hawk. In fact she looked a bit like a hawk, with her hooked nose and straight black hair cut evenly across her shoulders. Becoming an altar boy gave me a reason to be in the grounds of the house; there were always items to be collected and delivered, and I made sure I always collected my fair share of apples on these visits.
The Master had the responsibility for the selection and training of altar boys. Training included regular visits to the chapel to rehearse the duties we had to perform during the Mass. These were many and varied; bell-ringing, assisting at the Offertory and Communion, taking charge of the collection boxes after they had been passed round. There were also the responses to the priest’s oration. The Mass was in Latin and we had to grapple with this difficult language until the Master was satisfied. Curiously, though we learned our responses off to perfection, we never bothered with the English translation.
Being an altar boy carried with it a certain status. It conferred an air of respectability on the family, and I could see mother purring with pride as she laid out my surplice on Saturday nights. God’s little helper, she called me. It made the family more saintly in her eyes. There were now plenty of reasons to get us all on our knees in the kitchen, saying a decade of the Rosary before the now-prominent picture of Mary which previously hung in obscurity in the back room. For me the rewards were more tangible; participating at the occasional wedding or funeral where, at some stage in the proceedings, a couple of half-crowns or a ten-shilling note would be pressed into my palm.
I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to become a priest. There was something heroic about their deeds in darkest Africa and other heathen places. Converting the pagans and saving all the Black babies, now there was something worth doing. A missionary,that was what I would become.
Of course priests had it much easier here in Ireland – and it seemed such a pleasant way of life. Visiting schools and asking questions about the Catechism during the week, saying the Mass on Sunday. Then there were all those collections at Easter and Christmas which yielded up hundreds of pounds. Plus, of course, the car. Father Sinnott was one of few in the neighbourhood to own one, a sure sign of wealth in my estimation. Paddy Nugent was another. Although Martin Galvin had recently acquired one – and they didn’t have two sods of turf to put on the fire as far as anyone could see. It was a hackney-car according to father, a phrase which went over my head at the time.
The proceeds of the church collections were read out at Mass a few weeks later. They read like rolls of honour and were hierarchical in the extreme, those at the top of the list being the wealthiest farmers, those at the bottom labourers. David Kiersey, Ballyshunnock, five pounds…James Kelly, Ballyshunnock, two pounds…Patrick O’Brien, Ballyhussa, five shillings…
Those who paid nothing were never read out, but everyone knew who they were just the same. We were always near the bottom of the list, something which annoyed me because it showed everyone how poor we were. I never understood what the collections were for. The ones at school for black babies yes, they were starving and had no clothes and I could identify with that. But there were no hungry or naked priests as far as I could see. And when I asked my father he merely grunted that it was ‘to keep their lordships arses in comfort for the next year’.
One of the books I had hidden away was the Bible and I now took to reading it, hoping it might help with my entry into the priesthood. It was confusing though, a lot of the words didn’t make sense, so I decided to approach John Mullins about it one afternoon. If anyone would know he would, if he wasn’t digging a grave he was stretched out against a tombstone reading something.
John was in the graveyard, clearing away bushes and weeds from an old section. ‘There’s too many people dyin’, boy. We’ll soon be buryin’ them standing up’.
‘Begat?’ his eyebrows arched as I asked my question.
‘Aye. There’s lots of begats. I just wondered…’
He began to laugh. ‘Oh yes, you’re right. Begor and there’s lots of begating in the Bible. Sometimes I think it’s all they feckin’ did’. He paused to get his pipe going again, taking several heavy sucks on it before speaking. ‘What do yerself think it means?’
‘Begor now, that’s a good way of putting it. I couldn’t put it better meself’. He then went on to explain and I went away satisfied. My father begat me…Tommy Galvin begat Dick…Jack Power begat Tomjoe…
Then I came across another phrase. ‘And Sarai Abram went into Hagar’…now what did that mean?
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?
‘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.