LETTERS TO MOTHER AND OTHER DEAD RELATIVES – extract
There weren’t too many occasions when I pleased you in life. My fault not yours, because we both know that I wasn’t what you would call ‘a dutiful son’. I probably pleased you when I got married, and when I gave you your first grandchild, but I think I pleased you most when I became an Altar boy.
I imagine you saw it as a kind of status symbol: because when other mothers boasted ‘my son is going to De La Salle College’, or ‘has a place in the Christian Brothers’, you could now reply ‘my son is an Altar boy’ with a certain amount of pride. And there weren’t that many of us in the vicinity – no more than a handful – which made it all the more gloat-worthy.
Even the Master acknowledged our special status; taking us up to the church several times a week after school for rehearsals before letting us loose on our first Sunday. He took the part of the priest himself; although he didn’t ‘gown up’ for the role. But I guess Fr. Sinnott, the parish priest, would have viewed as sacrilege the idea of somebody rummaging around in his wardrobe. Still, we were put through our paces until we had mastered our roles; bell-ringing, bringing the water and the wine, and, of course, learning to chant the responses in the appropriate places. I can still recite chunks of Latin after all these years – and I still don’t know what they mean.
In due course I discovered the pleasures of wine-drinking. Thomas K and myself usually served together, and as altar boys were responsible for filling the jugs with the water and wine to be used during the Mass. When the parish priest officiated, very little water but nearly all the wine would be used. However, with other priests it might be the other way round, and we were often 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 and retrieved the wine, then sat amid the gravestones drinking it. Sometimes it made your head spin, and when we added the occasional Woodbine that I had fecked from your box on the mantelpiece over the fire in the kitchen, 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.
Being an Altar boy had other rewards too; particularly when we ‘officiated’ at weddings, funerals and christenings, where, afterwards, you could guarantee that several shiny half-crowns or maybe even a ten shilling note would be pressed into your greasy little palm. Not that I depended entirely on these fairly infrequent occasions; I quickly discovered that the collections during Sunday Mass offered a steady source of income. I am sure you will recall that when the filled collection boxes were placed by the Altar rail it became our job to take them to the sacristy and transfer the money into the bags waiting there. Once inside, I found it quite an easy task to deflect some of the coins into my own pocket. And afterwards I was able to stuff myself with Rollos, Crunchies and bags of Tayto’s on the proceeds. I wonder if it ever crossed your mind that your very own ‘God’s little helper’ had become a thief?
Not all special occasions paid off, however. Do you remember the time that M’s latest child was being baptized and she couldn’t come into the service because she hadn’t been churched? I always thought that being churched was the result of some serious transgression and for many years I wondered what M 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 still remember how ashamed you all looked when the priest said the baptism couldn’t take place until M had been purified, and you all trooped away to Cullinanes Pub to put down the half hour wait. I suppose you had ‘a small sherry to settle your nerves’.
I had the task of following the priest about with the vessel of Holy water. He placed a lighted candle in M’s hand, and recited the Gloria Patri 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 mayest 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.
I think this was one of the few occasions where no shiny half-crown changed hands.
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 (this was the late 1950’s) as exemplified in the ‘churching’.
Thank God things have changed a bit since my youth.
Your loving son
available in paperback & ebook on Amazon