It is the May Bank Holiday, a bank holiday we acquired years ago when the Labour Party of this island nation of ours were in Government. Prior to that, we celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi on the first week end in June. Once we returned to school on 7th January after Little Christmas we lived for St. Patrick’ day to fall on a Monday or Friday so that we would have a long week end off school. Half Term holidays were not the norm in my childhood; unless it was a very long term until Easter. We also had school on Saturdays and two days off at Halloween.
June and the Corpus Christi week end are filled with memories for me. Once we made our Holy Communion we were considered fit enough to join in the Corpus Christi procession. For weeks before the Big Occasion of Our Making Our Holy Communion [the nun’s always seemed to refer to it in sentences containing capital letters] we were paraded around the school grounds wearing veils of every description and hue, from brilliantly Tide White to Sunrise Yellow. Veils often donated by past pupils and veils made from net curtains. The purpose of this? Well, I think the nuns believed that if we were marshalled enough; and used to wearing the veils enough two things would happen. We would walk like little saints in our parish procession at Corpus Christi, and maybe the idea of wearing a veil might hint a few 7 year olds into thinking about joining the convent. In a class of 33, twenty six took the veil. On their wedding day. We’re not counting the 14 divorces and widowhoods here, of the other seven only one was inspired to join a convent, and at that, much to Mother Ignatius’ disgust, a different order.
From the age of 7 until, and memory is shaky here, either twelve or The Vatican Council’s changes, my friends and I were dragged down to the parish church, faces that would turn the milk sour on us, and pucked into angelic smiles by Mothers who didn’t want anyone to think their darling daughter wasn’t a living saint. There is nothing like an Irish Mother to land a tight fist between the shoulder blades and look at the same time as if she was straightening your cardigan. If your own Mother didn’t descend to such tactics, you could rest assured that Mrs Mulligan had no such hesitation in landing both you and her own daughter Maura a “laminer” as we used to call it.
Boys seemed to get off lighter, we were caught with the veils. What had seemed wonderful in May on First Holy Communion Day, all dressed up in white lace and cripplingly tight shoes, was agony in a crowd of people, all walking along mumbling the Rosary and swatting at midges. I blame the midges. A swatter never stopped to look if he, or she, were pulling at your veil as they vented their ire on the insect. Mothers had a happy knack of putting your veil on, tightly adhered to your head by clips, and God help you if Mr O’Callaghan, and he 70 years of age, aided by a walking stick and a hip flask of “Holy Medicine” caught your veil. If he didn’t pull the hair off your head as well as the veil, then God was surely on your side then.
Mr O’Mara and Mr O’Callaghan combined could bring down the veils of a nation with sublime ease. Mr O’Mara, in the year of 1962, stays in my memory. Painfully. We were gathered in procession, sons, daughters and proud parents, shuffling along down the church lane, up the drive of the local Big House, and back up the church lane, singing “Bring Flowers of the Forest”, reciting the rosary, and generally aiming to look as pious as possible. My friend Mary and I had come to terms, as hardened communicants of two years, with the fact that the veil and the procession were unavoidable aspects of our lives. Pure selfishness on our parents’ parts deprived us of the joy of racing off over the hill with our other friends, playing cheyneys, hide-and-go-seek and collecting blooms from a local woody dell. No doubt, as part of a major grown up scheme to get them into Heaven when the day came, parents had concocted this punishment for us to make them appear holier to God. We were convinced of it.
That CC procession started out well. We were scrubbed till we glowed; the boys had their best short trousers, sleeveless jumpers, shirts and ties on and all of them had their hair slicked down with the Daddy’s Brylcreem. We had our summer school uniforms on us, pale blue gingham in my case, pink spots in Mary’s, [we attended different schools] and our veils were pinned to our heads [I am sure my Mother aimed for my hair] with whole packets of clips. As we came along the home straight, just out of the gates of the Big House, and almost onto the church lane, Mr O’Mara and his daughter barged in mid centre of the line. Mr O’Mara in his wicker bath chair pushed by his only surviving single daughter, Mildred.
It was not in Mildred nature to either say “excuse me” or “Sorry” to anyone under the age of forty. She treated us to a glare from behind her long red nose and bottle lensed glasses and hissed “make way for Father”. I fell in one direction, and would have broken my arm only Mum grabbed hold of me and Mary staggered into the wall across the lane, winding up with a shiner of a black eye where she had put a hand up to protect her face. The picture of saintly holiness, Mildred ploughed on and if she missed a few parishioners, well her father was nothing if not diligent in striking out with his walking stick. An evil looking shillelagh with a nob on it that would strike fear in the heart of the Parish Priest himself. Still we survived these years. In later years we often told each other that it helped us negotiate Grafton Street in Dublin in rush hour. We were adept at ducking and diving by then.
To-day the parish church is closed after the last Mass of the day at 11.15. Where once there was a Parish Priest and two curates, today’s incumbent services three churches, He has three miles to go for the 10.15 in our village church and then after 11.15 in the parish he heads to another village for the 12.30. Mass, which could and did take up to two hours back in the day now takes twenty minutes.
Twenty minutes that is unless you go to the other Parish nearby at 10a.m., on a Sunday morning. It’s a family Mass. Being a wealthy parish it has a different parishioner attending this Mass. This is the Yummy Mummy and Hands On Daddy Mass, with little Saoirse, Caoilan, Bethany-Marie-Eve and Torquil. On entering the church, the cacophony of sound assaulting your ears is like the chattering of a wood full of sparrows. Mummy’s stand in the aisles chatting to each other, Caoilfinn thumps Darragh, who in turn uses Piglet to take a swipe at Hayleigh-Sarah-Louise. Foodie Dads chat about that wonderful beer they discovered at that terrific market down in wheredjacallit, and the joys of tofu, gluten free bread [and not a coeliac among them] and green tea; the elderly also attend this Mass, especially the women. It was the traditional time to bring children to Mass if the husbands had attended the 8.30 sodality, after Vatican II removed the fasting before taking the Eucharist rule.
Nowadays these elderly women can look forward to a mass filled with the voices of yuppie children raised loudly in singing Allelulia, Allulelia and even on occasion Alleluia, kicks in the back of the knee from some four year old terrorist who Mummy is trying to stop from racing off up the middle aisle to demand “one of those white bikkies, now, I said NOW!” from the Priest. Oh! The poet had it right, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born”. There’s nothing beautiful about the temper tantrums these little darlings can throw.