Whenever I hear the old gospel song of the Plantation Workers of Southern Alabama – ‘That Old Time Religion’ – I think of our religious ways of the 1940s and ‘50s and the intensity that accompanied it.
Karl Marx is reputed to have said that religion is the ‘opium of the people’. Certainly, the community of the ‘40s and ‘50s, in which I grew up, lived and practised their religion voraciously. I was an altar boy back then serving the 11.30a.m. mass on a Sunday morning and relishing the little feel of importance that went with it; again there were Sundays I enjoyed the game of handball in the local Ball Alley or meandered my way to Lough Key, Doon Shore for a swim. Life is a kaleidoscope of memories of schooldays, holidays, birthdays, Holy Communion days, Confirmation days, wedding days, good days, bad days, sick days; all part of life’s cycle from boyhood to manhood to old age. Today’s generation would have a mountain to climb if they were to live the religious intensity I remember of “order and obey” in all things! They’d likely fall at the first fence; draconian might be a better word! There was an innocence that imagined evil lurked in dark corners, that life’s pleasures could be an occasion of sin, that temptation lay waiting to pounce at your weakest moment. Books and films were censored and mortal sin hung like the sword of Damocles above your head ready to bring you down in a moment of weakness. Stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy that preached self-control, was part of your daily curriculum and Satan was renounced at every opportunity with all his works and pomps. The day was a war between good and evil.
The present generation lives in an alternative universe, a hyper-liberal society where precious little is left to the imagination; everything and anything goes! The psychologist’s couch is the modern-day confession box, the snort of cocaine is the Highway to Heaven and the shot of Valium offers a soft landing after a ‘high’. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make up the new ‘World Book of Fairytales’ replacing many of the grand old reliables like Our Boys, Ireland’s Own, comics and magazines for boys and girls, a wide variety of Detective, Western and Romance novels to suit all ages; all for the more heady toxic stuff of today. That being said, and to paraphrase an old school companion John Keats, “When old age shall this generation waste and we stand in the midst of other woes than ours”. And having failed to learn the lessons of history, old draconian ways might slip back to haunt a new generation with penances reminiscent of a bygone age. To wax humorous for a few moments, imagine a neighbour having to dress in sackcloth and ashes and sit outside his local Church or Market place for a month for spreading lies and fake news about a prime enemy, or television’s ‘Nature Boy’ spending a month (in solitude) on Lough Derg as an antidote to the abundance of female flesh he wallowed in on Love Island, or a man to spend all of Lent on top of Croagh Patrick for stealing his neighbour’s wife. The old Canonical penances doled out in the early Church certainly knew how to bring the serial sinner back into line; no three Hail Marys then, or a decade of the Rosary for a penance! Life was never going to be a bed of roses or a Garden of Eden.
With the existence of God smiled upon by many of today’s intellectuals and bearded philosophers, surely it must dent the ego when they see flocks of highly intelligent people enter a church or a sacred place in search of a bit of meaning to life and death. The Creator in recent times has been replaced by something called ‘The Big Bang’ (i.e. a gigantic ball of wind that originated from nothing and seems to be travelling nowhere (has no destination) and has all of us humans stuck here on earth whether we like it or not). It’s like a scene out of ‘Game for a laugh’. So with Mother Earth hijacked between a combination of half-wits and power-crazed misfits who see themselves as ‘Masters of the Universe’ is it any wonder we’re on the verge of the ‘Sixth Extinction’, or looking down the barrel of a gun at this latest phenomenon – the Coronavirus. If you feel you’ve heard enough, kindly switch off now!
The Religious Calendar of the 1940s and 1950s
The Church Calendar was a mixture of ritual and ceremony. In chronological order, there was Christmas, Lent, Easter, the Parish Mission, the Forty Hours Adoration, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, Corpus Christi Procession, Feast days and Holidays of Obligation, the Nine (First) Fridays, November (month of the Holy Souls), the Sodality Meeting (i.e. Confession\Saturday, Mass\Sunday once a month and all year round), Station Mass in the country home during Lent and Advent. Mass, the epi-centre for all religious practice, was offered daily throughout the year including three Masses on a Sunday. In the midst of all this religious intensity there were the many joyful occasions like family christenings, First Holy Communion Days, Confirmation Days, Wedding Days, Ordinations Days, Station Mass in the home, and many other joyous occasions to celebrate along the way. Of deep and powerful significance always has been the consolation and strength the Church offers at times of sickness and death.
The Gregorian Mass: A Personal Memory
(Priest) Introibo ad Altare Dei
(Altar Boy) Ad Deum qui laetificat iuvum tutum meum
Translation: I will go unto the altar of God, to God who giveth joy to my youth.
The above were the first lines of the old
Latin Mass served by the altar boy. Today, when one sees the angelic little
altar girl dressed in her cream-coloured robe on the high altar, it begs the
question as to why it should have taken a further 40 years before she was
permitted to grace the altar of God! My Grandmother was a teacher in the old
Before the Second Vatican Council (1962/65) the liturgy of the Mass was entirely through the medium of Latin. Many changes would come as a result, one of the most important being that Mass could now be said in English or the vernacular. The Celebrant faced the congregation and delivered his sermon from the altar instead of the lofty heights of a pulpit. Another very important change was the mass-goer being allowed to eat food up to an hour before receiving Holy Communion. Prior to that one had to abstain from the previous midnight.
Leading the Celebrant and four more altar boys to the altar in front of a thousand people on a Sunday morning carried its own little challenge; you had to be fully alert and know your Latin off by heart like a school poem. Paddy, the Sacristan, was strict and scrupulously fair. If you passed the test to his satisfaction, you became part of the ‘Church in action’ and were given your robes of office; a white surplice and black soutane. You had to buy your own slippers which must be dark in colour. To keep you on your toes he would sometimes say with a little smile ‘you know the Celebrant can’t say Mass without you, that’s how important you are!’ Promotion in the ranks came slowly (like all good jobs) but the day eventually came to pass when you led a small bunch of beginners onto the altar of God. You had reached the pinnacle of success, you were the leader of the bunch!
The candles in their great cylindrical tubes, five each side of the tabernacle, were lit by means of a long slender pole with a tiny flame flickering on the end that blinked and laughed back at you; a tricky little operation that could sometimes come a cropper and call for outside help! Oh, the embarrassment of it all in front of a thousand people, many of whom (you imagined) must know you! The 11.30a.m. Mass on Sunday was a Missa Cantata, a sung Mass that began with the Celebrant walking down the centre aisle sprinkling the overflow congregation with holy water as the choir sang the ‘Asperges me’ (i.e. Cleanse me). Some Sundays when Mass was finished a lady might come to the side altar requesting to be churched. You stood with a lighted candle as the Celebrant read a list of prayers and blessed the said lady; the ceremony was over in five minutes. Looking back on those unquestioning times you presumed the lady might be ill or about to go to hospital; to be churched carried no other connotations!
Christmas was one of the great high points of the Church year with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and an extra early one Christmas Morning (7.30 a.m.) to cater for the increased number of the faithful home for Christmas; then there were the usual three Masses as on any Sunday which brought the total to five on a Christmas Day. Setting up the Christmas Crib was a high point of the hubris and excitement of Christmas with Paddy the Sacristan acting as a kind of Snow White and calling on (approx.) seven altar boys to assist him in the operation. Enthusiasm could run high leading sometimes to a confusion not unlike what we’re told happened at the building of the ancient Tower of Babel (i.e. members of the Holy Family took quite a while to find their exact positions in the crib, not to mention the Shepherds with their family of animal friends).
Some seven weeks later the holy season of Lent had arrived. That meant one thing only: Fast, Abstinence, Rosary/ Benediction in the evening, Stations of the Cross on a Friday, the nine day Novena leading up to St. Patrick’s Day and finally the Holy Week ceremonies commemorating Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. The Stations of the Cross on a Friday evening were a mini-marathon with a verse of the hymn ‘Stabat Mater’ sung at each Station followed by the prayer “We adore thee Oh Christ and praise thee, because by thy Holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world”, followed again with more prayers. This was repeated at each of the fourteen Stations ending with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the pungent smell of burning incense burrowing its way into every nostril, nook and cranny of the old Gothic Building.
Not very long afterwards came the Forty Hours Adoration, a ceremony that extended over a period of three days. Two altar boys would kneel for an hour at a time, praying (a little) and keeping close watch on the finger-sized candles lit and inset in the candlebras all round the altar. As they burned away, the task of the altar boy was to replace them with new ones. Members of the laity came and went during daylight hours to pray till closing time at 9 p.m.. Nuns from the nearby Convent usually came in pairs to fulfil an hour of adoration. Looking down the years, remembering the solemn silence and air of sanctity all round, brought back a memorable line from a poem by that wonderful poet William Wordsworth that could have been written for such an occasion: “The Holy Time is quiet as a Nun, breathless with adoration”.
With memories of Lent still fresh in the caverns of the mind our Parish Priest delivered his own tidings of great joy, the annual Church Mission was coming fast down the track. Held (usually) over the first two weeks of May, the Mission was a renewal of penance for the already battle hardened faithful not to mention extra working hours for the faithful altar boy. There was Mass at 7.30 a.m. to facilitate the early morning worker and a later one at 8.30 a.m. for the faithful in general. That was followed in the evening by Rosary, Benediction and a high-powered relevant sermon. The first week was for the women of the Parish and the second week for the men, with children of school-going age enjoying a little mission of their own over the final four mornings of the women’s mission. Their little mission consisted of Mass at 10 a.m. with a chat, a short question and answer session, and a few funny stories to hold their attention. The altar boy now at the heart of the action was in top gear, finding himself in the shadow of Doctors of the Church, Jesuits or members of another Religious Order. The proverbial ‘Poor Scholar of the Forties’ had scant room for mistakes!
During Lent and Advent, the Station Mass was traditionally held in a country home. This was a very special occasion for the family with neighbours coming together to pray and celebrate. As an altar boy, I served at many of them and would travel with the Curate on duty on the morning.
By way of a short anecdote, to find yourself in the company of the late Rev. Dr. Seamus McLoughlin as he drove his Ford Prefect ‘DI 3701’ to the particular rural home was an unforgettable experience. The Rev. Seamus never exceeded 15 mph in town or country to ensure he could get a full view of the scenery and all of God’s creatures great and small. On such a journey little would have escaped him! He was reputed to have a photographic mind and an ability to scan a book in minutes (so to speak) rather than hours. An avid reader, he was a member of the three local libraries. A brilliant orator of his day he was known throughout the Diocese and the country, and in constant demand as a speaker at religious conferences and important events. A leading critic and an authority on the evils of International Communism and National Socialism, he was often quoted in newspapers and on national radio. When in full flight delivering his Sunday morning homily, the Rev. Seamus could have surpassed a De Valera or a Michael Collins arguing for or against The Treaty. Sparks rose from the pulpit and a packed congregation listened (in a mood of shock and awe) as they clung to his every word. His sermons were phenomenal, with the rhetoric a mixture of wit, humour and a little douse of sarcasm if required. As a Confessor and founder of the local men’s sodality, he attracted large crowds to his confessional (contrary to adverse opinion) where he put in exceptionally long hours on sodality nights hearing penitents sometimes till 10 p.m. and later. For a man who outwardly projected the stern inflexible image, he was of a completely different disposition in the confessional with some of his more ardent admirers comparing him even to the great Cure of Ars; no sin was too grave, no story was too long for him to give ear to, nor were his penances ever draconian according to the ‘Whistleblowers’ of the day, and they were readily available. When the Rev. Seamus died on December 22nd, 1960, the vast gathering at his Funeral Mass told its own story. The overflow congregation included the nation’s President and his Aide-De-Camp (seated in the Church Sanctuary), some members of Government, Bishops from several dioceses roundabout, and a headcount of a hundred priests. A towering figure of his time, he still remained the country curate who had hailed from humble beginnings from the rural countryside of Ballyfarnon.
Back to the country Station, the Curate and his young assistant were given a hearty welcome by the host family. He began by hearing Confessions in a private room with Mass said immediately afterwards. Breakfast followed and what a memorable occasion that was for a young ‘townee’ lad to have his breakfast in a country home with the added delight of the morning off school. The host family had their best china on display, while breakfast boasted pure home produce; soda cake, scones, country butter, fresh milk, boiled, scrambled, poached egg, apple tart, a variety of sandwiches and a special treat Boxty. An air of welcome filled the home on those mornings, together with a kind of feeling that God was partying there as well. The memory of the Station Mass whether the Plains of Boyle, Brishlagh, Deerpark or Doon, would remain with you for the rest of your days; a chapter in the story of your life.
The Corpus Christi Procession that was held in the month of June attracted a thousand and more of the faithful. The enormous gathering was made up of annual First Holy Communicants, Children of Mary, Legion of Mary, members of the Men’s and Women’s Sodality, and a gathering of the faithful. Members of St. Vincent De Paul carried the canopy above the Priest bearing the Blessed Sacrament and a contingent of young fresh-faced members of the local F.C.A. acted as bodyguards. The huge procession wound its way through the streets of the town reciting the Rosary along the way. First Holy Communion girls with little ornate baskets of flowers scattered the petals in the way of the Blessed Sacrament in an act of homage while the Church Choir sang the regular hymns of the time.
To serve at a Requiem Mass (usually 11.30 a.m. on a weekday) had a little bonus built-in for the altar boy; he had the morning off school, lucky boy! Mass for the deceased person by its very nature was a mournful occasion with tears shed by the family and friends. Towards the end of Mass, the Celebrant with three more Priests stood around the coffin as the Cantor sang the deeply solemn and very mournful dirge ‘Dies Ira’, a hymn that rose like a cry to Heaven in memory of the deceased.
A period of respite in Church ritual seemed to occur over the autumn months. Then almost unnoticed All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd respectively, had arrived. All Souls Day saw the Priest saying three Masses consecutively. These were shortened somewhat by the long gospel and prayers denouncing the devil being read-only at the end of the third or last Mass, while Holy Communion was distributed only during the first Mass.
Returning to more worldly trappings, there was the odd occasion when a senior altar boy might be called upon to open the Church if the Sacristan happened to fall sick suddenly or was unavailable. The great key to the house of God hung on a hook on a hall rack in the Presbytery. You unlocked the Sacristy door, proceeded to switch on the lights, walked the length of the interior to the West Wing door (the only door opened on weekdays) to be met by the ‘Magnificent Seven’. I see them to this day, and remember their names, standing silently outside at 8 a.m with Mass at 8.30 a.m. Apology again for a little anecdote ‘for the sake of posterity’ and a further insight into local history! Pat Walsh, the big man with a broad hat and a broader smile, was in his 80s and had been a daily Mass goer all his life. During the Arctic weather of the Great Blizzard of 1947, Pat struggled his way to Mass each morning dressed in what one could only describe as a Himalayan style dress with matching footwear, that included two massive bawneen socks like shin guards pulled up almost to his knees. As a young lad, I wondered why Pat didn’t wear wellingtons like everyone else? The ingenious mode of footwear seemingly was his chosen way to navigate across the vast carpet of snow in front of him. Pathways had been cleared to a degree but the same pathways didn’t travel all the way to the door of the West Wing! Pat had to get to Mass, and being one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ he’d be standing outside awaiting a young St. Peter to open up! The faces are embedded in the memory as clear today as in 1947, standing like the seven signatories of The Proclamation. Before he died a few years later, the Parish Priest of the day took the unique step of saying Mass for Pat in his own home in Bridge Street for the final days of his earthly life. A man I feel privileged to have known, he lived the quiet simple life with a smile and a friendly word for everyone. He’s surely one of the many unnamed saints that ramble the highways of Heaven!
Back to reality, you rang the bell for Mass at 8.15 a.m.. The great rope dangling from the Belfry a hundred feet above dropped into a tiny dimly-lit porch at the bottom of the women’s aisle. To ring the great bell could be a tricky business (especially if you didn’t know the ropes!). If you failed to pull and release almost simultaneously you could find yourself five foot off the ground trusting to a soft landing. A few of us did learn the hard way!
Come retirement around the grand old age of 12, you would have built up a little cache of happy and in some cases funny memories; a few unforgettable ones! A once in a lifetime event occurred on a quiet weekday morning during Mass. The Celebrant that morning had recently returned from hospital having had a serious brain operation. After Holy Communion he sat for the usual few moments of reflection and failed to return. Three or four minutes passed with no movement from the Celebrant! The occasional cough or clearing of a throat rose from the small congregation but to no avail. The Celebrant was in a deep slumber, or was he? More agonising minutes passed but still no movement. An air of panic was setting in. Could our Celebrant have suffered a stroke? Who’d make a decisive move? Then Paddy the Sacristan came to the rescue, having realised Mass was running quite a bit over time. He came onto the altar and approached the Celebrant, still in slumberland, and touched him gently on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Mass came to a speedy conclusion with a profound apology and an embarrassing little smile from the Celebrant. All was well. The scene brought to mind the popular school poem by W. B. Yeats, ‘The Ballad of Fr. Gilligan asleep upon his chair’. Those same mornings a deeply religious lady went around the Stations of the Cross four or maybe five times, pausing for a few moments in contemplation at each one. She had her mission accomplished in maybe ten minutes. Remembering the Stations of the Cross on a Friday evening in Lent, that might take an hour to complete with prayers and a verse of a hymn at each Station, left one pondering if the same lady could reap an equal harvest of grace with her own personal version? The Parable of the labourers in the vineyard come to mind when one recalls those employed at the ninth hour were paid the same amount as those who worked longer hours and endured the heat of the day. Strange the ways of the Lord!
The final act of the day would be to assist the Sacristan to close the Church at 9.30 p.m., and to prepare the vestments to be worn next morning by the Celebrant. The colour was indicative of the Saint or Martyr to be remembered in the Mass, and the great Missal was left open and ready on its tripod at the correct page. One by one Paddy switched out the lights and just before the moment of complete darkness (except for the sanctuary lamp), he would call out as he had done a thousand times before: “Everybody out”. One cold winter’s night a voice rose from out of the darkness: “Not yet, I’m here”. A sound of high heeled shoes could be heard clip clopping up the old flaggered women’s aisle. A young lady emerged into view, somewhat out of breath and in a mild state of shock. “You could have been locked in for the night,” Paddy said with a friendly smile! Regaining her breath she replied, equally with a smile: “I could think of far worse places to be locked up” and continued her way out by way of the Sacristy door. The great key was left sitting on its hook in the Presbytery hall for another night. God alone would decide who’d be the next mover!
In light of the terrible scandals regarding the physical and sexual abuse of young boys and girls inflicted by different religious institutions over time, I can only speak for myself when I say that being an altar boy was one of the happiest experiences of my life. For this reason, my story is just one more happy memory of growing up in Boyle, ‘the town I love so well’. I have written on every aspect of life as I remember it from my earliest days of the 1940’s up to the present-day, and the above story has been as rich in memories for me as anyone gone before. I would have dearly wished the same could be repeated by every young boy or girl growing up then. They are supposed to be among the happiest and best days of a young person’s life and serve as a bulwark for the tougher times that might lie ahead in later life; unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way.
Haec olim meminisse iuvabit.