One suit attends mass four times on a Sunday morning: Mass-going in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s

March 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

When my mother was a child in the 1940s, she knew of four Sheehan brothers. The brothers were spoken of as coming from a family that ‘could not be straightened’: I take it this to mean that they were not susceptible to good influences.

The Sheehan brothers studied agriculture in Dublin. By the time Sunday came round, they had spent all their money, backing horses amongst other things, and pawned all their suits except one.

As it was necessary to go to mass, and go there dressed in a suit, only one brother was able to go to mass at a time. The first went, hurried home, took off the suit and gave it to the next brother who put it on and then went to mass. And so it went until the four of them had been to mass. It would be possible for a brother to attend mass at eight, at nine, at ten, and at eleven.

If present times are anything to go by, the Sheehans’ quick change would not have worked in England. The celebration of the mass takes about an hour in England, and about three quarters of one in Ireland.

Even up to the 1960s, my mother recalls being asked, Where did you go to mass, I didn’t see you at [such and such a church] ?

Today we, Catholics, are still obliged to attend mass on Sundays and certain holy days. However, the societal pressure to go to mass has gone. Even some respectable people do not go to mass today, never mind wild men like the Sheehans.

Parents, I believe, no longer insist that their teenage children ‘get’ mass. Nor do they quiz them about the priest’s sermon (homily ) to ascertain if they have ‘got’ mass.

That is not to say that the behaviour of mass-goers in the thirties and later, was such that became them. Some smoked during the celebration. Yet Jonathan Swift would have shown more leniency towards the smokers than the sleepers:

But of all misbehaviour, none is comparable to that of those whom come here to sleep Opium is not so stupefying to many persons as an afternoon sermon. Perpetual custom hath so brought it about that the words of whatever preacher become only a sort of uniform sound at a distance, than which nothing is more effectual to lull the senses. For that it is the very sound of the sermon which bindeth up their faculties is manifest from hence, because they all awake so very regularly as soon as it ceaseth, and with much devotion receive the blessing, dozed and besotted with indecencies I am ashamed to repeat.  ‘ On Sleeping in Church ’

The attitude to mass-going has changed. Mass-going in Ireland is not unquestionable as it once was. If you looked the length and breath of Ireland, you would find no equivalent today of the four Sheehan brothers.


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§ One Response to One suit attends mass four times on a Sunday morning: Mass-going in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s

  • Inny River says:

    These Sheehan brothers, wild men, made me smile.

    I attended the Good Friday service at my local church yesterday. The church was packed. Everybody went up to kiss the Cross, the process was conducted in a very orderly fashion. I took my place in the queue and noticed as I approached the Cross, an elderly woman, in her sixties, sitting on the left hand side about five rows from the front eating a Cadbury’s creme egg!


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