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.


What Mary might have said

December 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

We were rehearsing our nativity play. The girl who was playing Mary had recently joined our school. She had been abroad, perhaps in Hong Kong. She had the lustre of the uncommon thing. Those were the days when people did not travel as they do today.

So in Muckross Park Junior School:                                                                                                 The angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was going to have a baby.                                         ‘I am afraid it is not convenient,’ said Mary.                                                                                    The teacher hurried towards her to quash this fiction, and to reinstate the real Mary’s words.

‘I am afraid it is not convenient,’ seemed to me, then, an improvement on what the real Mary said. An answer that no other girl in the class would have devised.

We must assume that the angel Gabriel’s announcement that Mary was going to have a baby wasn’t at all convenient. Theologians, I understand, maintain that the angel Gabriel’s announcement was intended for just one girl (Mary), in all time. If Mary had answered other than she did, God’s will would not have been done. Because there were no other girls lined up to take Mary’s place.

Many of us know Mary’s true answer: we have heard it so many times that we hardly listen to it, let alone contemplate it. When we hear ‘I am the handmaid . . . ’ words as familiar—and perhaps as meaningless—as a nursery rhyme, our minds run on to finish it. We forget the significance of the words. We forget that only one woman could have put aside all considerations of herself, and have answered as she did:

‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’                   Luke 1: 38 (The Jerusalem Bible)




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