Saturday, November 05, 2005

First Confession/Communion memories

Preparation for First Holy Communion was serious business at school in Ireland in 1962.

First Confession had to be prepared for initially. Our teacher, I realized later in my schooling, mimicked a scene from Frank O'Connor's short story First Confession. Fear of Hell needed to be instilled into kids so they would avoid sin. The teacher lit a candle on her desk and invited anyone to hold a finger over the flame for more than a few seconds. One or two tough guys tried it and ended quickly back at their desks yelping. The teacher then gloatingly explained that they had experienced a very tiny glimpse of Hell. However, rather than a quick pain in the tip of the finger, the fires of Hell gave continuous pain over over every inch of your body - for all eternity. Wow! We seven year old kids were almost traumatized with the thought. It was too much to take in. Better avoid sin big time. I became very fearfully interested in the technicalities of mortal and venial sin and telling a proper confession.

The 10 commandments were also taught to us carefully. The teacher did however gloss over the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery." She said that we would learn more about that sin when we were older. I wasn't impressed by this response and it worried me that I could be guilty of it without knowing. I looked at the wording carefully and coupled with the teacher's vague clue I figured that the sin had to mean pretending to be an adult when you were only a kid. When I went to confession I actually told the priest that I had committed adultery! After I landed this bombshell the priest leaned forward and looked carefully at me out of the grill in the dark confession box. "Do you know what adultery is, my child?", he asked. I suddenly realized that I must have been completely wrong in my notion of adultery. I then nervously said "Eh, no." A faint smile appeared on the priest's face but thankfully he dropped the subject and asked me to continue with my confession.

There was a test run in the class for receiving communion properly. We each went up to the front of the class in a line and received unconsecrated communion from the teacher. The idea was to practice the mouth opening and swallowing the communion without biting it. It was well before the time of having an option on receiving communion in the hand. Biting or touching communion was a serious offence. Everything in general went well on the test run except one boy did, perhaps by accident, bite the communion. The teacher noticed instantly. I recall that she did not slap the boy (although that was a very real option open to her - see my other article Slapping in junior school 1960...The Switch!) but instead made a major example of him and his fatal action to the entire class. I recall the kid in tears and terrible distress at his desk. The stigma the teacher made of his action was powerful and affected us all in the classroom. Even in the schoolyard afterwards the lad was identified in talk as the boy who bit the communion. It scared us all of ever biting communion. And this was just a test run. Imagine what the priest would do at the live event!

I have to say that by contrast to teachers and clergy, my mother had a gentle and friendly, albeit intense, approach to faith. She also wanted her only child turned out really well for First Holy Communion. However, I still can never forgive her for choosing a cream coloured suit for me! Just picture the view from the balcony of the packed church in St. Gabriels, Clontarf. On the left side of the centre aisle was an ocean of little girls in white dresses. On the right was a mass of boys in dark suits. Right in the middle of the dark suits was an idiot in white! I felt incredibly self-conscious and although I laugh at it now, it was quite an issue at the time (I made absolutely sure that I chose my own Confirmation suit four years later!).

My father had borrowed an old black Morris Minor car for the First Communion day. I thought this was very exciting - I loved cars and rarely had the opportunity to be a passenger. My Dad drove my Mum and I to my granny down in the country - a little cottage in a rural townland called Dorea, some miles beyond Ashbourne. I recall that I collected 7 shillings in total from relations and family friends - a good solid innings at the time, 44 cents in today's money!

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