Going to Catholic mass as a child growing up in N.Ireland, was a serious affair. Your Sunday best was put on and we where gently motored to the church in my father's Citron 2CV, it's engine the sound of a contented tractor, which lulled you into the correct state of lethargy required to see through another repetitive Mass. Upon entering the church the usual pew was taken. The church was L-shaped (a long aisle and a short aisle) with the altar in the middle. We sat in the boring short aisle and I experienced the truth of the saying, 'the grass is always greener on the other side.'
Halfway through my childhood the long wished for moment arrived and we switched to the long aisle. But the seats were just as hard and straight-backed so as to afford not the slightest hint of comfort and the Priest's ramblings were just as boring. What caused my parents to make the switch I do not know, maybe they found themselves sitting too near someone they didn't like.
Where you sat and who sat to the front and rear of you, was of the utmost importance. There's a moment during the Mass when the priest says, "and now let us offer each other the sign of peace." This involves shaking hands with other devotees within hand-shot, and you really don't want to be shaking hands with someone you don't like. And in a small community, where gossip and not facts where the real truth, disliking someone came easy. Other people's flaws and minor defects were dissected brutally and a moral high ground was taken if the person fell below a certain two-faced standard.
For example Joe Bloggs is to be shunned because he stone-walled you in the local village shop, though the real reason probably was, he was in a deep depression because his marriage was falling apart, his teenage daughter had just got pregnant and he'd just lost his job and he just hadn't noticed you through the fog of his misery. From then on Joe Bloggs was a disreputable villain, for letting his marriage fall apart, allowing his daughter to get pregnant and for losing his job because of drowning his sorrows in the booze, an amateur cure-all in cases of depression.
Before moving to the other aisle, years were spent in careful study of who sat where and thus the perfect pew was sought. Everybody was doing it, so much so that to outside eyes, what looked to be an innocent Mass attended by devout Christians, was really a mentally strategic battlefield where the ultimate goal was not to be seated near anyone you found distasteful. Low attendance numbers was almost a blessing for these combatants as everyone could spread out in comfortable disdain.
We were a poor family but there was always a mission box in the kitchen that would steal my mother's pennies. Later on the money in the box was raided for the more urgent need of a pack of cigarettes. (so writes the guilty party) The collection plate always received a subtle envelope filled with enough coinage to keep a little brown baby in sweets for a week. The collector was adept at feeling the amount in each envelope and I can imagine the discussion backstage after the Mass:
Priest, "I heard Mrs Kennedy won at the bingo, has she thanked God better than she did last week?"
Collector/henchman, "Less Father, sure didn't she have to pay the club money last week."
My dad would always switch off the engine and coast down the long hill after Mass. And if it was a dry day, have us get out and push it the rest of the way home - I josh! he didn't, but I'm sure he thought about it as he had a thing about too much weight in the car, constantly referring to it with the same fervour he reserved for demonstrating the amount of toilet roll we should use on each visit.
I remember once farting during Mass. It was one of those that refused to be held captive for the duration. I weakened and nature trumpeted. My parents gallantly fought back the urge to slap and contented themselves with looks of the sternest hue. I received just punishment immediately upon setting foot back home. I had insulted God, the priest and my parents. They told me they'd prayed that no-one had heard it. But a fart is a fart and I only just managed to keep my sniggering in check. Another fart in the face of our lord was released several years after that. I was in the church with my school class, practicing looking angelic for our first holy communion, when the nauseous gas escaped once again in the Lord's house. A fellow pupil shamed himself forever in my eyes by announcing in a singsong voice to the teacher, "Miss McCarthy, Dominic Kennedy made a rude noise."
Mass wasn't all bad. It gave one the chance to catch up on one's daydreaming. Allowed the strengthening of one's critical faculties (attendees were discussed in detail and at length after each Mass) and most importantly, as I entered puberity, the unhindered gawking at the feminine physique. A strong imagination was needed to see beyond the layers of the ladies' conservative Sunday best. I possessed just such an imagination. And of course there was being lulled into a near comatose state by the fantastical ramblings of the priest, who spoke with such sincerity that you either believed him, or thought him a lunatic. I thought him a lunatic.
This man, this priest who forsook all earthly pleasures, at least outwardly, to tell us the word of God. This man who was looked up to, respected by the community, was a man I could not take seriously. The sheer solemnity of the Mass made me want to burst out laughing. Indeed I fantasied about just such an event. I would break out in a fit of giggles and between breaths, admonish the congregation for believing the utter drivel being spoken by this priest. I would then be manhandled by some disapproving Christain souls and ejected from the church.
As I entered my early teens, a revolution took place within the Catholic Church. To combat falling attendances at Sunday Mass, in part due to hangovers and laziness, they announced the holding of an earlier service, so early in fact that it was held on Saturday evening. My father gleefully suggested that I attend by means of a bicycle, thus preserving the suspension on his precious Citron. I was now free to attend Mass minus the constraints of parental watchfulness.
At some point during the initial period of Saturday evening mass, I struck upon the revelation that I could leave home on bicycle as if going to Mass, but not actually go. I pondered the alternatives, it would have to be somewhere where no good catholic would spot me and thus inform my parents. I struck upon the idea of the beach, or to be exact, the rugged rocky shoreline of the North sea on the outskirts of a small Protestant village. So there I went and what did I do? I did the same as I would have done in Mass, I sat and day-dreamed, but without the priestly babbling assaulting my ears. If memory serves, at a later date I began to bring along a book and some smokes to help pass the time.
The ruse worked splendidly, though being only human I did suffer a few guilty pangs for fooling my Mother, I still feel those pangs even today. She has passed from this world into the next and she must know by now my shirking of my Christian duty. I just have to turn my head as I write this and look upon her picture on the wall, to know that she can see right through me. On a side note, my Mother was and still is in my mind, one of the great Mothers, the true embodiment of the word. If there is a heaven or paradise beyond this world, then she is there, free of pain and worry, listening to country and western music between reads of romance books and only allowing herself a gentle sigh as she looks upon her children struggling through life the best they can.
As autumn turned to winter and darkness set in, the shore became less inviting and a new hideout was required. On my push-bike journey every Saturday to the sea, I passed an old Presbyterian church, perched in the middle of the countryside away from any other habitation. It was not used anymore, expect for a few special services several times a year. It was kept well-locked up, so a roof over my head was out of the question. But it did have a large tomb built onto the side of it, which afforded a wind-break and cover from any passing eyes. I settled in for the winter's duration.
My Mass alternative continued for a number of years, with concessions for Christmas and Easter. Summer was spend at the shore, where on a haze-less eve you could see the coastline of Scotland, and winter at Presbyterian Church. I was content with my routine until one cold blustery evening behind the Tomb. I was sucking away on a cigarette, my thoughts idling, almost to the point of tranquility, when I saw a white mist pass through the cement wall of the tomb and settle into the shape of an old woman, who then raised her fist to me and mouthed silently. She drew closer, I gazed at her with a mind blank of all thoughts as it had shut down upon witnessing the unbelievable sight. Her features became more solid as the seconds ticked away. What stays in my memory is the profusion of insects and grubs which etched her face and the chilling foul air that enveloped me as her voice began to be heard. "Feck off from here you Catholic scum." she uttered, then she collapsed back into mist and vanished into the tomb. I had not moved a muscle the whole time, I wonder if I'd even breathed. My brain slowly came back to life and processed the information, it discarded my thought that what I'd just witnessed was just an idle fantasy and kick-started a feeling of sheer terror, beginning in my stomach and rising to my throat. I bolted without even realising I was doing so.
I arrived home after a 10 minute cycle ride that would have qualified me as one of the great cyclists of our time. My Mother said, "You're home early, the mass is still on." My white complexion and trembling body lent truth to my shaky reply that I'd felt unwell. I began to attend mass again from the following Saturday. It was well lit and warm and free of ghostly Protestants. My daydreaming could continue unabated and by stuffing cotton wool in my ears I was able to block out most of the service. But try as I might I couldn't get out of offering the sign of peace.
written by Dominic Kennedy