Hatches, Matches and Dispatches (Christenings, Weddings and Funerals)…

I am writing a memoir. Riveting stuff. Bound to interest Hollywood (USA not Holywood, County Down). It is pretty detailed. Even if I do nothing for the rest of my life, it will take 71 years, 7 months and 5 days to complete. Like I say it is pretty detailed.

I am now in 1961, when I was 9 years old and an altar boy at St Peter’s, now a cathedral but then a pro-Cathedral. For context, there were six priests and four daily (public)  Masses and seven on a Sunday. And the altar boys (only boys of course in 1961) were recruited from parish schools, St Josephs, St Comgalls, St Finians (although they were in the Clonard catchment area) and smaller schools. And nightly devotions every week (Boys Confraternity, Womens, Girls, Mens) yearly “missions” …and of course christenings, weddings, funerals…..the hatching, matching and dispatching.

Usually going to a church just means walking…but these events involve going on four wheels. …in a pram, a limousine and a hearse. Four wheeled Catholics.

All before Vatican Council and a heck of a lot of Latin.

The Dame Who Lifted A Cat And Threw It Over A Wall ….Ad Deum Qui Laetificat Juventutum Meam .as they say.

So the altar boy team needed 4x 7 (28) for Sunday, 4×4 (16) for weekdays and 6 for “devotions”. And each Mass team member was allocated 1, 2, 3 (bell boy) and 4 (the new boy).

Christenings after the last Mass on Sunday only involved priests. No altar boys. In fact no mothers either as they had to be churched as they were deemed “unclean”.

Weddings never happened in the Advent or Lenten season. Nor on Fridays. Which meant that Easter Monday was a popular day. Maybe three weddings all at 10am because nobody got their own time. That meant that with altar boys getting ten shillings and occasionally a pound  (untaxed) for a weddings…..maybe five shillings. each when divided. Enough for a Corgi car.

Yet a curious thing happened in my first week as an altar boy. A wedding at 7am. Over tea and warm soad bread (as Id been fasting of course) my mother asked me a lot of questions ….who was she? Where did she live? was she wearing white?   I knew no answers but my daddy said “Isa,,,dont scandalise the child”.

Of course before we went into the sacristy to get changed before 10am Mass we had no idea that there was a wedding. It was just a nice wee bonus. If there was a funeral, the clue was the black vestments set aside for the priest. Likewise before devotions a hearse sometimes turned up to leave a coffin overnight.

Again there was no special Mass….noon,,,,,,1pm whatever for a funeral, Liturgy in Latin. And no Eulogy. Definitely no Eulogy. This after all is a Mass for the repose of a soul and comfort for a family. This is not about condemning public sinners to Hell. Nor is it about prematurely stating someone is in Heaven.

After all a lot of people who have died in Norn Iron since 1969 may be public sinners in some peoples eyes. “How very dare the Catholic church conduct a service for…….(insert name here).

Things change. Prayers of the Faithful led by sad grandchildren “Dear GOD, please comfort Granny as she misses Grandad”. Extended family wearing Armagh tops and items associated with the dearly departed…..his snooker cue is appropriate, but a six-pack of Budweiser is not.

As the funeral Masses are now effectively out of the control of parishes, the Church necessarily has to adopt. We have our wakes. We have our lunches or buffets afterwards. Seems reasonable that the funeral Mass should have a degree of decorum.

Rather, like many on Slugger proclaim their atheism, so do many public figures. Yet there is an old saying that some who too loudly proclaim their atheism that will “die roarin’ ” (for a priest on their deathbed). I knew a lot of self-proclaimed Republicans like that…yet there are a lot of church funerals I have been at that have surprised me. But at least they died before I could shout “hypocrite”.

Public Sinners? …that,s a lovely term. It used to include Suicide.

Can it be a political thing….dying while planting a bomb for example? Or even mere membership of something of which we disapprove.

Is tearing up a picture of the Pope a public sin or merely causing scandal? Should such a person get a church funeral?

About two years ago I got off a train and passed a church where a funeral procession was coming out. Men in white shirts carrying an Orange Order styled banner with the image of a young woman followed by a horse drawn glass  carriage….with the image of the young woman on their saddlecloths and a pony drawn cart with flowers. And a lot of young women. The circumstances of that funeral were particuarly sad and Id make no judgements that some occasions, First Communions, weddings are “over the top”.

I did not know Shane Magowan was religious. I am pleasantly surprised. He was certainly a sensitive soul. But did they really sing “you scumbag you maggot, you cheap lousy f…..” in a church. I cant say that on Slugger. And did his cult following follow his hearse “to (not) midnight Mass and leave him in the lurch” …..the celebration is putting a button in the plate and spewing in the porch.

Of course a funeral might have a church element but certainly a public element. Can we offended by anyone’s funeral. Well I am a republican but I was deeply offended by a funeral in Belfast during Covid in 2020. Quite a lot of people would say it was offensive. You dont have to be a unionist to be offended.

I do not think you have to be a practising Catholic to be offended by Shane Magowan ‘s funeral. It was….at best….tacky. And insofar as the Church was consulted, it does not reflect well. It feels like pandering to people.

Insofar it provokes thought that a man a genteel soul like me would cross a street to avoid a Boy from the County Hell. ..that despite a very public image had “something about him” well that might do some good.

But pandering is a dangerous road to go down.

The church is almost powerless.

“Father I am new to this parish…..what time is Sunday Mass?”

“What time can you get here?

You will not read about my own arrangements in the Irish News. But if you’re passing by a crematorium in County Cavan and hear “Great Balls On Fire”….that will be me.

ooops a typo……Great Balls Of Fire.


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