Read an extract
Chapter 1: Sin Offering
Mammy is talking to herself again.
I was seated under the table on which she was scrubbing the potatoes and cutting up carrots and parsnips. She had an enamelled basin of water, a sharp knife and a small scrubbing brush. At first I thought she had forgotten all about me because she was snivelling and raising her voice and going on and on. Every now and then she’d bang on the table or thump the knife down hard then the next minute her knees would bend and she crouch over the table at the same time that she’d let out a sort of a murmuring cry.
“Dear Jesus why is this happening to me? Aren’t I doing my level best to make up to you for what happened?” Was what she said. Before she thumped though she was calling out: “The bitches the lot of them! Why’s everyone staring at me? Why won’t they leave me alone? This is a cruel way of punishing me.”
Our terraced stone cottage was one of ten that opened straight onto the street. It only had one small window in the front and another at the back facing out on to a long narrow garden with a tumbled down wall at the bottom. The room was always dark and gloomy in the day time and even worse at night when the one bulb struggled to light up the place.
Mammy’s foot hit my back. “Oh Jesus! I’m sorry darling. I’d forgotten you down there listening to all my ranting and raving. You must be frozen on that concrete floor.”
She bent and pulled me into her arms. “This is not your fault. You know I’d never harm you. I’m sorry darling. I love you. What am I doing to you?”
With that mammy hoisted me into her arms and collapsed into an old armchair our uncle Tim had given us. She cuddled me very tight. Too tight; and told me all about when I was born.
“Now my little treasure let me tell you what a special little girl you are.” Mammy’s tears were spilling on to my face and however much she wiped me and her, both our faces were still wet on account of the fact that her hankie was soaking.
“It was a Monday night at six o’clock when the Angelus Bells were ringing in the Franciscan church. You see you were born in a nursing home just around the corner in Bedford Row. You could say that you were born in answer to prayer when the Angelus Bells were out calling to everyone to remember when Jesus Himself, Our Divine Lord was born. Now isn’t that a sign from Almighty God that you are special, born in answer to prayer. You belong to God.”
“I love you mammy. But why are you sad?”
Mammy burst into to tears and slobbered all over me again. Then she moved me back on her lap and held me at arms length and between sobs she continued:
“Let me tell you more….. We’ve called you after Our Lady. She’s Jesus mother just like I’m your mammy….. We were going to christen you ‘Mary’ but there were too many girls being called ‘Mary’ so we put your name down as ‘Marion’….. So you are special.”
Then followed more hugs and kisses and a lots of wet patting before mammy let me down and carried on putting the pots on the stove and waiting for daddy to come home.
Every night she’d go out onto the street and look up in the direction of the Garda Barracks straining her eyes to see any sign of him. We always knew dad though from far off because of his limp. He had an ulcerated leg on account of him having been playing rugby for Garryowen. Every night when he came home he would have to change the gauze and bandages and there would be a smell of ointment all round our house.
“Isn’t she a little dote!”
I’d wrapped mum’s long tweedy skirt around her legs and was peeping in and out and round and swinging and holding on to her. She smelt of that blue bottled ‘Evening of Paris’ perfume she hid in her side of the wardrobe. I was so happy now that mammy had stopped being so upset. I wondered if it was having my little brother that had given her pain. I didn’t set out to listen to what daddy was saying to mammy but she kept repeating that everybody was watching and talking about her and daddy kept saying, “Patsy please will you believe me when I tell you that I really and truly love you and your family and friends have forgiven us. Everything will be alright now, you’ll see.”
Another day I over heard granny telling granddad:” Having Oliver so soon after Marion was the ruination of Patsy. It’s too much for her after letting herself down like that. She can’t manage and what’s more she’s imagining that we’re all against her. We had every reason to be cross but that’s behind them now. She’ll drive herself mad. She’s having a breakdown I tell you.”
Then there was the other time when daddy came home from work and mammy asked me to rock baby Oliver to sleep in his pram in the kitchen while she finished getting the dinner ready. Mammy had been crying and talking to herself again and I had tried to make her happy by hanging her cardigans and dad’s shirts up in the wardrobe and putting the ware away and sweeping the floor. The steam from the stew nearly made me fall asleep. All of a sudden daddy screamed as he rushed over and grabbed me up in his arms, “For God’s sake Patsy take that child away. Will you look what she’s doing? She’s rocking the bloody door handle!”
With that mammy started to cry and they both cuddled me together. The very next day my case was packed and daddy took me round to granny and granddads Colivets’ for a holiday.
It was while I was over in the back road with granny that daddy took me out for a ride on his bike. I had to take hold of the handle bars and he put his big strong, hairy hands over mine until we were out in the country and after we had stroked a big horse daddy sat me down on a hillock next to him and explained: “Mammy and me want you to play with Mary in the end house and we don’t want you to be minding Oliver as much as you do. You love your little brother and that’s only right but you’re our little girl and we have been expecting too much of you. Do you understand?”
Mammy seemed like her old self when I came back home. She had stopped sobbing and she began to stop and talk to her friends again. In fact she was doing so much talking that she seemed to take notice of me. I was jumping on and off the path and nearly into mammy’s friend Eileen. She didn’t seem to mind because she bent down to my size and said:
“Well isn’t she the image of Frank. Aren’t you darling? Sure you are. Haven’t you got his lovely blue eyes and the hair and all? Well now, aren’t you a grand girl?”
“How old is she now Patsy? She’s fine and tall too. Coming up for six did you say?”
“She’ll be making her First Communion this June on the Feast of St Peter and Paul.”
“She’s a grand girl, isn’t she Patsy?”
I’d smile and look up at mammy’s friends, Rita and Eileen and wait for mum to say,
“Tell them Marion what you’re going to be when you grow up?”
“A nun,” I’d say and wait for all the attention that usually followed:
“Come here ‘til I give you a hug. You’re a credit to your mammy and daddy. Aren’t they blessed with you?”
Then Eileen, like all the others who had been told before, would pat me on the head and bend down so that her face was very close to mine and say those all important words: “Holy God must be very pleased with you. Aren’t you the lucky one to have been chosen by God?”
Inside I felt so cosy and loved and delighted that I knew what I would be when I grew bigger. I could imagine myself all dressed up in a long dress looking very important like the nuns who went to the Novena Devotions to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour up in the Holy Father’s church. Everybody would know I had been a good girl.
“Your First Holy Communion is the most important thing to happen to you in your whole life. Jesus coming into your soul is what you have to remember.” This is what mammy often said while I was being prepared for the big day.
In the Model School in Limerick my teacher explained that the small wafer the priest placed on my tongue was the sacred body and blood of Christ, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, God Almighty Himself.
“Am I going to get a First Holy Communion dress like cousin Joan and Vera had when they made theirs?”
“What did I tell you about receiving Jesus? You mustn’t think about what you’re wearing. That will only distract you from what is important. Even if you only wear a flour sack; one that is washed and stitched to fit, it’s Jesus coming into to your soul that’s important.”
Mammy took me to a shop down town and I fitted on a lovely white dress and a blue coat and a veil. It was the first time I had ever worn a veil. But she told me that I was fitting these clothes on for another little girl who was the some size as me. Although I partly guessed that these clothes were for me I was not certain until my granny unpacked my case on the night before the big day.
When mammy told me that I would be staying with my granny and aunts the night before my First Holy Communion I wondered why she was not going to get me ready. But she explained that granny had a proper bath and my aunties Evelyn and Mona would put rags in my hair so that I would have ringlets.
With my case packed I stood waiting for the bus to pass our house in Ryans’ Cottages Rosbrien. Mam put her hand out and explained to the driver that my granny would be waiting by Fennessys’ pub in the New Street. He agreed to put me off there.
The first thing granny checked when we had walked the few yards from the bus stop was that I was sure that I wouldn’t wet the bed. Then I was fed and washed, rubbed in talcum powder and the rags put in my hair. There were night prayers to be said and another reminder that the next day would be a day I would remember until the day I died.
On the big day I was dressed in the frock that mammy said was for that other little girl that was the same size as me. My ringlets hung down over the collar of my new blue coat and my black paten shoes with a big buckle in front made me feel very swish.
Granny had a bunch of white lilies ready for me to hold when I got into granddad’s black Prefect. We collected my friend Paula and granddad drove us down to St Joseph’s church in O’Connell Street. My mam was waiting for us there and she told me that my granddad Dante had helped to build that church and it didn’t matter that it was raining because I was going to receive Jesus and this was the most important day in my life. I had made my First Confession a week earlier so all my sins had been washed away by the Blood of Christ and I was pure as could be.
Then came the big moment. I was kneeling at the altar rails with all the other girls and boys in my class waiting for the priest to reach me. An altar boy held the golden communion plate under my chin and I lifted my head up, opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue so that the priest could put the host on it. I could hear the voices of all who prepared me telling me to remember that at the Consecration of the Mass, when the priest had uttered the words, “This is my Body and this is my Blood,” this wafer had become the Body and Blood of my Saviour Jesus Christ.
I did remember. I did manage to stop and really think about what was happening. I whispered “Welcome Jesus. Welcome into my soul.”
Nothing else mattered. All the prayers and the singing of the hymns like ‘Jesus you are coming’ and ‘Soul of my Saviour’ was lovely and I felt good and chosen and special. When we walked down the aisle and out onto the church steps to have a class photo taken the sun was shining. I was kissed and then taken down town to have a photo taken in a proper photographer’s shop.
Mammy brought me into her friend’s knitting shop in William’s Street and then into other stores and everybody gave me money. Mammy said that they really meant to give it to her but they gave it to me to give to her to help pay for my clothes and the photographers.
When we eventually got home I had to take off my First Holy Communion dress but I was allowed to keep the gold chain and cross on that my cousins had given me. I wish I had not kept it on though because it must have slipped off when I went down the few hundred yards from my house to Hoares’ to buy some sweets. Mammy tried not to be cross but nevertheless made me and my brother search up and down the road for hours. We never did find that cross and I wondered if God was disappointed at me for insisting that I be allowed to buy those sweets.