Last Sunday, the changes brought about in contemporary Irish society in a few short decades were emphasised to me in two diverse, yet interlinked ways. At 12 o’clock Mass on Sunday in the great edifice of a Parish Church which we call St. Michael’s, I knelt in prayer in the company of a sparse congregation. This was or used to be, in other days, the principal Sunday Mass, if one could so differentiate between Sunday Masses. I recall St. Michael’s when the 12 o’clock Sunday Mass was packed to the doors with the usual coterie of hangers on standing in the Church porch and indeed even outside the main door. Their choice of place for worship owed nothing to the numbers sitting or kneeling inside the Church, but rather indicated their reluctance to get too involved in the religious ceremonies, while at the same time keeping a toehold on the religious observances which might be required to build up some spiritual credit for a later date.
Last Sunday, even the porch worshipers were missing, or at least had not arrived by the time I passed through. Mass attendance is obviously no longer part of the Irish religious ethos. Sunday morning congregation numbers have declined and seem to have reached a point where for the majority of the local people, Sunday Mass attendance is a thing of the past.
One constant however over the years has been the joyful cheerfulness of young children about to make their First Holy Communion. Last Sunday the first half of what I believe was to be a two day Communion ceremony took place with upwards of 50 young boys and girls participating at the 10.30 a.m. Mass. Over the two days that means the involvement of approximately 100 youngsters and I wonder how does that compare to our own time over 50 years ago. First Communion in those days was a one day affair, so perhaps the numbers then were less than they are in 2004. One thing however has changed. The Mercy Convent which for decades welcomed the First Communicants to a breakfast spread of fairy cakes and lemonade is no longer there.
As the children and their parents streamed out of St. Michael’s just before the start of the 12 o’clock Mass, memories of my own First Communion over 50 years ago came to mind. Truth to tell the most enduring memories of that day are the visit to the Convent after Mass and the coin collection journey made up and down Offaly Street later in the day. No paper money passed my tiny palm, or those of my friends that day. Half a crown [to the uninitiated the equivalent of 12½ cent in today’s coinage] was a bumper harvest in those days and would fund weeks of enjoyment of Cleeves toffee at a penny a go.
Mention of the Sisters of Mercy and the closure of the Convent set me thinking whether we properly or adequately marked the recent passing of the great Mercy institution which had been so much a part and parcel of life in Athy since 1852. Somehow I feel that we owe it to ourselves and those who have gone before us to revisit the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy in Athy and to ensure that it will always be cherished and never overlooked.
I was saddened last Sunday to see the very visible evidence of the wilting of the Catholic Church and how its links with the Irish people have loosened. There is no going back to the days of the autocratic Church of yesteryear where slavish adherence to the rites and practices of the Church body allowed no room for the development of individual spirituality. Perhaps it is the development of that personal spirituality which is the greatest difference between the Mass going Catholics of 50 years ago and the Church followers of today.
After Mass I learnt of the recent death of two former neighbours from Offaly Street. Dettie Kehoe I can still picture in my minds eye, although I suppose it’s forty years or so since I last set eyes on her. The tall dark haired lass was a pupil of St. Mary’s School when I was in the local Christian Brothers, even if a few years separated us. Nevertheless I knew Dettie well as she was an older sister of Sheila whom I was privileged to know when we were both young and innocent. The Kehoe family lived in the pub in Offaly Street at a time when Offaly Street resounded to the happy laughter and talk of young and not so young families. Dettie married Tom Devaney and moved to Castlebar before moving later to Sligo. She was the mother of nine daughters and one son, all of whom survive her, as does her husband to whom our sympathies are extended.
Living in No. 5 Offaly Street at the time when the Taaffe’s lived next door in No. 6 was Tom White, his wife and five children. Andrew and Basil White were part of the Offaly Street gang of Kelly’s, Taaffe’s, Moore’s, Webster’s and at different times Cash’s and Doody’s, all of whom enjoyed youthful camaraderie in the early 1950’s. Mary and Helen White were younger sisters of the boys, while the baby of the family was Leo. Tom White, a Newbridge man, worked in Myles Whelan’s pub and grocery in Duke Street and in his spare time was a very active participant in the community life of the town. His wife, May, was the daughter of Isaac and Helena Thompson of Leinster Street and I remember when in the early 1950’s the White family left Athy after Tom purchased the “Avonree Pub” in Callan, Co. Kilkenny. It was not a successful move and the family later transferred to Athgarvan where Tom died, aged 58 years. Last week, Helen White, died. She was the last of the seven members of the White family who 50 years ago left Athy for Callan.
My pals, Andrew and Basil White, passed away some years ago, as did Mary and Leo, all gone long before their time. Only Mary White, their mother, survived until old age. Helen, who was married to Tom Farrell, butcher of Newbridge, died last week at 58 years of age. She had lived longer than any of her siblings, but even then death came far too early for one well short of the biblical three score and ten.
Dettie Kehoe and Helen White have joined the ghosts of times past, helping to recreate in the other world a host of memories of innocent days spent in and around Offaly Street. Long may those memories last.