Going to confessions in the 1930Ős, 40Ős and 50Ős

By Brendan Murray

The teacher in Shercock National School in the 1940’s instructed her second class pupils to write answers to the sums on the board. She then went to the opposite side of the room and stood before the young boys and girls of third class for their catechism lesson.
The teachers and the local priest took great pride in being the only school graded “excellent” by the Diocesan religious examiner during the previous two years; the School had a reputation to keep up.

Addressing the class she said” I told this class to revise the answers to the questions on confession.” Speaking slowly she continued, “I remind you again that when we go to Confession we must confess all our mortal sins which we have not yet confessed; we need not confess all our venial sins but it is a very good thing to do so;” spotting young Terry Lynch fidgeting at the back of the class she stopped abruptly; she decided to put him on the spot by asking him a couple of quickies, ---

“Lynch! Stand up -- What’s the first Commandment?
“First, - I am thy Lord, thy God; thou shall not have strange Gods before me,” he shot back in sing song fashion and sat down.

“Good!” she responded with some surprise, unaware that he now guessed what was coming next and had glanced at the answer in the catechism hidden from her view.
“Now, tell me” she said, “Are theatrical representations at wakes or certain amusements forbidden by the first commandment”
He slowly stood up again taking time for another glance at the answer and then like a shot replied, “Theatrical representations at wakes and all other amusements by which sacred things are ridiculed are strictly forbidden by the first commandment.” He had given the right answer but he hadn’t a clue what the words meant and neither did anyone else in the class

Though the Catechism language was updated to some extent between the 1940’s and 50’s depending on the “sins” of the day, (obviously, there were great goings-on at wakes), nevertheless, the language of religion in the middle of the last century was not child orientated. The educational process was based on repetition; young pupils learning to answer questions in the “penny” catechism by repeating answers in a sing song fashion until their brains absorbed them, —some of the words were enormous and some archaic like-- thee, art, thou, hail and shalt; though kids could parrot-like recite the right answers and prayers, in many cases they hadn’t a clue what they meant. Perhaps the Church had a good reason for this word gargantuan; it certainly gave the impression that the writer wished to convey that he was very clever; however, to the child’s mind the incomprehensible words added a religious mystique which was appropriate in the era of the Latin Mass, fear of going to hell, loss of Heaven and profound faith in the Almighty.

It was important to know the Ten Commandments of God and the chief Commandments of the Church, and to know when you had committed sin, particularly a mortal sin and consequently in need of Confession. By the time youngsters finished their National School education they had a reasonable grasp of the laws of God and the rules and regulations of the Church. Up to then, lads confessed to sins of- swearing, cursing, robbing orchards, disobeying their parents and telling lies. Those who went on to Secondary School continued to receive religious education usually by dedicated religious Brothers and learned about the virtues of, modesty, purity, self denial and sacrifice and the dangers to chastity by idleness, bad companions, company keeping, improper dances, plays and books, to name but a few, plus lots of humility and humble- pie. As a result, the examination of conscious before confession by these lads took a little longer; to be on the safe side, some steered clear of attractive females and likened them to the Blessed Virgin.

Attaining social prestige depended a lot on being, or appearing to be, a good Catholic and that helped young and old to toe the line. Neighbours and enemies had to be loved, the Lord’s Day and holy days of obligation kept holy by going to Mass and abstaining from servile work, parents obeyed, no quarrelling or getting angry, or revenge; of course, injuring or murdering anybody or “coveting thy neighbour’s wife” was strictly out of the question.” Sadly, the young girls of that era later understood they could not “covet thy neighbour’s husband” even though it was not so expressed in the catechism.

The Commandments of the Church included rules regarding days of fast- when only one full meal plus a morning and evening snack were allowed and days of abstinence- when meat including meat soup and gravy were forbidden. Church rules could vary from Diocese to Diocese so if meat was forbidden on a certain day in Diocese of Kilmore but allowed in in the Diocese of Clogher it was in order for a man in these adjoining Dioceses, say, Shercock or Kingscourt to partake of a decent meaty meal in nearby Carrickmacross without staining his soul.

Also, hymns and prayers often referred to “man” (meaning mankind); this was ostensibly misunderstood by some craw thumping ladies when the hymn “Lilly of the Valley” was sung at evening devotions; the voices of these ladies swelled significantly as they sang the line- “when wicked men blaspheme thee, I love and bless thy Name; they feigned sufferance as they painfully glanced piously around the corners of their headscarves at the wicked males on the men’s side of the chapel.
“Drink” in the perception of most women, was the sin frequently indulged in by “Man.” Women did not frequent pubs and few if any drank intoxicating liquor.

It was imperative to be truly married in those days; a marriage in a registry office, or before a non catholic minister, was not considered a true marriage. A Catholic who lived as husband or wife after such a marriage was deemed to be living in sin. There was plenty of ways in those days for young and old to commit venial or mortal sins, even though, more often than not, there was a general lack of opportunity to succumb to temptation--Priests, gardai and teachers kept up constant surveillance for company keeping, theft, fighting, swearing, getting drunk and lying; but for those who fell by the way, it was important they went to confession and wiped the slate clean. Most folk toed the line

People were encouraged to go to confession at least once a month, which meant telling their sins to a priest in order to obtain absolution. Everyone went, children with their venial sins, women, some of whom suffered from scruples thinking that everything they did was a mortal sin, and men, some of whom suffered from a “duck’s back” conscious---guilt ran off it like water off a duck’s back. The big sin of the day, the sixth commandment,-“Thou shall not commit adultery,” came in for a lot of attention by the clergy; it not only forbade adultery but all looks, books, words and actions against the virtue of chastity; the dangers to chastity were listed as improper dances, immodest dress, and taking deliberate pleasure in impure thoughts, ‘indecent books, conversations, plays and pictures.
Gossiping was the preserve of some females. When a man saw the town gossip talking to a neighbour on the street he might comment to his wife –“ I saw Mrs. So and So broadcasting the news about the neighbours again- “Calumny”-- isn’t that telling lies about someone or is it “Detraction” and the wife would reply, “ no! It’s just ordinary Backbiting.”

In most rural parts of Co.Cavan there was a “children’s day” for confessions of National School children, and children dressed in their Sunday best had to attend on these days, always, a Saturday at 11.30am and received Holy Communion on the following Sunday. In Sherlock, National School going children did not sit in church with their parents, the two front seats on either side were reserved for them, girls on the left (the women’s side) and boys on the right (the men’s side). In Secondary School the situation varied for the boys and girls of east Cavan attending schools in Carrickmacross; boys attending the Patrician Brothers High School were allowed out to attend confessions in the adjoining Saint Joseph’s Church but no such privilege was allowed to the Saint Louis Convent day girls.

Missions and retreats were numerous, particularly those organised by the Redemptorists, with Catholic life in towns and villages holding sequences of Sodalities, Masses and Retreats. The quiet Missioner usually gave a sermon before the days for confessions on how to make a good confession; he stressed some points in a light hearted way to encourage everybody to receive the Sacrament.—“you must accuse yourself of your sins, you must tell the kind of sin, the number of times you committed the sin; for instance, if it’s a sin of stealing- was it a large or small amount? What the article was? I had a man come to confession to me once, far from here, and he said—Father, he said, I stole an old rope; Ah now! I said, that’s not too serious; but he said hesitantly, there was a cow at the end of it.”

Everybody was expected to go to confession during a Mission. Most people decided to go to the quiet humorous man and were hesitant in going to the “fire and brimstone man”. Nevertheless, in order to ascertain what each individual missioner was like in the confessional, “scouts” (a regular attendee in a family) attended first and relayed back what “he was like”. The hard cases, - usually men whose traditional male sanctuary was the pub, were paid a visit by one of the missioners and encouraged to attend the Sacrament. Other households who appeared to be in need of religious special attention were also visited. On these occasions everyone went to confession and long queues formed outside the confessional box of the “Grand quiet missioner” that you could tell anything to and avoided like the plague the one that’d “ate the head of ya” for the smallest thing.

Of course, on occasions, the inevitable happened, the Fire and Brimstone man on pulling back the shutters on the grills of his confessional box discovered both penitent sides empty and on stepping out discovered a multitude queuing at his colleagues confessional; he in no uncertain terms instructed half of them to come to him; they couldn’t bolt out the door as he stood watching them until they sheepishly obeyed.

In the Ireland of the mid twentieth century, lives of young Catholics were firmly Church centred, a fact, criticized in some quarters to this day. Maybe without the zealous religious indoctrination, we, the youth of that era, would have ended up as baddies— or suicidal- who’s to know?

“Confession,” they say, “is good for the soul.” Young boys and girls experienced great relief and hope for the future on emerging from the confessional having received absolution from sin and resolved not to sin again. They were at peace with themselves and with the world as they prayed penance given by the priest; there was quiet repose; red light flickered from the Sanctuary lamp in front of the alter and colours of red, purple and blue reflected through the stain glass windows; lighted penny candles reflected golden light from the brass candles holder to the right of the alter rails. Usually, they lit a penny candle before departing from the church, ready to face the whole wide world.

It’s interesting to note that Co. Cavan man, John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin 1940—1972, is referred to by his most recent biographer as the “ruler of Catholic Ireland.”