By Jim Gammons
In my young days, the religious calendar was what told us summer was on the way. We hadn’t much expectation of St Patrick’s Day in spite of the old people’s saying, “St. Patrick turns round the warm side of the stone.” If Easter was late, it could be very pleasant prompting people to say, “It’s chancy but you might have a great summer yet.”
May Day was the next milestone, when children put up a ‘May Bush’ and decorated it with egg shells and anything else eye-catching that came to hand. The bush itself was whitethorn and couldn’t be brought into the house because that would be ‘unlucky’.
The twin midweek church holidays of Ascension Thursday and Corpus Christi showed we had broken through to another summer. These feast days were celebrated with great pomp in southern Europe.
In Venice, the Mayor, or Doge, went out leading a procession in his ceremonial barge to throw a ring in the sea to symbolise the marriage between Venice and the Mediterranean. Corpus Christi was celebrated with great fervour in Italy and Spain, and in a more low key way, but nonetheless just as devoutly, in Ireland. Nothing symbolises the simple faith of the people then than mid-twentieth century pictures of the uniformed Garda Sergeant down on one knee as the Blessed Sacrament passed by.
In the parish of Rathkenny, Co. Meath, my home place, the early part of June was completely coloured by the preparations for the Corpus Christi procession. As soon as the whitethorn burst into bloom, people started to think ‘procession’.
The first work was ‘scuffling’. This meant giving the Chapel grounds a facelift by digging up weeds with spades and barrowing them away.
Next came trimming the edges of grassy areas and grass mowing by scythe. The sound of a lawnmower was as scarce then in rural Ireland as the cuckoo is now and if heard, it was the click, click of a push mower.
The last week before the big day saw the dramatic developments begin, the digging of holes for poles. The experienced people were able to locate where last year’s holes were, making the work easier. Next, the poles were brought out for their annual airing and erected. They carried the Papal colours of pale gold and white in a spiral from bottom to top, like a barber’s pole, and were touched up if necessary. The final two evenings saw the banners and bunting (again in the Papal colours) going up. The banners were strung across the procession field. The two lines continued up to the temporary altar on a little hillock in a big grazing field, from which the cattle had been removed about a week before for obvious reasons. As we would say now ‘Health and Safety’.
The procession banners gave rise to tall stories, one of which involved a cobbler, as we called shoe repairers, who lived where three parishes met near Wilkinstown. He was a mercurial man of uncertain temper. In good weather, when he was at the hay during the day, he used to do his cobbling at night.
The ‘good boys’ used to call to his house on various errands and pocket those of his tools they could find, to temporarily discommode him.
The idea was to come back at night and hope to learn new words as he searched in vain for the appropriate tool.
To go back to the procession itself, during the golden years, I was usually in my freshly laundered altar boy’s white surplice and black soutane.
My most redolent memory is the glorious fragrance of flowering lilac branches used to decorate the three walled canvas tent that sheltered the temporary altar. In hot weather, even the canvas itself gave off a pleasant fragrance. We had brought down the bell and the thurible with us, as benediction was in the field.
The big actors who directed ‘operations’ were the good humoured parish priest, Father Poland, who loved ceremony and display, and the tall impressive teacher, Master Carty, who marshalled the children as if it were his full-time profession.
We didn’t know then that we were in the twilight years of Rathkenny procession. The next parish priest was a puritanical man who hated display. He didn’t realise the pride the men of the parish took in the preparations for the procession and the wish of the ladies to do them justice by dressing as gaily as they could in spite of war time rationing and scarcity of cloth. He saw the big day as a ‘fashion parade’ and put an end to it. The following year Mass-goers on Corpus Christi would have realised there was no procession by the proliferation of weeds in the chapel yard.
He abolished another institution too. The old school beside the chapel had become redundant in 1905 and over the years had evolved into a working man’s club.
A pack of cards, a few bottles of stout and a log fire in the old fireplace that used to warm Master Duffy’s back made for a pleasant few hours. It was ideal for ghost stories and I’m sure it heard many good ones.
The new priest had the roof removed, the top storey demolished and the ground floor roofed and locked up, ironically to store the redundant procession paraphernalia.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.