A St Patrick's Day blog.
My parents Rita and Stan McCarrick.
Current propaganda would have us believe that life in 1930’s Ireland was a bit of hell on earth, and that this was all the fault of the Catholic Church. Yet some who grew up at that time lived a different experience.
My father was born in Sligo, Ireland in 1918. He was the most well educated person I have ever met. He attended the National School until his early teens when he got a scholarship to St Nathy’s College in Roscommon. He was a smart fella. One of his younger schoolmates from his early schooldays remembers that after he left the National School, the teacher there used to tell stories about how he used to get my father to point out the major towns and rivers of various countries on a map with a stick – not so brilliant a trick except that he was doing it behind his back!
At college he learnt Latin and Greek in addition to his English and Gaelic, like everyone else, and had to write compositions in all four languages. He once won an all-Ireland essay competition, for a composition entitled “The Press and Catholic Action”. Unfortunately he didn’t keep a copy of the prize-winning essay, so when he was asked to produce a copy by his teacher sometime later, he had to write it again from scratch! But he was delighted with the “Guinea’s worth of books” that he won in any case.
He didn’t enjoy his time at college. The reason for this was that he was blisteringly poor and couldn’t afford a trip to the cinema, the shop or any of the other things boarders pass their terms with, and he frequently had shoes with huge holes in the soles or worn out clothes to live with. But for the rest of his life he referred back to that college as a perfect environment, where boys were brought up to behave honourably and justly. He regarded the teachers in that school – all Priests - as the finest men he met in his life. And his fellow pupils, shaped by those men, as not far behind them. He had been sent to the college probably with a hope that he would choose the priesthood, but no word was ever said to him when he did not. In his case, anyway, there was no pressure.
They had fun too, in that college. One of his friends, later a Priest, invented a litany in Latin of all the student’s names, to which they all had to reply “Ora pro nobis”. My Father, though known as Stanley after his middle name, was officially Charles McCarrick, so in the litany he was “Carolus Carrickedes” to which he duly replied “Ora pro nobis”. Once when one of their teachers drank a small quantity of sulphuric acid in error (and apparently survived!) a rhyme went round the school about the poor priest: “Old ------- died last night, his like we’ll see no more. For what he thought was H20 was H2S04.”
Was the Church harsh? Well, he said he remembered the parish priest preaching in fury when some girl or other locally got pregnant before marriage – something that was felt to be necessary in order that other girls would not make the same mistake. Though she wasn’t named of course everyone knew who she was. But he also knew the other side of that- the pastoral care that was provided for those wanting to put right such situations – he was a witness at a Marriage of two of his friends , where the woman was pregnant beforehand. Their marriage was held at midnight with just the 2 witnesses and the Priest present with the couple. The two spouses then returned to their homes and later she went to live with her husband, thus ensuring that nobody knew when the wedding took place – and thus that nobody knew that she was pregnant before the wedding took place. Other girls were hidden in Church run institutions. Those I have met speak about these places as hard work but a place where they were treated fairly, contrary to stories in films such as "The Magdalene Laundries" - and we have to consider also in passing judgement on the harshness of that society that girls today are left to sleep on the street at 7 months pregnant* if they don't accept the "merciful" solution our society offers them; abortion.
The beatings and harshness that my father witnessed in school took place in the National (state) lay run school, rather than the college run by Priests, in his case. Down in Cork, my Mother experienced this harshness from the lay run National school too – her sister was once forced to stand in front of a fire until her legs blistered terribly as a punishment for some minor misdemeanour. Not only did the local Police take no notice of this when asked to intervene, but my aunt was left with a painful and disfigured leg for life and no-one cared less. So my parents never particularly associated the harshness of the times with either Catholicism or the priesthood or religious life.
My father had such a strong faith in the Church, and the Holy Father and a devotion to Our Lady which deepened throughout his life. And he carried that sense of justice which he learnt in college to the grave. He couldn’t bear to see someone bullied or taken advantage of by another and would have to intervene at whatever personal risk. Many was the drunk he carried home in his time. Many the unaccompanied girl he saw safely to her door. He fought off an intruder in our home when he was 90, because the fellow had no right to be there!
He remembered his life in Aclare, County Sligo, as a life founded on living out the Gospel teaching of love of neighbour. No door needed to be locked, no-one would see their neighbour in trouble without offering to help bring in the crops, share what they had, lend goods or a hand where they could. His own father, the local magistrate, used to call the poor of the local village up to their home the day before he would see them in court and give them the money to pay the fines he would fine them the next day!!! No wonder they were penniless.
Dad spent his life from the 1960’s onwards writing more and more letters to the press, to MPs and TDs (the Irish equivalent) about abortion, and to a lesser extent other moral issues like divorce. He also wrote to Bishops and Priests about the dreadful errors in catechesis which sprang up following (though not beacuse of) Vatican II. Abortion, when the reality of it hit him, was his most urgent moral concern, second only to the urgent need for catechesis and evangelisation. In this I see the depth of his formation in the faith. He had a great clarity about right and wrong and didn’t fluff the major issues of his time.
Lastly, his education and upbringing gave him a certain humility about his own prospects. ~He warned us many times before his death that if anyone attempted to give a eulogy at his funeral, or suggest that he was in heaven already –( the premature canonisation we sadly see at so many funerals these days!) – that by whatever means needed he would break the lid of his coffin! Our Parish Priest was clever on this point however – he pointed out that Dad wore his brown scapular and was faithful to the promises associated with it. Therefore he would surely have received the Sabbatine Privilege; by which Our Blessed Lady promises those who wear the scapular and keep the promises that she will bring them to heaven on the Saturday following their death. My father died on Saint Patrick’s Day 2010– most appropriate for one who spent his life defending what Ireland of his youth was really all about – but he was buried on the 26th March. Between those two dates a Saturday had passed. Therefore my PP stated, we could be sure Dad was in heaven.
Now Dad, there’s a dilemma! Even you would have struggled with that one. Do we take you at your word and assume you are in need of our prayers? Or do we take Our Lady at her word and accept you are in heaven? Well maybe we will just have to believe that you are in heaven, but assume that you needed all the prayers and Masses that we can still muster to have gotten there! (Padre Pio gives a great explanation of how his Grandmother was already in heaven because of Masses he had yet to say – earthly time not being relevant to heaven). In any case, the lid of your coffin remained intact! Carolus Carrickedes, in heaven or in purgatory, ora pro nobis!
As for Ireland, People will say what they will about the Church and some will honestly relate horrible and harsh experiences at the hands of priests and sisters. But my family’s experience of Irish Catholicism in the first half of the 20th Century has been a blessing and has given our family such a firm anchor in the faith that has allowed us to stay faithful to Our Mother the Church this far (despite many slips) and will continue to do so we hope and pray.