By Pádraig Turley
When I was a child growing up on a farm in Clerhane, situate about two miles north of the village of Shannonbridge there were two occasions each year when the folk returning from Mass would carry a very important piece of information. This news was the name of the family nominated to have the Stations. This occurred once in spring and once at autumn time. There was clearly a roster, and the priest would call out the name of the next family during Mass on a Sunday. We were lumped in with the townland of Cloniff resulting in a combined number of households of ten between the two townlands. This meant that one would expect to host the stations once every five years. Notwithstanding this, people were always pretty shocked when their name was called out.
The particular holding of the stations that I wish to tell you about happened in 1951. It was Sunday 19th August 1951 when my mother arrived home from First Mass, jumped off her bicycle, rushed into the house and spluttered out ‘Guess what’s the news I have?’ ‘What?’ enquired my grandmother. ‘We’re to have the stations’. My grandmother had an expression to describe a person in bad form, she would say they had a face like a summons. Well on this Sunday morning she donned a face like a summons. ‘Bad cess to it, I thought it was the turn of the Mannions.’
The Mass Rock and the Station Mass
Before going on to describe the travails the stations caused my grandmother, I shall give a brief outline of what the stations are. They can be traced back to the penal laws which oppressed the Catholic Church, especially during the 18th century. Public ceremonies involving Catholics were banned and churches were either destroyed or put to use as Protestant churches during the period after the Reformation and latter the Battle of the Boyne. As is usual when you try to suppress a religion people are likely to become more attached to it and much more devout. The Catholic people who remained faithful found new ways to practice their faith. Two new traditions emerged, the Mass rock and the Station Mass. Folk gathered in the open countryside at a designated spot marked by a rock to celebrate Mass. The Priest would arrive disguised, and then place the sacred vessels on the rock, while locals would keep a look out from vantage points in the landscape, from where they would spot any approaching militia.
The Popery Report of 1731 was very exercised about Mass houses, besides sheds, huts and moveable altars. The Irish countryside is still littered with these Mass rocks which are still considered to be special sacred places. An alternative venue for Mass was in people’s houses. Word would be put out locally that Mass would be celebrated in a particular house on a designated day. The people would gather for what was often the only opportunity to attend Mass in a long time. Because it was not safe for the Priest to carry the sacred vessels or vestments with him, they were taken care of by the local people. They passed what was known as the ‘Mass Kit’ from house to house as required. This Mass became known as the ‘station Mass’ because of the random movement from place to place. In areas, some houses became acknowledged locally as regular venues for Mass and became known as Mass houses. More of these emerged as the penal laws were repealed.
While now free to practice their religion the Catholic community did not have resources to build enough churches. Hence, the tradition of the station Mass continued. Even when each community was able to build it’s own church, the station tradition was kept alive. The stations had a two part focus, the celebration of the Mass in one’s home and an occasion for hospitality for your neighbours. The social changes in recent decades have seen changes in many aspects of the station Mass tradition. The tradition remains in a lot of parishes and these parishes will have a rota of families willing to host the stations. Nowadays people volunteer to host the station by contacting the local priest. Unlike in my grandmother`s time the hosting family tend to invite neighbours to attend.
‘Tidy that up, can’t have it like that and the priest coming’
Now let us go back to the stations of that autumn of 1951. We lived in a three-roomed thatched house on a farm that once featured a thriving quarry which had been worked out by 1951. (1) The house did not have running water. The electricity had not reached us yet. ‘Mother of God how will we going to be ready in time’, muttered my grandmother. My mother took control. The absolute essentials we would need were a white table cloth to put over the altar, two candles, a crucifix, holy water and a jug of ordinary water from the well. However, the house would have to have a make-over. My mother not one to waste a crisis ‘decided’ we would white wash the house and paper the kitchen. We would also paper one of the bedrooms which would have to be turned into a breakfast room for the morning of the station. Against the better judgment of her parents she set out on this project. She cycled the eleven miles to Ballinasloe to purchase the wallpaper and paste, and the whitewash. We all set about whitewashing the house, that is all except my uncle who appeared to be missing in action. It seemed to take for ever as it took three coats to finally get the outside white. Next she set us on the garden, ‘Tidy that up’, ‘can’t have it like that and the priest coming’. We got control on it, and it did look pretty. Next we set about taking off the old wallpaper, pulling things down is often much more fun than putting them up. One old piece of paper came away from the wall with an ominous noise, we inspected and a large piece of plaster had come away. ‘I told you to leave it alone’, my grandmother piped in helpfully. Quick decision made, we would get Kieran McGuinness to come over and plaster it. Kieran was sent for, inspected the job, yea could be done, would have to go into Moran’s in Shannonbridge to get the cement. This delayed matters a couple of days, as clearly the new paper could not be put up until the plaster was dry. However the work progressed and soon enough, the two rooms had been decorated. One of the bedrooms, known as the big room, was going to be the breakfast room. So on the morning of the stations all evidence that it was a bedroom had to be removed and put in one of the outhouses. This could not happen until the morning of the stations as my grandparents would be sleeping there.
Joe Egan from Clonliffe and the candlesticks
Next we turned our minds to the practicalities of the Mass. We would get two brass candlesticks and a crucifix from Joe Egan, a cousin of ours. These items were hand-me-downs that had been passed on from one generation to another. Joe also had lovely set of copper mugs so we would borrow those as well as they would look well on the dresser. We had a good supply of holy water. The tablecloth was washed and ironed to within an inch of its life. There was a serious amount of starch used.
We had a pause on Sunday 2nd September. We had a wireless, battery operated, and all the local men came into the house to hear the All-Ireland hurling final. Tipperary beat Wexford, and my grandfather volunteered a bit of information, he remembered the first time ever that Tipperary lost. My mother ushered the men out as soon as she could.
The Station breakfast
We now turned our minds to the station morning breakfast. Of course back in 1951 everyone would be starving as one had to fast completely from the previous midnight to receive Holy Communion. However, the first and most important item on the agenda now was to choose who would sit with the priest at breakfast. I swear Joe Schmidt would put less effort into selecting the Irish rugby team. Of course not everyone wanted this honour. We went through the names over and over again. Looking back now in 2018, I can say not one woman featured among the names of those likely to make the cut to sit with the priest. We needed four. My grandfather would be one, my uncle declined, Kieran McGuinness was the second to be named, he always did it. After that it turned into a marathon, Joe Gaffey said no, Kieran Daly after some pushing agreed. The final place was narrowed down to Joe Egan and Patrick McGuinness both of whom said they would do it if we were really stuck. There seemed to be some problem, I now realize I was too young to work it out. It seems Joe and Patrick were politically poles apart and the trick was to cause minimum offence. Dev had recently won the general election! Finally Joe was chosen, as Patrick’s son Kieran had already been chosen.
Now that we had settled this matter we moved on to the fare for the breakfast. One huge problem raised its head at once, milk. Uncle Joe had put all the cows in calf so we would have no milk. We had been `borrowing` some from Mrs Gaffey to get us by. However dealing with a Station mass breakfast would be an entirely different matter. `Why could Joe not have left one cow not in calf?`, my grandmother intoned. However we would now have to seek extra supplies from other neighbours. This would not be a huge problem just the bother of collecting it on the morning of the Stations.
Cooking for a crowd on the open fire/ Fr Corkery and the eggs
Now you will appreciate that cooking was going to have to be done on an open fire, so there were limitations as to what we could serve up. The Mass would be celebrated in the kitchen and consequently there was no way a fully cooked breakfast could be done. It was going to be cold food, with perhaps a boiled egg. Now my mother was a bit bothered about the eggs. Some years earlier we had a stand in priest, a Fr. John Corkerry doing the stations. On the Sunday after all the stations were complete he mentioned from the altar how he had enjoyed visiting the people’s houses, the welcome he had received, but why all the eggs, he said if he got another egg he was likely to start to cackle. No doubt he was being humorous but his words were taken to heart by all in the parish, and in particular the ladyfolk. This bothered my mother, but in the end she felt she had little choice, so she settled on boiled egg, sliced ham, tomatoes, scallions, tea, bread and butter. The stations were on Wednesday 12th September, so she would go into Ballinasloe on the Monday to get the food items. Drinks, both alcohol and minerals, would be got from Killeen’s in Shannonbridge, together with biscuits for the children that might come. The children would mostly be at school so not many would be expected. She would bake her own sweet cakes.
By the Sunday before the stations, things were coming along nicely. The house was looking clean and fresh, Joe Egan had delivered the candle sticks, the crucifix and the copper coloured jugs. My grandmother continued to be addled, and really would not be happy until the priest was come and gone. Tensions continued, various concerns were raised, what if this or that. Neighbours kept dropping in to see if we needed any help, though my grandmother ‘knew’ they were really coming to see the state of the house. Time moved on and as we adjourned to bed on the 11th September we were all in a state of excitement, though all for different reasons. The Mass was going to be at 10.30 a.m. We would get up at about seven, so the alarm clock was set, and we headed off to bed. Doubt if anyone got much sleep. My mother ensured we were all up at cock crow. The various tasks were set about. Water had to be fetched from the well. The bedroom had to be turned into the breakfast room, this involved moving virtually everything out, beds, dressing table and wardrobe. All windows had to be opened to air the room. Then the breakfast furniture had to be put in place. As well as being the breakfast room, this was also the room in which the priest would hear confessions. A bit of a problem was getting my grandfather ready for the day. Shaving was a bit of a ritual and could not be rushed. Everyone had to work around him as the house was prepared. By half past nine everything was in order so we settled down to wait. Gradually the neighbours began to arrive. The few who had promised milk delivered much to the relief of my mother. About ten o’clock Pat, the Mass server arrived. He was happy enough as serving Mass for the stations meant he was free from school for a few hours.
A large enough crowd had assembled by the time the priest’s car turned down the boreen to our place
‘Think that must be the priest’s car coming along by Mannion’s’ ventured Joe Egan. A little flurry of anticipation swept over the crowd. A large enough crowd had assembled by the time the priest’s car turned down the boreen to our place. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best and shoes were polished to such an extent that one could see one’s reflection in them.
The car came to a stop and Fr. O`Donoghue got out. He was a somewhat severe man, exchanged brief pleasantries, put on his stole, went into the now breakfast room and started to hear confessions. After which the priest donned his vestments and by 10.35 a.m. we were off and running.
The Priest intoned: Introibo ad altare Dei.
Pat responded: Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
The Mass progressed, people received communion. When the Priest got as far as saying`Ite, missa est, alleluia, alleluia,` my grandmother was beginning to relax a little. At the conclusion of the Mass, the breakfast diners took their place in the breakfast/big room, while the women set about producing the food for the breakfast. It all went off well and the food was served. Those of us not at the breakfast table wondered what those at it were talking about. Eventually the breakfast concluded and the men came down from the breakfast room. The Priest gathered his belongings, thanked my grandparents and bade farewell to all. As the car disappeared up the boreen you could almost hear the relief. ‘Well, thank God that’s over.’ said my grandmother.
People then relaxed, were served tea and breakfast, the men folk chatted away. ‘Would Meath or Mayo win next Sunday`s All-Ireland football final?’, the price of cattle, the saving of the harvest.
Well, it would be Mannion’s turn next time. Life returned to normality.
- See The Marble of Clonmacnoise by Declan Ryan