Going in on the Altar or an altar boy`s apprenticeship in West Offaly in the 1950s. By Pádraig Turley

This episode in my life dates from the early 1950s. I was about nine year old at the time. I lived with my mother, grand-parents and uncle on a farm in the townland of Clerhane, near the village of Shannonbridge. My father worked in Dublin.
Our house was what was then called a rambling house, where friends and neighbours would gather for a chat, and to generally sort out the problems of the world. I must add that my grandmother, a somewhat severe woman, felt these matters could be sorted out elsewhere. My grandfather loved these evening chats, so it was unlikely my grandmother`s desire would ever prevail.

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1. The Sacristy of the old Church in Shannonbridge where Willie Fallon introduced me to my life as an altar boy.

Great craic and the curved ball

Tuesday nights were what we would call today great craic, as there was always a card school in session. The game that was played was invariably twenty-five. The neighbours I recall participating were Kieran McGuinness, Tom Gaffey, Joe Egan, Stephen and Brendan Flannery, Kieran Daly, Kerr Joe Daly and Paddy McGuinness. My grandfather, Michael Claffey and my mother Margaret Turley, also joined in. Notwithstanding, that these games took place every Tuesday night, and although that there were no stakes involved, there were always disputes, over reneging, not following the trump, what follows the ace of Hearts, the strength of the Joker and so on. These differences were augmented by grunts from my grandmother, when her husband issued the instruction to put on the kettle for the tea.
One such night, my mother tossed in what would today be called a curved ball, which totally caught me by surprise. Addressing Kieran McGuinness, she said `would you ever be so good as to teach Pádraig the Latin, as he would like to go in on the altar.` Now that was the first I had heard of my desire to go on the altar. `Of course I would be delighted to help` replied Kieran. Thus began my journey to the other side of the altar rails.
Kieran said he would drop by every Thursday and Friday evening, for say an hour, to teach me the Latin. He would bring down the appropriate books, and we would get started. My mother set about selling the idea to me. It would be a great privilege she said, and it would please her and all the family so much.
It was the topic of conversation once the ramblers had left. Now in pre Vatican II days, the altar side of the rails was a male preserve. Only the clergy and the altar boys were allowed there. My mother emphasised this, as an ingredient of the privilege which was being bestowed on me.
Now, I had noticed something that was at odds with this. I had often noticed Mrs Kelly on the altar behind the rails cleaning, arranging flowers, polishing and burnishing candlesticks, changing the cloth on the altar and the altar rails, etc etc. When I mentioned this, I was assured that Mrs. Kelly had `special` permission from the priest Fr. Donohue to be on the altar.

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4. Memorial card of the late Very Rev. Patrick Higgins Parish Priest in Shannonbridge, whose housekeeper is still fondly remembered. Enter a caption

Interestingly, I have to admit I had never seen Fr. Donoghue`s housekeeper Miss Kathleen Barry behind the altar rails, and she was a lady who ruled the parish with an iron fist. Kathleen Barry was from Wexford, and folk were a bit scared of her. While preparing for this blog I was making enquiries about her, I was assured of this and further she never generated the love her predecessor had, a lady called Maggie O`Reilly a Cavan native, who looked after the previous Parish Priest Fr. O`Higgins, a much loved pastor. I do recall a blast of Siberian wind from Kathleen Barry, on one occasion when I managed to get the chains on the thurible knotted, causing a delay to the start of Benediction.
Of course in those days girls were not allowed to be altar servers, in fact such an idea would never have entered anyone`s mind. It was not until as late as 1983 that the Vatican gave permission, which enabled both boys and girls to be altar servers.
My mother, now launched in to the practicalities, that this undertaking would need. It would be essential that I have a surplice and soutane. These would have to be bespoke. Kieran McGuinness had told my mother he knew of a good dressmaker, a Miss Mulvey, from Creagh on the way in Ballinasloe, who would run up these garments for me. Kieran`s father had a first cousin, a Richard McGuinness, who managed a clothes shop in Ballinasloe on Society Street, and we would be able to procure the makings of the items from him.
Kieran`s cousin had what we would call today a counter intuitive method of selling. It appears, that all the folk from around Ballinasloe would never pay the marked price, and would bargain incessantly until the price was knocked down. This was especially the case around the time of the October Fair in Ballinasloe. Well, this Mr. McGuinness would mark up the prices by about one fifth, which of course gave him the room to reduce the price during the bargaining, thus allowing everyone to be happy with the transaction. My mother said we would cycle into Ballinasloe the following Saturday.
The following Thursday evening Kieran arrived down with the appropriate material, to teach me the Latin to be used during the Mass. Kieran, a farmer from the neighbouring townland of Cloniffe, was a very nice man and a very devout Catholic. I recall later in life after we had moved to live in Dublin, Kieran staying with us en route to Lourdes, where he was going on pilgrimage. Going on pilgrimage to Lourdes back then was not an easy matter. One had to take a boat to Holyhead, Wales, and then a train down to London and on to Dover, then a boat to Calais, and finally a train all the way down to Lourdes, very exhausting. He held very orthodox views, so was the right man for the task of getting me shipshape for serving Mass.

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2. The former Church of Ireland named after St. Kieran in Shannonbridge, where Stephen Flannery took the daring step of attending a Protestant service for the late Christy Cook. The building is now a private house, having first being consecrated in 1877.

Before starting the actual Latin he set out the background to the job of being an altar boy, portion of which no doubt went over my head. He explained that the job was to assist the Priest during the liturgy, by giving the responses, and performing supporting tasks on the altar, such as fetching and carrying the Mass Missal, ringing the bell at the proper times, holding the paten plate during the Communion, and other chores I would learn as I went along. He did state that the role of an altar boy was very important, as according Canon law, Mass may not be celebrated by the Priest on his own, and there must be at least one other member of the faithful present. He did emphasise that an altar boy was not an acolyte. This was a new word to me, but he explained that they were kinda Mass servers in Protestant Churches. I got the impression that Kieran felt such folk were in error. The only Protestants I knew were Mr. and Mrs Cook, who ran the Post Office in Shannonbridge. They seemed fine to me. I recall some years later when Christy Cook died, our neighbour Stephen Flannery caused a bit of a stir by going into the Church of Ireland in Shannonbridge to attend the service. This was something that was not done at that time, and Stephen`s visit caused much comment. However in the heel of the hunt Stephen came to no harm. Stephen Flannery was a great much loved character, and certainly would be up for this rather `daring` gesture of entering a Protestant Church in early 50s Ireland.
Kieran got down to `work` on me. The Priest would start the Mass by saying `Introibo ad altáre Dei.` And then the server would respond `Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam`. We went on with all the responses. I recall reciting the Confiteor in Latin took a bit of work. Oddly, he did not explain to me what these responses meant in English, somewhat like Madrasas we see in some Islamic countries today. It was not until after Vatican II, when the vernacular Mass was introduced, that we really understood the responses.
Having worked our way through the Mass, we then went on to learn the De Profundis. Oddly not every server learned the De Profundis (Psalm 129), which was recited at the end of Mass. There is an interesting explanation of the De Profundis from the Schools’ Collection Volume 0843 Page 186 available on duchas.ie
Kieran introduced me to a lot of new and difficult words, thurifer, lavabo, cruets, epiclesis, ambo, lectern, monstrance, ostensorium, ciborium, eucharistia and so on. Kieran as befitting a very devout Catholic, drummed into me the importance of the job in hand.
The following Saturday, my mother and I went into Ballinasloe on our bikes. Our first port of call was Richard McGuinness in Society Street. As a slight aside as I was preparing this piece I discovered that Richard McGuinness was related to the Hollywood actor George Brent. The mother of George Brent who was born Nolan was Mary McGuinness. George Brent was married five times, four of his marriages ending in divorce, I wonder how Kieran with his orthodox views felt about this.
My mother exchanged pleasantries with Richard, and when she explained her business we were passed on to a young lady who attended to us. I was measured up, and the appropriate material for the surplice and soutane, and some lace trimmings was purchased. We asked the young lady if she knew where the Miss Mulvey lived, and we were given very specific directions.
Business attended to, we set off to find Miss Mulvey. With little or no trouble we located her, near the Church in Creagh. Of course she would make up the surplice and soutane, when would we need it, ah sure as soon as she could. We did not agree a fee, and this little omission would come back to haunt my mother.
In the meantime Kieran continued to instruct me in the Latin responses. He taught me the various chores I would have to do as an altar boy, when to ring the bell, move the Mass Missal, assist the Priest with the wine and water, etc etc. He emphasised how important it was to hold the paten correctly, when the people were receiving Communion. This instruction brought my grandfather to life one night, as he related a story from his youth. It seems the Priest in Ballinahown accidently dropped the Holy Communion Host on the ground. This was so serious, the Priest had to go down on his knees and lick the ground where the Communion Host had fallen. He said it greatly affected the Priest involved. I am not sure if this was a true story or not, perhaps he was enforcing the warning for me to be careful. Mind, my grandfather was a man who would relate the fact that he once saw the fairies playing a football match in Bloomhill. Despite pressure over many years from my uncle and me, he would or could never tell us who won the match.
Kieran did explain one matter, however, that could well prejudice my role as an altar boy. I attended Clonmacnoise School, while all the other altar boys attended Shannonridge School. This meant, he explained that it was unlikely I would to be asked to serve Mass at the Stations, assist at marriages or funerals. On these occasions an altar boy would `have` to take time off school, and of course at marriages there was always the possibility of a tip/gratuity. My grandfather tuned in helpfully, `ah sure what can`t be cured, must be endured`. This was how my time as an altar boy turned out.
Kieran also told me I would, with the other altar boys, be expected to sell The Catholic Standard Newspaper. The most exciting `duty` he explained, was that on occasions I would assist the priest with the weekly Silver Circle raffle. This was a fund raising venture with the hope of building a new Church which materialized in the 1960`s. I recall that the last time I had this honour Kieran Claffey from Creevagh won the prize.
About six weeks later we returned to see Miss Mulvey. While there was no particular reason for the six weeks lapse, Miss Mulvey was surprised by it. She said she was worried that something might have gone wrong and ` I waiting to go in on the altar.` My mother assured her there had been no trouble, and after a fitting, enquired how much she owed for the garments. Miss Mulvey said `I charge 4/6`, my mother was taken aback, and expressed it, `I would not have thought it would be that much`, she pleaded. `No that is what I charge` came the firm reply. My mother hemmed and hawed for a while, but seeing the resistance was resolute, yielded and forked up the 4/6. Mention of a luck penny was ignored. I recall Miss Mulvey as being a young lady, but one that was not going to be brow beaten by an older person.

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3. The wee suitcase which held my surplice and soutane. It still has a price of 6/6 marked on it.

Brown Suitcase
My father who was fully briefed on this venture, sent down a small brown case, like a small suitcase, which would hold my surplice and soutane. I still actually have that little case, which is used put all those little items on top of the wardrobe. My father said he would get down the first Sunday I would be serving Mass to see how it went. This was good news as I only saw him three times a year, Christmas, Easter and summer holidays.
I was now as prepared as I could be for this adventure. Kieran said he would get Willie Fallon an experienced altar boy to take me under his wing. Before arranging for me to go in on the altar, Kieran in the style of a Polonius gave me some further instructions which probably sound quaint today. `Now that you are going to be serving Mass you must behave better than the ordinary boys. You must give good example, you must attend to your school work and you must never get into fights at school. You must always have a handkerchief in your pocket; it would be dreadful to see an altar boy using his sleeve. You must never serve Mass with dirt under your nails and make sure your hair is always combed.` That was a fair bit to take on board. He told me he had been speaking to Willie Fallon and they had agreed I should start in a fortnight’s time. The delay he said was to give my father time to arrange to come down from Dublin.

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5. Photo of Kieran McGuinness and the author, taken when Kieran was up in Dublin for the 1961 All-Ireland football final between Down and Offaly which resulted in a heart breaking one point loss for Offaly.

I was now getting quite excited about becoming an altar boy, and could hardly wait for the appointed day. My father had come down from Dublin on the Saturday, so he would take us into Church in his Ford Prefect car. He dropped me off at the parochial house, where Kieran and Willie Fallon were waiting. Kieran gave me some final warnings before handing me into the `custody` of Willie, who brought me into the Sacristy. He assured me there would be no problem, as it was my first day I would not be taking an active part in the Mass, just joining in the responses. The Sacristy was home to all the props used during the yearly liturgical cycle. I met the other altar boys, but I can`t rightly recall all their names. I recall one of the older boys telling how on one occasion during Holy Communion a person`s false teeth came out on the paten. The others laughed, so I guess this was a tall story to impress the new altar boy. Names I do recall from my time as an altar boy, apart from Willie Fallon, were Pat Sranan, Jimmy Coleman and Derek Killeen.
The Sacristy door burst open and in walked Fr. Donoghue. He robed, and soon we were on our way.
I managed alright and was now glad that I was now `in on the altar`.