1970’s Altar boy

It must have been at around the start of 4th class that we were first began learning our trade as it were on the altar in Faithlegg. It was a big affair.  As youngsters we were up at the front of the Church for Sunday mass and any and all religious services and days of obligation.  We watched in awe as the bigger boys marched out ahead of the priest and took their positions and I guess it was considered an honour and a phase of growing up, that we would one day take their places as Altar boys.

I can’t say I can remember my first morning, but I imagine it would have started like so many others on a Saturday night…bath night; a smell of soap, shoe polish and tripe and onions boiling in milk and early to bed so we’d be bright eyed in the morning.  Sunday would be hustle and bustle, clean clothes, shinning shoes and away up to the top of the Mount Ave to catch the Sunday morning service Suirway bus, driven by our neighbour Willie Elliott.  Mammy had relented on the notion of a black fast before mass at that stage, but the most we would have in our bellies was a cup of tea, and it ensured the tripe pot would get a deathing on our return.  The bus would be packed, having started collecting at the Cross Roads, which we often left early to catch.  It would stop in the village, then the Mount and again at the Cross Roads.

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The bus would drop outside Faithlegg Church gates and we would have walked up the side of the church and in the back door of the sacristy.  In those days there was a cupboard opposite the back door where the altar garments hung and I remember they were just like a priests; a black soutanne with a white surplice.  There were black plimsoles in the cupboard also, which we didn’t have to wear, a throwback to an earlier time or maybe a hint of change in the air.

1965 blessing of a boat with altar boys in attendance

Once geared up, always done in silence if the chaple woman, Joan Dwyer, was there, we went about getting the altar ready and I think there was always a pride in getting asked to light the candles, which took a certain amount of skill when it came to the candles on the tabernacle.  The other jobs included putting out the cruets of water and wine, setting out the altar table, putting out the bells and at some stage during my tenure putting out the newly installed microphones.  Perhaps the best of all, except it was raining, was to head off up to the Belfry to ring the congregation into Church.  Before we walked out, we lined up in order of our jobs.  The first two went to the left of the altar and did the water and the wine and ablutions.  The other two to the right and did the bells and held the platter at communion.

Familiar view of the altar server

There were all sorts of misadventures of course, trips, falls, sneezing fits, nosebleeds and fainting. My most memorable was a morning, when I was only beginning on the altar, serving with John Boy Kent and I think John O Leary and Charlie Hanlon.  Johnboy was probably in sixth class at that stage and was renowned for his strength.  He was ringing the bells that particular service.  As the priest raised the blessed bread and the congregation bowed their heads, John Boy lashed into the bells giving them an almighty shake.  One minute the bells were a jingling the next there was a crash as one bell hit the wall, another landed into our lap on the other side of the alter, whilst a third landed down on the tiles in the middle of the church with a loud plop.  One of the jobs when putting out the bells was that you checked to make sure the nuts that held the individual bells were tightened…for some reason no one checked that morning…The boys in the front pew were bursting in laughter and I remember praying earnestly in the hope that it would take me mind off the scene and that I would manage to keep the laughter in.

Sometimes there was money to be had from the job.  The priest usually gave us a few bob at Christmas, I remember Fr Daly, giving me 50p one year and all the other boys too.  There was also money to be had at a wedding or a funeral.  Weddings weren’t as common in those times as they now are at the church but funerals were, and we considered them a good source of sweet money.  There was a lot more “work” with a funeral mind you.  Along with standard mass duties you had holy water, carrying the cross and the trickiest of all, lighting and maintaining the incense burning thurible.  We were generally paid by the undertaker who used an envelope which meant you’d get a pound note.  The envelope gave me a feeling of importance, almost like I was an independent earner.  On occasions the family paid which was awkward as you felt they were going through enough, and sometimes you were paid by both which was another dilemma altogether.  What should morally correct young catholic boys do?

Of course the big thrill of a funeral was when it occurred during school times.  As time progressed I served with Michael Duffin and Teggy Murphy (our opposites were Williams Doherty and Elliott and Ger Doherty meaning we took turns doing all the masses) and when the funeral was during school we would be left off about 20 mins before to make our way to the church.  Needless to say, there was no cars to bring us, it had to be walked; something we rejoiced in, especially on the return.  Many’s the morning Michael White the Principal, was drumming his fingers on the desk as we made our return, with a questioning look.  Of course we had some excuse or other, but the reality was we walked both sides of the road and did whatever we could to delay our return.

One of my worst memories of the church happened with our favourite priest Fr Daly (RIP).  It was an evening mass, probably around all souls when there was a week of evening vigils.  The three of us were on and it wasn’t long since the new PA system had been installed.  This included a table mike on the altar table and a standing mike for reading the gospels.

We were setting it up, and for some reason Joan wasn’t around that evening, or had gone home to run an errand.  One of the jobs was to tap the mike to be sure it was working.  Left to our own devices we got it in our heads to forgo the tapping and to mimic Meat Loaf instead.  So with a drummer, air guitarist and a lead singer with the stand up mike we launched into Bat out of Hell.  We were warming to the performance, when Father Daly came through the doors at the end of the church.  We sank into the carpet.  The shame was unbearable and was made even more so by the look on our priests face.  Not anger, not revulsion, just disappointment.  Nothing was said, he didn’t need to, we got back to the task of arranging the altar and never blackguarded like it again.

It was night vigils like these that I enjoyed the best.  The mass over, we cleared the altar, tidied away in the sacristy and then changing, we went outside to make our way home.  There would be few enough cars in those days, but those that were there would be gone and we would face the mile and a half to Cheekpoint with no great fear.  Walking along the darkened road we would pick out the stars and constellations and Teggy would regale us with fantastical stories of UFO’s and accounts from his father, Terry, who had served with the US Air Force and was a great man for a yarn.  Coming along, every light that moved across the sky was an alien spaceship coming to invade, or snatch away people out on their own in the night for experimentation!

At some point my brother Robert and neighbour Mossy Moran (RIP) joined our altar team, thus it became our turn to be seniors and pass on the trade.  Come Autumn of 1978 we headed into town school and with it took a joint leap from a school with probably 60 students overall to a class year of 150+.  On leaving we naturally also left the altar service and if I was honest I have to say I missed the buzz of it. 

Although there has been a sea change in attitudes towards the church in Irish society since, including some horrific accounts of abuse of altar boys, I still look back on my altar service days with a fondness (and maybe you would think relief).  Not so much for the religious aspect or the ceremony.  No it was more because in a time when there was not many other alternatives for children of our age, it gave us something to do, something to make us feel special, something of which we could take some pride.

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