<< Back to the main Stories/poems page
by Barbara A Hamilton
It was early in the summer of 1947, one of the hottest on record in Ireland, with little or no rainfall for several months. I was five years old. We had just finished our last school term of the year. At that time, my eldest brother Tom was going through his religious period. After all, he was recently promoted to the prestigious position of senior altar boy, in our local Catholic church. Even at the age of eleven, he had an over developed sense of drama! In later life, I could never quite understand in conversation with him, whether I was talking to the real person or to one of his many other personas.
On a bright sunny July day, we, the five older members of the Harrington family were playing in our back yard. Having exhausted the usual games of skipping, hopscotch, playing acrobats in the apple trees and general mucking about, we decided to dress up and have a concert. By lunchtime that notion somehow morphed into something quite different. The older members of the group decided that we would have a funeral instead. As soon as Ina, my mother, departed on her weekly trip to town, Tom dispatched my brother Pat and me to invite all the neighbour’s kids to our back yard to attend the funeral. Sean, my second eldest brother was given the task of digging the grave.
“Who are we going to bury?” I asked.
“Never mind that now, Ba,” Tom said, rather pompously. “Just go and fetch your friends. Tell them they have to dress up. We are having a funeral.”
“But they will want to know who we are burying” Pat said.
“That’s not important just now,” Tom said in a peremptory tone. He thought for a moment and then said,
“Just tell them there’ll be biscuits and lemonade after the funeral.”
“Are we going to charge them?”Pat asked, always ready to supplement his pocket-money.
“Of course not, this is a religious ceremony and one doesn’t charge for religion,” replied Tom.
“That’s not true, they collect money every Sunday at Mass. Sometimes they even collect twice.” Pat was indignant at missing the opportunity to make some money on the side.
“Well you know, the priests have to live,” Tom said, quoting my father. “Anyhow get a move on or it will be suppertime before we get everything organised.”
We set out to drum up business for the funeral. In the meantime, Marie, my older sister was asked to find suitable dresses for both of us with the instructions that only black, white or purple would do. It took Pat and me at least half an hour to assemble a large gang of kids of varying genders and ages. Some were dressed in adult clothing. Paddy McCarthy, one of Tom’s best friends, was sporting his father’s best Sunday suit, with the trouser cuffs dragging in the dust and stones of the lane-way leading to the garage at the back of our house. A few of the older girls were tottering on along on high heels. One girl even sported lipstick.
“Don’t let my mother see you like that,” Pat said. “She doesn’t believe in makeup.”
“Or cheap literature,” I interrupted; proud to show I could pronounce a big word like literature which I had just learned the previous day. Although it had no bearing on the situation, I was right. Mother abhorred cheap literature. Magazines and Comics were absolutely forbidden in our house. I really never understood the logic of why books and newspapers were so acceptable and anything else was completely forbidden. Arguing that Daddy got ‘Practical Mechanics’ which was a magazine, didn’t cut ice with my mother!
By the time we got to our back gate, quite a sizeable motley crew had gathered. When we arrived, Tom had a growling, protesting Mac, our Irish Wheaten terrier, harnessed to a soapbox cart that my dad had built for my brothers the previous Christmas. Pat was detailed to keep the dog quiet which he did by sneaking a bone, which was partly covered in meat, from our ‘safe’, the Irish equivalent of a refrigerator. A ‘safe’ consisted of a wooden frame covered on three sides with mesh for air circulation and housed the usual perishables.
Marie and I hurried into the house to get dressed. Just as we were coming down the stairs, dressed to kill, Kathleen, our home help saw us.
“Where do you think you are going with those outfits on? Oh God Almighty, your mother will have fit if she sees you in her black taffeta ball gown,” she said to Marie.
“And as for you,” she said grabbing my arm. “You can’t wear that dress now. It is for your first Holy Communion next year.”
“But that’s miles away and by then it might be too small.”
Marie, who had a lot more tact than I, nudged me and whispered, “Shush, she’ll only get mad”.
At that moment Sean streaked past carrying a huge bunch of flowers that obviously came from our front garden.
“Oh Mother of God, your ma will bloody well kill you when she sees you’ve cut her flowers.”
Kathleen went to the dining room window to look at the devastation. Sean hadn’t used a scissors or clippers. He had just broken the flowers off the stems.
“Oh Lord, we’ll all be annihilated when she sees what you have done. Get out of here the lot of you before I scalp you all.” We scarpered out the backdoor as Kathleen resignedly resumed her ironing, probably hoping that a tidy house and clean laundry might stave off the battle that was sure to follow on mother’s return.
When we joined the others in the back yard, Tom was dressed in his black soutane and crisp white surplice. He did look rather like Father Hood, our local priest. Pat was carrying a small silver bell that had belonged to my grandmother.
“What are you doing with that?’ Marie asked. “Mother will go nuts if she finds out you had this out here. You know how mad she gets when we take things out of the house.”
“Well, she won’t know unless you tell her.”
With that Pat started ringing the bell with all his might to attract everybody’s attention.
“Father Tom is going to start, so all of you shut up and listen.”
“Pat, don’t be so rude and that’s not the way a funeral starts,” said Marie.
“How would you know, you’ve never been to a funeral?”
“Neither have you if it comes to that” Marie was getting annoyed at Pat’s obvious lack of reverence for the occasion.
“Everybody, be quiet. If I might have your attention, we shall immediately commence the ceremony,” said Tom in a prissy English accent. I started to giggle but stifled it quickly when I caught Tom’s baleful glare.
He then went on to intone something in Latin which none of us understood. But who cared? It lent a certain authenticity to the proceedings. We were then instructed to go to the top of the lane and assemble for the funeral procession. When we got there, Sean stood hanging onto Mac who was desperately trying to free himself from the rope that bound him to the cart. My doll, Stella lay on a small plank of wood surrounded by the stolen flowers. Stella was a Christmas present given to me by mother’s friend who lived in America. I was speechless and felt hurt at not being asked if she could be used. I consoled myself by believing she would only be used in the procession. They wouldn’t dare incur mother’s wrath by burying her.
‘Father’ Tom arrived swinging a home-made thurible, cobbled together with chains and a tin can, which was filled with incense, probably taken from the Catholic Church. Somebody else had fashioned a crude cross from two willow sticks. Tom placed the bearer out front and said, “Lead on Leonard.”It was Paddy McCarthy’s younger brother. We slowly moved off, four abreast down the lane towards our back yard, singing ‘Nearer my God to Thee.’ Mac, the reluctant participant, slowed the cortege down to an almost halt. Pat solved the problem by giving him bits of meat at short intervals. It was sight to behold, a swaying mass of grubby kids, sporting garishly coloured dresses, staggering down the lane to the rhythm of the canine hearse drawer. Some of the kids, dressed in their First Communion outfits, looked like mini brides and grooms. There was dust flying everywhere. Paddy Flanagan had the distinction of dispersing the ‘holy water’ along the way. Unfortunately most of it landed on the massed crowd behind him, converting the dust to mud streaks. By the time we got to our backyard some of the brides once white dresses had turned to streaky shades of grey. Mrs. Grahame one of neighbours from the Square, leaned on her back gate and said, observing the incongruous procession,
“Glory be to God, what will you Harrington kids get up to next?”
Her wonder quickly turned to anger when she spied her youngest son Noelly sporting his older brother’s good confirmation suit. The suit had accumulated a thick layer of dust kicked up by the crowd. To make matters worse, Noelly was licking a sticky lollipop. Some of the juice had dribbled down the front of his white shirt which was now varying shades of pink.
“Come here ye little brat,” she shrieked barging through her back gate and diving into the crowd, grabbing at Noelly who just realized she was there. He took off like a bat out of hell with his mother in hot pursuit. The kids stopped to watch and jeer but were hustled forward by Paddy Flanagan, Tom’s right hand man in these situations.
Amid much bell ringing and incense swinging, we finally gathered around the ‘graveside.’ I decided to intervene on behalf of poor Stella.
“You are not going to bury her, are you Tom?”I asked.
“Father Tom if you please. Don’t be silly Ba, of course we are. It wouldn’t be funeral if we had no body,” Tom boomed officiously. I started to protest but Marie hushed me up. I think she was enthralled by the drama and sanctity of the service. A big fat tear rolled down my face. I didn’t want them to bury Stella. Marie put her arms around me and whispered, “Shush, you’ll be all right.” Tom started to sing the Dies Ira in Latin. No one knew it so he switched to the Credo which most of the kids knew and could kind of follow along. Our backyard rang with Gregorian chant in high shrill voices, some of it more than a little off-key. It all sounded very church-like indeed. Unknown to us, Mrs. Garvey our immediate next-door neighbour, saw the whole spectacle from her back bedroom window.
At the graveside, Tom came into his own, chanting Mass responses interspersed with the Benediction Liturgy, with some Latin declensions and grammar thrown in for effect. It was very exciting as hardly anybody present had ever been to a funeral and it all seemed so real. Finally the bier was removed from the ‘hearse’ and Mac set free. Stella was ceremoniously lowered into the ‘grave’ with Tom droning on about ashes to ashes and dust to dust. He interrupted the prayers several times to issue commands to the grave diggers. Lots of the boys helped in burying poor Stella. When the grave was covered in, I was handed a lovely rose to put on top of the grave. I wondered where the rose had come from, knowing we had none in our garden. It was probably pinched from the local librarian’s garden. Mr. Brady would be anything but pleased to find one of his prize roses gone missing. The ceremony finished off with ‘Hail to Saint Patrick,” which was normally sung on St, Patrick’s day, well, any port in a storm, I suppose.
Tom dispatched Marie and Pat to the kitchen to get the promised lemonade and biscuits from Kathleen who was busy finishing the ironing. They filled a tray with odd teacups, odd glasses, jam jars and a pound of plain biscuits and brought them into the yard. The biscuits and home-made lemonade disappeared in less than two minutes. Just when we almost done, disaster struck, Joe-boy Harris, who seemed to fancy Marie came running over to where we were sitting and knocked the cup of lemonade all over my Communion dress.
“O my God, what will mum say?”Marie said in horror. She then yelled at Joe-boy to go home before Tom discovered the incident.
“What are we going to do?”I asked, tears streaming down my face. I was feeling sad for the loss of Stella but terrified of what my mother would say or do about the communion dress.
“Look, we’ll ask Kathleen if she can wash it for us now and hope the stains will disappear before Mum gets home.”
We went into the kitchen and consulted with Kathleen. She was angry at first but simmered down when she realized it was an accident. She immediately washed the dress and hung it on the line, hoping it would dry quickly enough so she could iron it before mother’s arrival. The lads and Marie had just finished changing their clothes when Mother came striding up the garden path. She was humming. That was usually a good sign.
She came into the kitchen laden with parcels, which she unloaded on the table saying at the same time, “I have great news. I called into Giltrap’s shop on my way home and guess what? Dad had just been on the phone to Aunt Sis and he told her that he is coming home on Friday evening.”
We all cheered and started talking at once. Dad was on a course in the UK. It was something to do with jet engines as far as I know. He had been away for such a long time. We were all delighted and none more so than mother and poor Kathleen. Looking after this bunch of wild, exuberant kids was no joke. My brothers tended to be a lot better behaved when dad was around.
“What have you been doing all afternoon?” mother asked.
“We had a funeral,” I said excitedly.
“How wonderful, did a lot people come?”
“Yes, and they were all dressed up. Tom was the priest and the lads helped. We served everybody lemonade and biscuits when it was over.”
“I’m sure you had a great time. Now go and fetch Mac for his dinner while Kathleen and I enjoy a cup of tea.”
As we trooped out into the yard, I am sure we were all thinking the same thing, had we managed to avoid a major unpleasantness or had we just delayed
“Since retiring from a very fast paced and stressful job, I have started to write, something I always enjoyed. I was in the middle of a very difficult novel and got completely stuck so I decided to write about our childhood in Lucan. What happy memories I have of that time.
For the sake of the extended family, I decided to blog the stories. My first Lucan story is called ‘The Funeral’. It is actually a true story.”
A retired IT professional who stumbled into writing almost by chance, Lucan born Barbara now lives in Ontario, Canada.