A friend took her eighteen year old grandson to see John B. Keane’s “Big Maggie, which is on at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre, last week. It’s a wonderful play, set in Kerry in the 1950s, and tells the story of a strong Irish widow, determined to hold onto power.

Watching the play, my friend realized there’s one line in it which no modern teenager would understand: “I do The Nine First Fridays,” a man tells Maggie, as he proposes to her. Having already told her about all his money, he tells her about The Nine First Fridays to impress upon her how good-living he is.

For readers who have never heard that term before, I now will share with you what we learned in school in Ireland long ago. The following is from an old “Prayer Book for Women,” which I still have.

“Jesus appeared to Saint Margaret Mary. She wrote, ‘On Friday, during Holy Communion, Jesus said these words to His unworthy slave ‘I promise you, in the excessive mercy of my Heart that is all-powerful love, I will grant to those who receive Holy Communion on nine first Fridays of consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they will not die under my displeasure or without receiving their sacraments, my divine Heart making itself their assured refuge at the last moment.’"

Most people my age did The Nine First Fridays. Many also said The Thirty Days Prayers for various requests, called “special intentions.” This begins: “Mary, Queen of virgins, Mother of hope to dejected and desolate souls, cast an eye of pity on this child of Eve and hear my prayer. In just punishment for my sins I find myself encompassed with evils and oppressed with anguish of spirit. Whither can I fly than to Thee?”

There is a distinct theme going through all these prayers of old.

Saint Margaret Mary considered herself “an unworthy slave.” In The Thirty Days Prayer we told The Queen of Virgins that the reason we were “encompassed with evil and oppressed with anguish of spirit” was in just punishment for our sins. Lines from other prayers come to mind: “Behold me - a miserable sinner at Thy feet, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”

What a woeful, dismal, cheerless version of religion we were taught, filling us with guilt and shame - and from such a young age. We weren’t “miserable sinners” at all. We were innocent little children, trying to be happy as we grew up in lean times. The religion we were taught was all about fear of God, Hell and damnation.

Some people’s lives were so difficult that their only hope of happiness was Heaven.

An 88-year-old woman told me recently that when she was 21 years of age she had five children (incredible but true). She went to Confession and asked the priest could she refuse her husband’s advances, as she couldn’t face any more pregnancies. “Go home, woman and do your duty,” the Friar told her.

I asked her how she managed. She gave birth to two more babies shortly afterwards and then, even though she knew it was ‘a sin,’ she moved out of their bedroom and slept in with her little girls. Her husband took to the drink and they had very very hard times managing. She told me that she did The Thirty Days Prayer thirty times, pleading with Our Lady to make her husband stop drinking.

“Did he stop?” I asked. “He did,” she replied, “thirty years later, when he was near dead.” For some women, marriage was an endurance test - the price they paid to get to Heaven.

A friend’s mother is 92. She has deep, old fashioned faith. She fell recently and broke her hip. As this old woman lay in great pain she cried “God must think I haven’t suffered enough for my sins. I’ll offer up this pain for them.” Her daughter told me that her mother, this woman, had lead a good and holy life always.

Young people reading this today will wonder why I haven’t forgotten the old style religion completely and moved on with the times. I have moved on and think differently. The God I pray to now is kind and loving. However, the nuns got into our heads while they were still soft, or to put it another way, the belief systems acquired in childhood stick for life, in spite of what our rational minds tell us.

Thankfully, those of us over 60 are the last to have been taught this version of Catholicism. I know, because I’ve spent 40 years teaching children religion in Athlone and I never used the word “sin” once.

Instead, the big emphasis has been on God’s love for them. That they, as good Christians, must go forth and show His love to all - including themselves - by their actions.

 

"The religion we were taught growing up in Ireland was all about fear of God, Hell and damnation." Above: a shrine on Slea Head.Philip Halling / Geograph.ie