Do you remember the lovely May altars we had in our houses back in 1950s Ireland?  

We’d get a small table and lay the cleanest tea towel on it.  Jam-jars were used as vases.  These were filled with bluebells and cow-slips. The statue of Our Lady, which every household had, was then placed on the altar. After our tea, we knelt before it to say the rosary.

I always loved this May altar and prayed fervently to Our Lady.  I asked The Blessed Virgin to “Behold me a miserable sinner at Thy feet, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”

I was actually telling her lies - for I wasn’t mourning and weeping at all.  I was quite a cheerful little child.  Nor was I a miserable sinner. I did my very best to please everybody everywhere (which I didn’t realize was a failing until I was 50!) 

After the rosary, by which time the bluebells would be wilting, we recited the Litany.  The word ‘Virgin’ was mentioned ten times in it. My mother, expecting her 10th child, found it difficult to stay on her knees because of bad backache. 

Twenty-five years ago my cousin, Maureen, had three young children.  The Catholic Church still ruled supreme and the priests were high on their pedestals.  Her eldest daughter, Farrah, was aged 10.  She decided that they would continue this lovely tradition of the May altar.  She got a little table and a blue cloth.  Farrah was upstairs playing with her Cindy dolls, and it was an effort to get her interested.  Eventually, Farrah was persuaded that it would be a nice idea to make an altar and went off to pick some flowers in the garden for it. 

There was a major problem.  They had no statue of Our Lady.  Maureen went uptown straight away and bought a small one, about the size of a Cindy doll.  When she returned Farrah took the statue from her and studied it in detail.  “Why has she no boobs?” she asked, quite puzzled.  While her mother was still in shock from this question--Farrah had another one for her.  “And why has she such an awful dress on her?”  Maureen looked at the statue.  Our Lady was indeed totally flat chested and clad in a full-length grey drab dress. (Can you imagine asking a nun this, long ago? Can you imagine even thinking it?) 

Maureen explained that these things weren’t important to Our Lady at all, and sent the child upstairs to set up the lovely altar.  Ten minutes later Farrah called her mother to come and see.  There, standing on the May altar was Our Lady, clad in a bright yellow ball gown of Cindy’s.  Stuffed into the top were two enormous balls of cotton wool.  “Now isn’t she lovely?” asked Farrah, delighted with herself.  “I bet she’s glad to be a gorgeous woman at last.”   

They knelt before this vision, who looked more like Dolly Parton than a Blessed Virgin and said three Hail Marys together.  Maureen gazed at Our Lady in all her glamour and didn’t know what to say.  Years ago, a mother’s reaction would be to immediately clatter her child and tear the offending dress off the statue.

Whatever hope she had of nurturing a love of Our Lady in Farrah that would not be the way to go about it, she knew.  Every night during that month of May they knelt together and said Hail Marys at her May altar.  Every night Our Lady had a different ball-gown on her and a finer bosom!   And this true tale took place twenty-five years ago!  

My generation is the last to be reared in an atmosphere where there was great devotion to Our Lady. Pre 1960 every home had a Mary.  We said three Hail Marys at night to keep us ‘pure and holy'.  We were definitely the last generation who questioned nothing and accepted everything we were told! 

 Our role model was a passive pure holy woman who was the ‘virgin of all virgins.’  Compare this to the present-day role models of teenage girls—Madonna or Rihanna—no drab dresses there, in fact, no dresses at all!!!    One extreme to the other!  And they are both extremes. 

A ‘virtual friend’, according to Google is “someone whom you can’t see, whom you never meet, but whom you are happy to talk to.”  All teenagers nowadays have virtual friends online.  Was Mary our ‘virtual friend’ when we sought her help after some fellas had broken our hearts?  I can recall pleading with her desperately that he would realize he loved only me.  “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.” 

As Garth Brooks’ famous song says “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers!” 

I still pray to Mary, not as Virginal Queen in Heaven, but to a good woman, a mother, who understands the joy and stress of rearing a child.  She is my ‘virtuous’ friend!