The Day of my First Communion

I believe that you are supposed to give a title to a piece of writing, for that, at least, is the custom. In the case of poetry itself the practice of some poets, to give numbers to their poems, has not succeeded in catching on with poets in general. So that is why you could say that the title above is not the one that should be on this piece at all but it’s just going to have to make do with it for the time being.

It is said of Napoleon that when the question was put to him, “What was the happiest day of your life?” he replied, “The day of my First Communion.” I could never give such an answer but then it wasn’t the day of my First Communion at all.

Well now, if you hold on there a while you’ll begin to understand me after a bit because this is how it all happened.

I remember the day of the confession very well. It was a day as fine as any I have seen since then but it was a false heat that told that we would be having rain before long. I remember how myself and my friend, Johnny Bhríd Rua, had walked back east by the quay at Cill Mhuirbhigh. That’s where the boatloads of turf had arrived from Connemara and the men were unloading it on to the quayside. They were arguing with our crowd. You’d think that a war was going to break out any second now. Our people were finding fault with the turf and the lads from outside were cursing away.

I suppose that the pair of us were really trying to put time and space between us and the chapel, the priest and the confession. It was our First Confession. It had been explained to us beforehand what was the right way to sort out our sins in proper order. Because of that we had our wretched little trespasses on the strings of our memories. The occasional stray lie, perhaps; fighting with another boy now and again; fits of temper; the times we had not carried out our parents’ instructions and that sort of thing. There were no other sins troubling us at that time, or if there were, the chances are we didn’t think they were sins, or maybe we were afraid to admit to being concerned with such things let alone tell a priest about them. I suppose for that reason such things weren’t troubling us. The general accusation of “bad thoughts” was to be all that we would need in such matters for a long time to come.

I remember how we traipsed eastwards after that. I recall especially the smell of the tar from the curraghs pulled up on Cill Mhuirbhigh Strand. You wouldn’t get a lot of that smell there today but that’s another story.

I caught the fresh scent from the wood of the confession boxes as soon as I went inside Eochaill Chapel. It is no exaggeration when I say that traces of that smell have remained in my nostrils ever since that day. Perhaps smell is stronger than emotion for I can remember nothing else of that First Confession. I would have no luck writing First Confession, not like Frank O’Connor. But even if I don’t remember it, I recall the afternoon of that same day very well.

It was all a delight inside and out as far as I was concerned. Indeed the joy that the world cannot give was mine that afternoon and I was on tenterhooks as I waited for the morning when that joy would greatly increase and overflow.

Me and my friend went off to gather flowers. They were growing out of the soft moss in the haggards (sheds for hay or straw – Trans.) and what a fragrant scent they had. We wanted posies to take with us to the chapel in the morning. We gathered primroses, I think, but alas, my knowledge of flowers is neither wide nor precise, even though such knowledge would have done no harm to the likes of me. We put them in water before going to bed.

The morning arrived wet. A dirty mist of rain that would soak you to the skin. A mist that made a glittering beaded object of every white woollen sweater. But this lad here didn’t head off east that morning. I didn’t receive Communion. I’ll tell you what actually took place.

It was a custom of my mother, like other mothers, to make a loaf of bread and when it had been baked she would leave it in the window – outside if it was fine – otherwise on the inside – to cool. We had another custom, like a lot of other children, to pick the odd bit out of the loaf, a tiny little crust perhaps. So what did this fellow do on that particular morning but follow the custom. I had only just swallowed the crust when the enormity of the crime I had committed dawned on me. Instead of the joy that had been in me until then, a joy which I had hoped would increase even more, my heart was like a black lump of lead.

I saw my friend coming down the road with his posy in his hand calling out to me. I was still in the room and the shame would not allow me to budge from it. My mother shouted at me, “Johnny Bhríd Rua is here. Get a move on!”. I had to tell my sin to her. “O Lord! Weren’t you the greedy little man,” she said.

I had to wait until the confessions came round again. I made my second confession and my First Communion on the same day.

Oh, but I’ll never forget that black Sunday! I thought that it would have put my spiritual life on the wrong road ever since. But with God’s help it never did.

©: Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910 - 1988). He was born in the Aran Islands and grew up to become one of the great poets in Irish of the twentieth century. Until the 1960s Catholics were required to go without all food and drink from midnight as a mark of respect before receiving Communion.

This article was included in his book, Feamainn Bhealtaine ('Seaweed in May'), which was published in 1961 and is in stock at Cardiff Central Library as part of its collection of books in Irish.

The translation (©: The Wales Famine Forum) is published with the kind permission of Stiofán Ó hAnnracháin of the publishers, Clóchomhar Teoranta, Dublin.

First published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer 1998

A short poem by this author: Cuireadh / An Invitation

The John Breese Collection Part 2

Holy Communion – an ancient Christian tradition