Twice yearly in Spring and Autumn, in parts of rural Ireland, a family would be host to the celebration of Mass in their home and all of the neighbours would attend. This was, and still is known as the “Stations”. The custom originated from penal times when to celebrate Mass was seen as a crime and dealt with accordingly, so in various locations around Ireland, Mass was celebrated in secret, and so “The Stations” have remained with us ever since.
In past times to host the Stations meant every corner of the house was scrubbed, painted or polished, interior and exterior, no spider’s cobweb or insect survived the clean-up. Even the poor cat was evicted. He got the high road and his chances.
The night before was a nightmare, every piece of furniture was re-arranged to make room for all the guests. The food was all prepared the previous day. The breakfast was a traditional one of brown bread and boiled eggs, country butter, home-made jams, marmalade, fruit scones and other goodies. The neighbours all lent a hand in the baking and preparations. Every hen in the neighbourhood was under surveillance for a week before, to ensure a good supply of fresh eggs.
Just before bedtime the altar would be prepared but not until every child had been safely tucked up in bed, least any little finger prints could be left on the immaculately laundered cloths. The table was raised onto stools and covered in great white sheets followed by pure linen cloths. Each item placed on the table was polished and inspected repeatedly to ensure absolute perfection.
With near exhaustion a welcome silence at last as the alarm clocks were set for 6am. The story of Mary and Jack is often told; they found great difficulty in awakening early, so a well meaning friend told Mary to place the clock in a tin can as the alarm would sound so much louder. As instructed and without Jack’s knowledge Mary placed the tin can close by the bed. It sure had the desired effect, Jack awoke to a loud ringing of bells, he must have thought he had died and gone to heaven. He soon found out otherwise. As he hopped out of bed, one foot went straight into the can which sent him careering across the polished floor. Mary got a few letters after her name and they didn’t exactly spell “Jesus” and Jack was busy for the day nursing his wounds.
At daybreak every child in the house was scrubbed, dressed and threatened, “If ya move I’ll kill ya”. Like angels they were, rosaries entwined around their little fingers, their eyes firmly fixed on the altar, distraction left or right could result in an ear been pierced. One of those “looks” could postpone a sneeze.
Even the dog thought he was on death-row, for he got such a hearty breakfast, he thought it was his last. He was locked-up well away from the house least he should bark. It seems nothing natural should happen during Mass.
The good Lord Himself must have been amused, if not a little puzzled to know who this great visitor was. The neighbours arrived well before nine o’clock, the weather was discussed and who would accompany the priests for breakfast. There would be a little persuasion used on the already willing to convince them they would best represent the neighbourhood. With all the arrangements in place they anxiously awaited the priests. The sound of an engine signaled the arrival of the “Fathers”. Silence fell. The air of greeting by the Bean a ‘Tí agus a Fear indicated the solemnity of the occasion. One priest would do the sick-calls (visiting the house bound of the neighbourhood) while the other priest would hear confessions. Every man, woman and child must have sinned judging by the queue to the room door, or were they showing solidarity with the person who gave up his bed the previous night to make this “Confessional Box”.
Mass would then follow and the poor server would have everyone’s sympathy, for this was no place to forget his “replies” (in Latin) in front of all the neighbours. The Homily would follow the Mass which coincided with the reparation of breakfast. The occasional loud bang as an object hit the stone floor caused a raise in blood pressure for the Bean a’ Tí. With arrangements made for a return visit to the next house, the Fathers and company were shown to the parlour. The lively chat began as the men all dined together in the kitchen. The women waited until the priests had left (after all there was no hurry), the day was long and the work could wait for another time. With firm hand shakes and God’s blessing on all, the priests left. No alcoholic drink was served while they were still in the house, maybe in those days the clergy didn’t approve.
Well on this occasion their approval wasn’t sought, this was a very special day for all, a day for remembering times past, good times and bad. They recalled too, the living and the dead, remembering them with the utmost reverence.
The storytelling began; they sat riveted to their chairs as story followed story, fact or fiction, who cared. Each story – better than the previous. Mind you, the more alcohol that was consumed the braver the heroes became.
If you hadn’t heard of ghosts before you would be fairly familiar with them by midnight. With the occasional burst of music they took to the floor; no one cared if their steps were incorrect, or their feet didn’t keep time to the music, for fun is what they wanted and fun is what they were having. Their aches, pains and troubles forgotten in the magic of the music and the “spirits”. No generation gap as old and young entwined on the dance floor, often a footprint of ashes would grace the floor as a foot strayed onto the hearth. Set dances, waltzes and barn dances were danced with great vigour well into the night until feet got weary and the music began to fade to be replaced by that familiar farewell “Go mbeimid beo ar an am seo arís”, then one by one they slowly left, each one with their own special memories of the day. The newly painted door closed firmly behind them and with God’s blessing upon them the light of the moon guided them safely home to await the next “Stations”.
Nancy Somers (nee Curry)
Written by Nancy Somers
Published here 09 Feb 2021 and originally published April 1996
Athenry Project at United Nations
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