“It doesn’t really hit you”

On Saturday last, I attended a First Communion in a town in east Cork. These occasions tend to be less about the children than about the parents. Several of the children were late for the church ceremony apparently because they could not get a hairdresser’s appointment for their little one on time but we’ll let that Liveline show go for now. Quite apart from the inherently gendered nature of the event (where boys “have scrubbed up well” and girls “look beautiful”) and the over-extended popular cultural references made by the priest presiding, the ceremony for me was marked by one particular exhortation.

Before the main ceremony got underway, one of the concelebrating priests stood at the lectern and asked us all to refrain from taking pictures or filming the event while it was taking place. There was ample time, he said, later in the day for “cameras to be filled” and video to be taken and this was a holy event marked by reverence for the occasion. This was followed by a request for “total silence” from this point onward. I’m not a frequent church-goer and an even less frequent attendee at First Communion rites but this was a real eye-opener to me. Growing up as a Catholic in Cork city, I remember that there was a portion at the back our church building which was sectioned off with glass and a small door. The PA system used for the rest of the church was extended into this sectioned off part of the church and this was intended for women and children to be set apart from the main congregation, lest their offspring disturb the rigorously pious prayers of the rest of ‘us’. As a ten year old even, I found this practice to be strange.

In the early 19th century, Irish Catholicism is marked by a renewed fervour in church building. This is probably arising from a rising Catholic middle class and the repeal of the Penal Laws some decades earlier but before the famine of the 1840s, Irish Catholic practice changed utterly. Some argue that it became more Protestant in form while others see this as part of a civilizing of the Irish peasantry in the face of a structural transformation of community and family across Europe. Behaviour in Catholic church buildings  in Ireland became more formally regulated and this had a profound effect on the way in which Catholicism was embodied in the space of the church buildings and elsewhere. This is rightly seen as an exercise in governmentality where self-government (as in the government of one’s self) was a reflection of other policy processes. Talking in Mass became gradually less acceptable as was the general embodiment of ‘holiness’ within the Church space; blessing oneself upon entry and exit or knowing within oneself when to stand or kneel for example.

The priest’s exhortation to restrict our behaviour within the walls of the building is a further example of such self-discipline and calls to attention the expertise of the priests during this part of the day. If this is a widespread practice in Irish Catholic parish churches in April and May, it represents to me a fundamental change in the ways in which we might understand the place of Catholicism in Irish public life. That people have to be asked to restrict their behaviour, as opposed to knowing how to behave, in church marks such a change. I hope to discover many others.

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4 thoughts on ““It doesn’t really hit you”

  1. This is interesting for a British Protestant to read. Having been to both Pentecostal churches, where the free-for-all atmosphere overrides any sense of reverence and ‘correct’ behaviour, and Anglican Catholic churches where the silence of parishioners is expected throughout, I don’t have many preconceptions about what is expected in British churches. On the other hand I don’t know m what behaviour was common in Church pre-modernity.

    What do you think motivated to change in the Irish church culture? Wanted to push the uniformity or a push for an image that reflected the modernising of Catholicism? (Please excuse mistakes. I’m learning how to use DragonNaturallySpeaking. It makes me look like someone who can’t use the internet. Handy.)

  2. Hi Naomi,

    If I could answer that one, I’d be that little bit closer to completion of my studies! I would see both examples that you provide as effectively performative: in that they constitute different ways of being in a place where religion is lived.

  3. And now you’ve got me reading up on performativity in religion. Blogs: not good for my focus!

    Thanks for the response. And if you get any closer to answering my question, I’d be interested to hear about it.

  4. I think you’re right in hinting that this behaviour thing is about “respectability” and probably something to do with the the rising middle class or summat. It is certainly interesting that the priest feels it necessary to remind people that it was actually a religious ceremony and not a party, so that the punters wouldn’t all be milling around with their camcorders. How middle class behaviour has changed in 100 years!

    As an aside, I don’t remember a separate room for women and children in our parish church. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention then.

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