I remember one particular incident from my childhood that has left an indelible mark on my awareness. In 5th class in National School (i.e., Primary School) in the harbour town of Cobh (formerly Queenstown) on the South coast of Ireland, I was at the age when young Catholic boys and girls were prepared for the religious rite of passage known as “Confirmation“. This meant, according to the Church, that we were now of an age to be classified as “strong and perfect Christians”, ready to take responsibility for our own lives. It also meant that we had to face an examination on religious doctrine based upon our knowledge of the little book called the “Catechism“. It cost about three pence and was the cheapest and smallest book on our prescribed list of school books. In this Age of Austerity and Financial Chaos, three pence was the price of a small bag of toffee sweets. In today’s parlance we would say it was “as cheap as a fiddler’s fart”, meaning that it was noticeable but commonplace.
The Catechism was divided into two parts. The first part occupied the initial third of the booklet and was in the format of Questions and Answers on essential religious topics; essential, that is, in the post-War years of the late 1940s/early 1950s. It was printed in scary bold print and, as far as my memory now goes back over 78 years, it dealt with such basic questions as:
- Q. “Who made the world?”
- Q. “List the Ten Commandments”
A. …. and so on.
I must admit now, to my eternal shame, that I have forgotten the First Commandment. That is because we learned all those things by rote in those days. That meant, one had to take a deep breath and list them mindlessly and at speed. Nevertheless, you will probably have already got the gist of the level of theological knowledge required of those of us desirous to be “strong and faithful Christians”. The boldly printed Qs and As represented 99% of the content of our half-hour religious instruction classes.
The other two-thirds of the Catechism was printed in faded grey, visually unthreatening, print. It followed the same format as the first one-third but the Questions were longer and so were the Answers. This part occupied 1% of class time during the year. And as we had learned in our Mathematics classes, numbers like 99.74 could sensibly be rounded up to 100% and welcomed with a satisfied release of breath because nobody with any sense would notice the difference anyway. Essentially it meant that it was required to justify the printing of the Catechism and charging thruppence, but could safely be ignored. Ignored, that is, by 99.99% of the indocrinees. [Editor’s note: “Is there such a word as “indoctrinee” and if so, what does it mean? My reply: “I know what it means to me and 99.999% of my readers will know instinctively what it means”]. And, as I was saying, it could be ignored by 99.99% … but not by me. Perhaps I wasn’t properly potty-trained in those baby years, and taught the essential rule in life, that is, to know when enough is enough, or else, to learn “to shit or get off the pot”. Wherever the instinct came from, I always wanted to know What and Why and When and How and Where and Who. And so, I read the entire Catechism from beginning to end. I was prepared for the Great Day!
The Great Day arrived and all the boys (we were a “boys only” school, but I shall return to that traumatic experience later, don’t worry) in my class and those from Sixth Class were rounded up and marched into Mr. Sullivan’s classroom which was the only room big enough to accommodate all those little boys, plus the teachers of those classes, plus the Bishop, the Parish Priest, the local Canon, the Diocesan Administrator,and one or two other priestly supporters. We were arraigned, standing stiffly upright, along three walls of the classroom, whilst the Bishop, an elderly cleric who wore a formal black coat, with black trousers, gaiters and buttoned-up boots, a formal purple shirt, and a big signet ring which townspeople kissed when they bobbed courteously on meeting His Lordship on his daily trip from the Bishop’s Palace to St Colman’s Cathedral and back again. You see, we in Cobh Boys National School were privileged to live in the town which was the epicentre of the Diocese of Cloyne. I was never sure why the centre of the Diocese of Cloyne was located in Cobh and not in the village of Cloyne on the Eastern end of Cork Harbour. But more about that later if I find an explanation.
After a few words of grovelling welcome from the School Principal the Bishop started with the first boy on his left and asked a question chosen randomly from the Catechism. The boy answered with the word-perfect answer from the first third of the Catechism. A slightly perceptible communal release of breath and communal tension could be felt. We were off to a flying start. Teachers’ faces allowed a slight sign of relief.; a slight nod of heads to one another suggested perhaps more than relief was felt. With a plodding determination the Bishop moved on, each boy answered with almost military precision. The authority figures around His Lordships chair and small table relaxed and even smiled with approbation. I was standing in the corner of the back of the class on the left, so I could not see those answering before it came to my turn. As it did. A slight quickening of the pulse, increased focus on the sequence of the content of the questions, a little lick of the lips and three long, deep breaths and exhalation, a trick taught to me by my mother who was a singer, contralto with the local Gilbert and Sullivan and light opera groups in Cobh; she assured me that it worked every time for her as she waited in the wings to make her entrance on stage. I was as relaxed as I could be and prepared. The bishop looked up from his list of boys, and stern-faced, ask me my question. I couldn’t believe my luck! God and the heavenly hosts of Angels, Archangels, Saints, Martyrs (both male and female) were smiling on me. I felt and dimly perceived the Cone of Heavenly light shining on me. The question he asked wasn’t exactly straight out of the grey, forgotten two-thirds of the Catechism but I saw the connection and I answered with confidence.
“Wrong answer”, said the Bishop; and turned his attention to the next boy. It was then I heard The Voice saying: “I’m sorry, my Lord, but I think I am right”.
I have heard a recording of the Golden Gate Quartet, sing “Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho, Jericho, and them Walls came a-tumblin’ down”. I realised immediately that The Voice was actually My Voice. In the shocked silence that followed I almost expected the school walls to tumble down. But no, they didn’t. I suppose you will have noticed at certain times in your own life, that Time, our perceived time, seems to speed up and at other times it slows down. Like in a dream when you run for your life through a bog that holds your feet in its grasp and everything is in slow motion, Or as in Shaolin meditation where you meditate to the regular beat of a brick being tapped with a wooden mallet. By focusing on the “click … click … click …” of the beat, the mind goes into meditative contemplation of the Cosmic Oneness and Time stands still as the meditator enters into the sublime Cosmic Oneness. Modesty stops me making such cosmic comparisons in that instance. But everything stood still and then in slow motion I remember the assembled aides and supporters gathering in a huddle around the Bishop. And I didn’t pee or shit myself with fright either!
His entourage relaxed a little and dispersed to their positions in the tableau. The Bishop removed his spectacles and fixing his rheumy eyes unblinkingly on me. he said: “You didn’t speak loudly enough, boy, so I misheard what you said. You should learn to speak up. Next boy, please.” Have you noticed in your own life, that those in authority rarely, if ever, apologise but always imply that their mistake was your fault?
The experience has burned a banner with a strange device into my conscious awareness. It has become my mantra over the years. It has bolstered my confidence in difficult times and re-assured me with its consolation when everything around me has been falling apart. The flaming letters of the mantra spell out “QUESTION AUTHORITY”. It is the underlying principle of free humans, it is the foundation stone of democracy, and my goodness, does it screw up the plans and tilt the table when those same authorities are imposing their will. If nothing else, it signals to would-be dictators that it’s time to shit or get off the pot.