David Robbins

Thursday 21 August 2014

Putting on a Holy show is part of our country's culture

Published 16/05/2009 | 00:00

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What would Desmond Morris, the late, great social anthropologist, have made of the Irish Holy Communion season? The man was a master at decoding social rituals, and the first three weeks in May on the sainted isle would have provided him with rich territory.

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The author of The Naked Ape (and owner of one of the most spectacular comb-over hairstyles outside south Kerry) never turned his gaze on the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, which leaves the field open for me to tackle the semiotics of the First Holy Communion.

My own Communion was, in memory at least, a low-key affair. There is a surviving photograph of me and my parents in the school yard. My father is in a dark suit with narrow-legged trousers.

He is wearing a narrow tie, and suede shoes. The narrowness is a little incongruous, for he was not a narrow man, but it was all no doubt the height of fashion in 1970.

My mother sports a fitted coat, court shoes and a turban-style head-dress similar to those favoured by the late Princess Grace of Monaco.

Continuing the royal theme, her handbag echoes the sturdy elbow-crook accessories of Queen Elizabeth.

I am standing between these two fashion icons. I am dressed in my school blazer, cap and short trousers. I am resting on one foot, and am holding my mum's hand, while my other hand is clutching the crotch of my shorts.

Desmond Morris would easily have identified the pose as sending the following subliminal message: "I am dying for a pee."

Some other memories of the day stand out. I received £15 in "Communion money"; I got a present of a Padraig Pearse piece -- a specially minted coin in memory of the great patriot that the donor confidently predicted would be worth a fortune in 20 years. Of course, I lost it almost immediately.

My parents brought me to lunch at the Castle Golf Club, where my uncle was captain that year. I remember it as a formal place, and myself and my brother were the only children there. On the plus side, there was jelly and ice cream.

Today's Communion celebrations will not reach the heights of ostentation seen during the boom years. There will be fewer stretch limos, fewer designer dresses, fewer meals at posh restaurants.

But the temptation to put on a show will never completely disappear.

There are two main reasons for this. The first has to do with the obvious religious significance of the occasion, and the second has to do with Desmond Morris-ish social and cultural imperatives.

Cultures all over the world use these rite-of-passage rituals to send out messages about family status and wealth. Think of the Greek wedding tradition of pinning money to the bride's dress. It is quaint and old-fashioned in one way, and in another it is sending out powerful messages about the wealth of the family and their associates.

In Ireland, working-class families have tended to be more ostentatious in their celebration of the Holy Communion sacrament.

The fanciest white dresses and the smartest little suits are displayed unself-consciously.

The message being sent out here is: "We have money."

For the middle classes, the expenditure is more on the meal and ancillary activities. My parents, in taking me to a golf club, were saying: "We have status".

Even those who affect to despise all the fuss are trying to send out a message of their own: "We are different."

For many families, the First Holy Communion ritual is a chance to take their place at the centre of the extended family group for a day at least, a chance to show off their children, their home and their hospitality.

For my own part, I think all the fuss is great. It is all part of the day, and at a deeper level, it is part of the social fabric of the community. As Edith Wharton might say, it is the custom of the country.

drobbins@independent.ie

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