Thursday 17 October 2019

Donal Lynch: 'How Ireland turned its back on religion, but kept Communion'

The Communion season can offer a study in tackiness and taste, writes Donal Lynch

A BIG DAY DRESSING UP: We are in national agreement that three-tier wedding dresses on little girls are completely fine
A BIG DAY DRESSING UP: We are in national agreement that three-tier wedding dresses on little girls are completely fine
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Streaks of fake tan on the bouncing castle. A pop-up charity shop overflowing with tulle, lace, chiffon and tiny jackets with rosettes. Princess packages and elaborate plaits at the local hair salon. Day drinking for parents, fizzy drinks and tantrums for their offspring. And of course: More kitschy ornaments than you'd get on a visit to Knock. It must be Holy Communion season.

Even as Irish adults turn their back en masse on traditional religious rites in the wake of Ferns, Tuam and other theocratic atrocities, it seems that, as ever, different rules apply to children in this country. We're iffy about baptism, and having less and less church weddings, but the temptation to dress up our kids like tiny brides and grooms, is evidently stronger than any progressive disquiet about Catholic ideology.

If Muslims did something similar, we would possibly consider it a form of oppression - but, since we're Catholic, three-tier wedding dresses on little girls must be completely fine.

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We are in national agreement on this. Surprisingly, communions are celebrated to roughly the same extent as they were 20 years ago in Ireland, before the Church lost its grip on society, and, except for the incrementally higher expenses, they have hardly changed over the years.

In working-class areas, the take up for Holy Communion is close to 100pc. In Educate Together's equality-based schools, roughly half of children still take part in Holy Communion. Children, especially little girls, enjoy the pageantry and princess fantasies of the big day; non-religious parents struggle with saying no, which is exacerbated by the lack of any alternative community-based treats.

As parents have dispensed with their own religion, the amount of time needed to prepare children for receiving the sacrament has actually increased over the years in schools - national school teachers now spend an average of 80 hours getting kids ready for the big day. In a survey carried out recently by the Archdiocese of Dublin, 1,800 people asked "for more movement in the direction of parent and parish responsibility".

The archdiocese says the findings will now "form the raw material for a further stage of reflection".

Reflecting on the anomalies of Holy Communion is a perennial pastime. Like all our biggest holidays, Communion thrives at that crossroads between commercialism and community: this year, one in four Irish children will receive cash gifts totalling nearly €600 for their day's work. And like weddings, females are the real stars. According to a costs survey published last year by Ulster Bank, girls earn slightly more than boys in gifts on the day itself.

Holy Communion's unlikely survival has come in the face of a lot of prissy, class-based sniffing as well as the ongoing debate about Catholic patronage in schools.

Taste and symbolism are all important: to some people, Holy Communion is dangerously close to the aesthetic of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and, as a religious rite, most enthusiastically embraced by the type of person who has their toddler's ears pierced.

Dr Karl Kitching, a UCC academic who has written on Holy Communions, argues that debates about "commercialism, tasteful clothing and gifts at Communion time… relate back to power and control."

He notes that "in Ireland, one of the ways in which parents - particularly mothers - are invited or even pressured to demonstrate white, middle class status is by ensuring that the clothes and gifts their children have are tasteful and simple, even if still expensive."

And in middle-class families, it's not as simple as buying a medal or an ornament to give a child: these have to have been passed down, ideally by someone on at least nodding terms with St Anthony. If that's not you, then your envelope better contain a hefty indulgence, in multiples of 50. Which is how today's eight-year-olds make so much money on the day.

For whom is the money really spent though? And how much is it all about our fantasies of childhood, instead of being about the children themselves?

Some campaign groups such as Equate Ireland want to see the ceremonies happen outside of school time so no child is excluded, made to feel different and so that their constitutional rights are upheld.

The Church, on the other hand, holds as fast to Holy Communion as little girls do to those little white bags. Its leaders have hope that in its enduring popularity is a path to redemption for the disillusioned masses who used to pack churches every weekend and it is still, despite everything, more overtly religious than, say, Christmas. Pope Francis recently said the purpose of Holy Communion is to "bring the flame of Jesus's love, even if it is a small one, to the hearts of children, and through the children to their parents, thus reopening the places of faith of our time".

So the kids are teaching us about it all, not the other way around. Is it any wonder we have to pay?

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