The season of goodwill is almost upon us, but before that is the day of Original Sin – or rather the lack of. Because today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, when in the Middle East, Anna conceived Mary without it. The feast is still celebrated, albeit secularly, in mainland Europe.
In Italy, it’s a public holiday. When my daughter messaged me her weather news for I’Immacolata – freezing and possibly white – I thought the same temperature and colour of rage might attend such official news here, given how the Angelus bell is so problematic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the separation of Church and State. But for God’s sake, whoever She is, let us still have that ring, that moment, be it from Colmcille’s handbell, the icicle earring of the Cailleach, or a monastery in Tibet.
Today’s date is when ‘country people’ flocked to the cities for the Christmas shopping; the children’s allowance, egg money, banknotes from good days at the mart taken from tins beside the holy picture, the rubber-banded rolls dusted with Bird’s Custard or Fry’s Cocoa or the nail clippings of the Nazarene pointing, perpetually, at his fiery, bleeding heart.
At school, in the days before the feast day, we processed past the scalped, drab penitents to the nuns’ chapel to sing ‘O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee’. Here, a lifelong fascination with ‘In the Beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ and Mary ‘pondering’ things in her heart had its genesis. Now, wherever I hear these words, I feel the pews minky with polish, smell the mutton from the convent kitchen, old, oily, stirred by lambs to the slaughter.
On December 8, early mass and my father’s sortie to Bradley’s in the North Main Street to book the box of Christmas cheer on the eve, my mother and aunt taking to Shandon Street or Donovan’s to order the ham and spiced beef (town proper was generally avoided).
Let the ‘country people’ have their day, their moment in Lipton’s, Dunnes, Roche’s Stores, Bennetts, the Munster Arcade, Kilgrew’s for toys, Scally’s for shoes, Woolworths, Cash’s. Let them lash into their mixed grills in the Savoy, coffee and cake in Thompson’s and the Green Door. The three-course dinner taken at one o’clock in the Victoria, Metropole, Imperial Hotels; the children, if they were brought, in their good coats, clutching pink or blue presents from Santa, thighs pebble-dashed with ire.
On the radiogram, all Raidió Teilifís Éireann all the time, there was excitement beyond the glamour-gold of Paris, Sofia, Limoges, Prague, Rome, Hilversum on the black rectangular screen.
From O’Donnell Abú chiming in the dark, there was sceitimíní, expectation: the islanders were on the move, confident that crepe-paper chains hung in classrooms, reams of foolscap were ready for the Christmas tests where squirrels lived in dreys and the capital of Hungary was always Budapest. And on telly a Sheaffer pen was the gift of quality and Old Spice was the mark of a man.
For us children, soap-on-a-rope was hung in JJ Walsh the chemist’s window, O’Callaghan’s chandlers put up their black, starlit crib with red bulb and gold straw, a lurid Mary and pallid Jesus, pin-head heavily ringleted. Out the road, in barns and sheds extended families of cows and pigs, flocks of turkeys and geese were for the hatchet and didn’t know it. It Says in the Papers and On This Day came and went. Later, Gay Byrne would warn of traffic jams in every metropolis in the country, including Macroom – his guests advising ‘housewives’ to be organised, to write lists in biro on the deified back of a Cornflakes box or a tights packet, not mere mortal paper.
Too late for Maisie from Mullingar, bunion bleeding, careering around Clery’s with the mangled page she tore from a training copy. After a pencilled “Scarf for Mam, Jumper for Mickey” between the red and blue lines, there’s nothing legible.
I’m too old, too tested to romanticise December 8. Too often, behind the innocence painted on and demanded, was dangerous knowledge, perfect savagery. For how many did O’Donnell Abú signal the end of their torture in the dark, its beginning in the light?
But in the endless run-on lines of life, like all the feasts, the eighth provided rhythm, punctuation. Different to now, when we can shop 24-7, beaten blue by Black Friday flogging tat we don’t need, those chemical Christmas jumpers burning to death so ho-ho-ho slowly in the Atacama Desert, poisoning earth, water, humans.
This week, on the advice of a friend in Switzerland, I gave myself an early Christmas present of The Indo-European Cognate Dictionary, a cracker for any reader.
H2enh1 is the root of the verb to breathe, giving âme and inhaler in French, anam and anáil in Irish. Before I learned to read, just as I mistook the Black and Tans for the Blackened Hands, I imagined the soul in the terrifying prayer As I Lay Me Down to Sleep as an immaculate white ‘soul’ shining in my chest, its single blemish the Original Sin I’d inherited as a human. (In religion and history our mother was pitiless.) For a tizzicky child, the sole-breath thing was complicated. As a more tizzicky adult, the soul-breath connection, in language, is dazzling.
“Immaculate,” my grandmother would say snapping the sheets and tablecloths that arrived every week crisp, lemony from the Peacock Lane Laundry. Their immaculateness obliterating all conceptions.
Today, maybe some from ‘the country’ will still come up to Cork and Dublin for the shopping. Regardless, on this Immaculate soul day: Breathe.