First Confession

First Confession

Frank O’Connor
frank o'connor

[ This story was written by the Cork author Michael Francis O’Connor O’Donovan (1903 – 1966) who was known best for his short stories. “First Confession” was published in 1951 and is about a boy’s first confession. We have included it in our Other Stories because we referred to it in the article on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. ]

All the trouble began when my grandfather died and my grand-mother – my father’s mother – came to live with us. Relations in the one house are a strain at the best of times but, to make matters worse, my grandmother was a real old countrywoman and quite unsuited to the life in town. She had a fat, wrinkled old face and, to Mother’s great indignation, went round the house in bare feet – the boots had her crippled, she said. For dinner she had a jug of porter and a pot of potatoes with, sometimes, a bit of salt fish, and she poured out the potatoes on the table and ate them slowly, with great relish, using her fingers by way of a fork.

Now, girls are supposed to be fastidious, but I was the one who suffered most from this. Nora, my sister, just sucked up to the old woman for the penny she got every Friday out of the old-age pension – a thing I could not do. I was too honest, that was my trouble, and when I was playing with Bill Connell, the sergeant-major’s son, and saw my grandmother steering up the path with the jug of porter sticking out from beneath her shawl, I was mortified. I made excuses not to let him come into the house because I could never be sure what she would be up to when we went in.

When Mother was at work and my grandmother made the dinner I wouldn’t touch it. Nora once tried to make me but I hid under the table from her and took the bread-knife with me for protection. Nora let on to be very indignant (she wasn’t, of course, but she knew Mother saw through her, so she sided with Gran) and came after me. I lashed out at her with the bread-knife and, after that, she left me alone. I stayed there till Mother came in from work and made my dinner, but when Father came in later, Nora said in a shocked voice, “Oh, Dadda, do you know what Jackie did at dinnertime?” Then, of course, it all came out. Father gave me a flaking, Mother interfered, and for days after that he didn’t speak to me and Mother barely spoke to Nora.

And all because of that old woman! God knows, I was heart-scalded. Then, to crown my misfortunes, I had to make my first confession and communion. It was an old woman called Ryan who prepared us for these. She was about the one age with Gran. She was well-to-do, lived in a big house on Montenotte, wore a black cloak and bonnet, and came every day to school at three o’clock when we should have been going home, and talked to us of hell. She may have mentioned the other place as well, but that could only have been by accident, for hell had the first place in her heart.
She lit a candle, took out a new half-crown, and offered it to the first boy who would hold one finger – only one finger! – in the flame for five minutes by the school clock. Being always very ambitious I was tempted to volunteer, but I thought it might look greedy. Then she asked were we afraid of holding one finger – only one finger! – in a little candle flame for five minutes and not afraid of burning all over in roasting hot furnaces for all eternity. All eternity! Just think of that! A whole lifetime goes by and it’s nothing, not even a drop in the ocean of your sufferings. The woman was really interesting about hell, but my attention was all fixed on the half-crown. At the end of the lesson she put it back in her purse. It was a great disappointment. A religious woman like that, you wouldn’t think she’d bother about a thing like a half-crown.

Another day she said she knew a priest who woke one night to find a fellow he didn’t recognise leaning over the end of his bed. The priest was a bit frightened, naturally enough, but he asked the fellow what he wanted and the fellow said in a deep, husky voice that he wanted to go to confession. The priest said it was an awkward time and wouldn’t it do in the morning, but the fellow said that last time he went to confession, there was one sin he kept back, being ashamed to mention it, and now it was always on his mind. Then the priest knew it was a bad case because the fellow was after making a bad confession and committing a mortal sin. He got up to dress, and just then the cock crew in the yard outside, and lo and behold! – when the priest looked round there was no sign of the fellow, only a smell of burning timber, and when the priest looked at his bed didn’t he see the print of two hands burned in it? That was because the fellow had made a bad confession. This story made a shocking impression on me.

But the worst of all was when she showed us how to examine our conscience. Did we take the name of the Lord, our God, in vain? Did we honour our father and our mother? (I asked her did this include grandmothers and she said it did.) Did we love our neighbours as ourselves? Did we covet our neighbour’s goods? (I thought of the way I felt about the penny that Nora got every Friday.) I decided that, between one thing and another, I must have broken the whole ten commandments, all on account of that old woman and, so far as I could see, so long as she remained in the house I had no hope of ever doing anything else.

I was scared to death of confession. The day the whole class went I let on to have a toothache, hoping my absence wouldn’t be noticed but, at three o’clock, just as I was feeling safe, along comes a chap with a message from Mrs. Ryan that I was to go to confession myself on Saturday and be at the chapel for communion with the rest. To make it worse, Mother couldn’t come with me and sent Nora instead.
Now, that girl had ways of tormenting me that Mother never knew of. She held my hand as we went down the hill, smiling sadly and saying how sorry she was for me, as if she were bringing me to the hospital for an operation.
“Oh, God help us!” she moaned. “Isn’t it a terrible pity you weren’t a good boy? Oh, Jackie, my heart bleeds for you! How will you ever think of all your sins? Don’t forget you have to tell him about the time you kicked Gran on the shin.”
“Lemme go!” I said, trying to drag myself free of her. “I don’t want to go to confession at all.”
“But sure, you’ll have to go to confession, Jackie!” she replied in the same regretful tone. “Sure, if you didn’t, the parish priest would be up to the house, looking for you. Tisn’t, God knows, that I’m not sorry for you. Do you remember the time you tried to kill me with the bread-knife under the table? And the language you used to me? I don’t know what he’ll do with you at all, Jackie. He might have to send you up to the bishop.”

I remember thinking bitterly that she didn’t know the half of what I had to tell if I told it. I knew I couldn’t tell it, and understood perfectly why the fellow in Mrs. Ryan’s story made a bad confession. It seemed to me a great shame that people wouldn’t stop criticising him. I remember that steep hill down to the church, and the sunlit hillsides beyond the valley of the river, which I saw in the gaps between the houses like Adam’s last glimpse of Paradise.
Then, when she had manoeuvred me down the long flight of steps to the chapel yard, Nora suddenly changed her tone. She became the raging malicious devil she really was.
“There you are!” she said with a yelp of triumph, hurling me through the church door. “And I hope he’ll give you the penitential psalms, you dirty little caffler.”

I knew then I was lost, given up to eternal justice. The door with the coloured-glass panels swung shut behind me, the sunlight went out and gave place to deep shadow, and the wind whistled outside so that the silence within seemed to crackle like ice under my feet. Nora sat in front of me by the confession box. There were a couple of old women ahead of her, and then a miserable-looking poor devil came and wedged me in at the other side so that I couldn’t escape even if I had the courage. He joined his hands and rolled his eyes in the direction of the roof, muttering aspirations in an anguished tone, and I wondered had he a grandmother too. Only a grandmother could account for a fellow behaving in that heartbroken way, but he was better off than I, for he at least could go and confess his sins while I would make a bad confession and then die in the night and be continually coming back and burning people’s furniture.

Nora’s turn came, and I heard the sound of something slamming, and then her voice as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, and then another slam, and out she came. God, the hypocrisy of women! Her eyes were lowered, her head was bowed, and her hands were joined very low down on her stomach, and she walked up the aisle to the side altar looking like a saint. You never saw such an exhibition of devotion; and I remembered the devilish malice with which she had tormented me all the way from our door, and wondered were all religious people like that, really.

confession It was my turn now. With the fear of damnation in my soul I went in, and the confessional door closed of itself behind me. It was pitch-dark and I couldn’t see priest or anything else. Then I really began to be frightened. In the darkness it was a matter between God and me, and He had all the odds. He knew what my intentions were before I even started. I had no chance. All I had ever been told about confession got mixed up in my mind, and I knelt to one wall and said, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” I waited for a few minutes but nothing happened, so I tried it on the other wall. Nothing happened there either. He had me spotted all right.

It must have been then that I noticed the shelf at about one height with my head. It was really a place for grown-up people to rest their elbows, but in my distracted state I thought it was probably the place you were supposed to kneel. Of course, it was on the high side and not very deep, but I was always good at climbing and managed to get up all right. Staying up was the trouble. There was room only for my knees, and nothing you could get a grip on but a sort of wooden moulding a bit above it. I held on to the moulding and repeated the words a little louder, and this time something happened all right. A slide was slammed back, a little light entered the box, and a man’s voice said, “Who’s there?”

“‘Tis me, father,” I said, for fear he mightn’t see me and go away again. I couldn’t see him at all. The place the voice came from was under the moulding, about level with my knees, so I took a good grip of the moulding and swung myself down till I saw the astonished face of a young priest looking up at me. He had to put his head on one side to see me, and I had to put mine on one side to see him, so we were more or less talking to one another upside-down. It struck me as a queer way of hearing confessions, but I didn’t feel it my place to criticise.

“Bless me, father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession”, I rattled off all in one breath, and swung myself down the least shade more to make it easier for him.
“What are you doing up there?” he shouted in an angry voice, and the strain the politeness was putting on my hold of the moulding, and the shock of being addressed in such an uncivil tone, were too much for me. I lost my grip, tumbled, and hit the door an unmerciful wallop before I found myself flat on my back in the middle of the aisle. The people who had been waiting stood up with their mouths open. The priest opened the door of the middle box and came out, pushing his biretta back from his forehead. He looked something terrible.

Then Nora came scampering down the aisle. “Oh, you dirty little caffler!” she said. “I might have known you’d do it. I might have known you’d disgrace me. I can’t leave you out of my sight for one minute.” Before I could even get to my feet to defend myself she bent down and gave me a clip across the ear. This reminded me that I was so stunned I had even forgotten to cry so that people might think I wasn’t hurt at all when, in fact, I was probably maimed for life. I gave a roar out of me.

“What’s all this about?” the priest hissed, getting angrier than ever and pushing Nora off me. “How dare you hit the child like that, you little vixen?”
“But I can’t do my penance with him, father”, Nora cried, cocking an outraged eye up at him.
“Well, go and do it, or I’ll give you some more to do”, he said, giving me a hand up. “Was it coming to confession you were, my poor man?” he asked me.
“‘Twas, father”, said I with a sob.
“Oh”, he said respectfully, “a big hefty fellow like you must have terrible sins. Is this your first?”
“‘Tis, father”, said I.
“Worse and worse”, he said gloomily. “The crimes of a lifetime. I don’t know will I get rid of you at all today. You’d better wait now till I’m finished with these old ones. You can see by the looks of them they haven’t much to tell.”
“I will, father”, I said with something approaching joy.

The relief of it was really enormous. Nora stuck out her tongue at me from behind his back, but I couldn’t even be bothered retorting. I knew from the very moment that man opened his mouth that he was intelligent above the ordinary. When I had time to think I saw how right I was. It only stood to reason that a fellow confessing after seven years would have more to tell than people that went every week. The crimes of a lifetime, exactly as he said. It was only what he expected, and the rest was the cackle of old women and girls with their talk of hell, the bishop, and the penitential psalms. That was all they knew. I started to make my examination of conscience and, barring the one bad business of my grandmother, it didn’t seem so bad.

The next time, the priest steered me into the confession box himself and left the shutter back, the way I could see him get in and sit down at the further side of the grille from me.
“Well, now”, he said, “what do they call you?”
“Jackie, father”, said I.
“And what’s a-trouble to you, Jackie?”
Father”, I said, feeling I might as well get it over while I had him in good humour, “I had it all arranged to kill my grandmother.”
He seemed a bit shaken by that, all right, because he said nothing for quite a while.
“My goodness”, he said at last, “that’d be a shocking thing to do. What put that into your head?”
Father”, I said, feeling very sorry for myself, “she’s an awful woman”.
“Is she?” he asked. “What way is she awful?”
“She takes porter, father”, I said, knowing well from the way Mother talked of it that this was a mortal sin, and hoping it would make the priest take a more favourable view of my case.
“Oh, my!” he said, and I could see he was impressed.
“And snuff, father”, said I.
“That’s a bad case, sure enough, Jackie,” he said.
“And she goes round in her bare feet, father”, I went on in a rush of self-pity, “and she knows I don’t like her, and she gives pennies to Nora and none to me, and my da sides with her and flakes me, and one night I was so heart-scalded I made up my mind I’d have to kill her.”
“And what would you do with the body?” he asked with great interest.
“I was thinking I could chop that up and carry it away in a barrow I have”, I said.
“Begor, Jackie”, he said, “do you know you’re a terrible child?”
“I know, father”, I said, for I was just thinking the same thing myself. “I tried to kill Nora too with a bread-knife under the table, only I missed her.”
“Is that the little girl that was beating you just now?” he asked.
“‘Tis, father.”
“Someone will go for her with a bread-knife one day, and he won’t miss her”, he said rather cryptically. “You must have great courage. Between ourselves, there’s a lot of people I’d like to do the same to, but I’d never have the nerve. Hanging is an awful death.”
“Is it, father?” I asked with the deepest interest – I was always very keen on hanging. “Did you ever see a fellow hanged?”
“Dozens of them”, he said solemnly. “And they all died roaring.”
“Jay!” I said.
“Oh, a horrible death!” he said with great satisfaction.
“Lots of the fellows I saw killed their grandmothers too, but they all said ’twas never worth it.”

He had me there for a full ten minutes talking, and then walked out the chapel yard with me. I was genuinely sorry to part with him, because he was the most entertaining character I’d ever met in the religious line. Outside, after the shadow of the church, the sunlight was like the roaring of waves on a beach. It dazzled me and when the frozen silence melted and I heard the screech of trams on the road, my heart soared. I knew now I wouldn’t die in the night and come back leaving marks on my mother’s furniture. It would be a great worry to her, and the poor soul had enough.
Nora was sitting on the railing, waiting for me, and she put on a very sour puss when she saw the priest with me. She was mad jealous because a priest had never come out of the church with her.

“Well”, she asked coldly, after he left me, “what did he give you?”
“Three Hail Marys”, I said.
“Three Hail Marys”, she repeated incredulously. “You mustn’t have told him anything.”
“I told him everything”, I said confidently.
“About Gran and all?”
“About Gran and all.”
(All she wanted was to be able to go home and say I’d made a bad confession.)
“Did you tell him you went for me with the bread-knife?” she asked with a frown.
“I did to be sure.”
“And he only gave you three Hail Marys?”
“That’s all.”
She slowly got down from the railing with a baffled air. Clearly, this was beyond her. As we mounted the steps back to the main road, she looked at me suspiciously.
“What are you sucking?” she asked.
“Was it the priest gave them to you?”
“Lord God”, she wailed bitterly, “some people have all the luck! ‘Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good. I might just as well be a sinner like you.”

Fr. McCabe and the Altar Boy

Other Stories

“Fr. McCabe and the Altar Boy”

by Bagún Glic

June 2010.

Fr. McCabe was very old and creaked audibly when he walked. He had served as a chaplain during the war and, for his bravery, was awarded the Military Medal. Perhaps it was the war that was responsible for the creaking. Rumour had it that there was still a bullet or a piece of shrapnel somewhere inside him. On top of that he was as deaf as a door knob, but that was probably just old age − he was very, very old. In spite of these physical deficiencies the parishioners of St. Aidan’s knew him as a good, kind man and a good priest – except when he forgot to turn up for a baptism or a wedding.

Learning to serve

The altar boy was young, though not very young, and he knew all Fr. McCabe’s foibles. They made a good team, he thought, though it could be challenging at times. Altar boy training, for example. At that time the Mass was said in Latin and the first task in training an altar boy was to cram his little head with buckets of Latin responses. The beginning of Mass was particularly treacherous as a dozen Latin verses had to be recited alternately by priest and altar boy at breakneck speed. As Fr. McCabe was deaf he couldn’t hear his altar boy’s responses so he just kept going, regardless, and so did the altar boy. The trick, it seems, was to both finish at the same time so that the congregation, if there was one, would be unaware of the jumble.

Introibo ad altare Dei
Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
I will go in unto the altar of God
Unto God who giveth joy to my youth.

What beautiful prayers. Of course, Fr. McCabe’s altar boy knew little of their meaning. His job was to say them, not to admire them. Frostbitten fingers were quite common in our altar boy who cycled through the wintry early-morning air to get to St. Aidan’s, while the church itself was really just a large wooden hut with a corrugated-iron roof and no heating of any kind. Such fingers were a serious impediment to his putting on the long black cassock with its two thousand small buttons, so he was thankful for the three hundred which were missing around the knees. The cold must have been an impediment to the parishioners, too, as there was often no congregation. You see, Fr. McCabe and his altar boy preferred the quietude of the weekday Mass which was at 7:30 a.m., a trifle early for everyone – except, on occasion, for Mrs. O’Brien who was almost as old as the priest, who liked to sit at the back next to the organ, and who had once given the incredulous altar boy two silver sixpences which he spent on aniseed balls and liquorice.

Confiteor Deo omnipotenti,
beatae Mariae semper Virgine,
beato Michaeli archangelo …
quia peccavi nimis …
I confess to almighty God,
to blessed Mary ever Virgin,
to blessed Michael the archangel …that I have sinned exceedingly …

Perhaps “exceedingly” was overstating it for this particular altar boy or, indeed, for the vast majority of boys of his age. Still, the Confiteor was a part of the Mass and everyone had to say it. Not only had he to confess to the blessed archangel, but the poor altar boy had also to confess to Fr.McCabe in the confessional.

Are there not three conditions to be fulfilled by the penitent before absolution is given, namely: examination of conscience; an act of contrition; and a firm purpose of amendment? Should not a fourth condition be applied to the priest − that to be allowed to hear confession he should first be able to hear a bomb going off? Perhaps not. Although Fr. McCabe was as deaf as the knob on the door of the confessional, he could see the light streaming in when it opened and, after a suitable pause, would begin to mumble Latin through the grill. Although the altar boy had few sins to confess, he had to be quick about it or he would be given three “Hail Marys” and absolution before he was finished. He always came away a little disappointed on such occasions as he had been taught to value confession. One wonders how Fr. McCabe felt about it. Worse still were the times when the boy heard the chink, chink of coins as Fr. McCabe counted the collection money while he told him of fibbing and answering his mother back. But the altar boy did not condemn the old man. He liked him, even loved him, as a boy might love his granddad. Nor should we condemn him.

Pone, Domine, custodiam ori meo, et ostium circumstantiæ labiis meis: ut non declinet cor meum in verba malitiæ, ad excusandas excusationes in peccatis. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and a door round about my lips: that my heart may not incline to evil words, and seek excuses in sins.

Did you ever watch an altar boy squirm as he knelt on the steps of the altar? There were no altar girls in those days but the modern altar girl appears to be squirm-free. Perhaps she, like her mother, is biologically better equipped to endure pain and suffering than her male counterpart. The Latin Mass was a long Mass and there was no sitting down on weekdays. Mrs. O’Brien could kneel, sit, stand, or lie down, but the altar boy had no choice. There were brief moments when he could stand or move around but, mostly, he had to kneel. Hours and hours of kneeling. Sitting on the altar steps was a mortal sin and Fr. McCabe wasn’t blind. All the altar boy could do to relieve the back pain and the cramp in his thighs was to attempt some rather limited aerobics – otherwise known as squirming.

Crucifixus etiam pro nobis. He was crucified also for us.

It wasn’t all pain and discomfort, though. There were some plum jobs for our altar boy. One of them was ringing the altar bell, or bells, as there were four small bells that tinkled together when shaken – and he had a lot of ringing to do. The most important bell-ringing occurred at the consecration. The altar boy had to kneel just behind the priest and ring the bells six times while holding up the end of the chasuble as the priest genuflected – to make sure that he didn’t catch his heel in it and fall over, he supposed. Other plum jobs were swinging the thurible so hard that Fr. McCabe disappeared in the fog; dowsing the tall candles high up on the altar; carrying the processional cross at the head of the posse; minding the priest’s biretta; and transferring the big missal.


The missal job was the plummiest job of all, and the most perilous. At that time the priest said Mass facing the high altar with his back to the congregation. Immediately before the gospel, the altar boy had to walk up the altar steps, pick up the big missal complete with brass stand, walk back down the steps, genuflect, and walk up the steps again to deposit the missal and stand on the other side of the altar, thus transferring them from the “epistle” side to the “gospel” side – something that the priest could do himself in two seconds. After Communion, they had to be transferred back where they came from.

The combination of missal and stand weighed a ton-and-a-half so that the altar boy had his work cut out just to carry them, never mind do pirouettes with them. But it all added to the spectacle. In addition, the same altar boy couldn’t see over the top of the missal but had to try to peer around it. His moment of true glory came when, staggering under the missal and unable to see where he was going, he kicked the undeserving altar bells from the top step down through the altar rails and into the aisle. Fortunately, Mrs. O’Brien was absent so the church was empty save for Fr. McCabe, who heard and saw nothing, and the tearful altar boy, who never told anyone.

Mea culpa, mea culpa,
mea maxima culpa.
Through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault.


The job that was the second favourite of the unfortunate altar boy was carrying the processional cross − the crucifix mounted at the top of a longish pole. Whenever there was a procession out and around the church and back, or when the priest and whoever else were to be led on and off the altar, the proud little altar boy would be there in the van, carrying his cross. A plum job all right, but pride goes before a fall, and how great was his fall. He dozed off during Benediction. The priest’s footsteps woke him with a start and he jumped up immediately, took up his cross, and made a bee-line down the aisle through a sea of smiling faces. But the priest had merely stepped into the pulpit while the altar boy had stepped outside into the rain. What to do now? He wanted to go straight home but didn’t relish cycling in his cassock and cotta armed with the processional cross, like a knight on horseback. He did the only thing he could do and walked ignominiously back up the long aisle, his glowing ears lighting the way, to his place on the altar, with eyes riveted to the floor.

In spiritu humilitatis et in animo contrito
suscipiamur a te, Domine.
In the spirit of humility and with a contrite heart receive us, O Lord.

At that time there was a terrible lot of bowing, genuflecting, kissing of cruets, inclining towards the priest or the crucifix, bowing low during the Confiteor, and so on, which our altar boy was careful to learn by heart. He was very careful, also, to avoid touching the chalice or the ciborium. That was a special kind of sin that was neither mortal nor venial. It did not “kill the soul and deserve hell” but it severely wounded it and deserved a severe chastisement from Fr. Crowe, the parish priest, who was very sticky about that kind of thing. Fr. McCabe was too old to worry about such sacrileges, which was just as well for his shaking hand was the cause of a moral crisis in the conscience of his altar boy when the chalice he was offering him touched the boy’s thumb. Now, the thumb had not touched the chalice – it was the shaking chalice that had touched the thumb, or so the boy reasoned. There was no need, therefore, to genuflect, bow his head to the floor, and turn a cartwheel, or so he reasoned. So he did none of those. But he did not sleep well that night.

Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas.
Ne perdas cum impiis, Deus, animam meam.
I will wash my hands among the innocent.
Take not away my soul, O God, with the wicked.

Holy Communion was a different affair in those days. There was no receiving the body of Christ in the hand but only on the tongue, and everyone knelt down at the altar rails. What of the altar boy? His job was to go before the priest with the paten or communion plate which he held under the chin of each communicant in turn, in case the host or some particles of it might fall. If that were to happen he would be unlikely to catch them for his attention was invariably on the different sizes and shapes of mouths, tongues, and teeth that were presented. That was on a Sunday when there were lots of tongues. They were a constant source of amusement for him and he was sometimes tempted to poke a finger into a gaping mouth – but he never did, or so he claimed.

et ne nos inducas in tentationem,
sed libera nos a malo.
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

The end of Communion signalled the approach of the end of Mass and the end of squirming for the weary altar boy. There was only the reading from St. John’s gospel, the last Gospel, to get through and a few short prayers and then Mass would be over. At Sunday Mass this was the time of the quick getaway when those who had affairs that couldn’t wait caused a minor commotion at the back of the church. Of course, Fr. McCabe couldn’t hear it, but he new it was going on and he would creak round and glower at the backs of the faithful departing, to the delight of the faithful remaining. At midweek Mass it was a quiet time when our altar boy could reflect on his performance with satisfaction or regret.

Ite, Missa est. Go, the Mass is ended.


At last, Fr. McCabe and his altar boy would stand side by side at the foot of the altar and bless themselves. The boy would genuflect and hand the biretta to the priest. The priest would perform a genuflection of desire and follow the boy off the altar. One day, Fr. McCabe didn’t comes back to his altar and, one day, neither did the altar boy.

Neddy Murphy

Other Stories

“Neddy Murphy”

by Bob Rockett

June 2010.

[ This story of Neddy Murphy was specially written for this web site. In the story the author recalls an event of nearly eighty years ago as though it were yesterday. – Comms Team. ]

Sombre and Silent.

fenor-graveyard-smallA parish community is an institution involving many personalities from within its confines, each one doing his or her best to personalise the portrayal of their role. The subject of my contribution is Neddy Murphy, the grave digger from about 1910 to 1935. Grave digger Neddy Murphy was a low sized man of slight build, with a pleasant disposition. He portrayed the personality of the man for the job of burying the dead − he was sombre and silent. For celebratory events where his services were required, he had the appropriate ornamentation. He also assisted his wife, Maggie, who was the sacristan. His duties also included attending to the upkeep of the cemetery, cutting the grass just once a year at hay cutting time.

They had a family of two girls and three boys, the oldest a girl, born about 1917, the youngest a boy born in 1922. Members of the family occasionally stood in for either parent as the situation warranted. All are now deceased, both girls and one boy died in England. The oldest girl, who had married a local man, had a family of a girl and a boy, still living somewhere in England. Two of the males married local girls and their families and live in the locality. The youngest male continued as official gravedigger almost up to his death some years ago.

I have noticed, when walking a little distance behind his grandson on the odd occasion, the resemblance to Neddy as he swings his right leg, just as Neddy did, as we walked behind him on our way to school in the early nineteen thirties.

Oh for the Memory.

The family resided in a thatched cottage (now gone) a short distance from the church as tenants of a seven or eight acre holding. They kept a cow and produced their own milk and butter. Neddy was a resourceful man who grew his own vegetables and feed for the cow and the two asses that were used in cultivating the crops. It was unique to have trained the asses and disciplined them as one would do with horses − it called for exemplary patience.

Neddy played a role in the fight for independence. He demonstrated his allegiance to de Valera’s policy of self sufficiency by growing a small patch of tobacco in 1933. The venture was not a success.


Going to or coming from school, we would surely meet Neddy going about his business as small farmer, grave digger and, on Sundays, bell ringer and offertory collector. His Sunday morning church duties routine began when he walked to the church (he didn’t own a bike) to ring the bell at eight o clock or thereabouts − a reminder to parishioners that it was Sunday and that Mass would begin at 9:15. Then, he went home and ate breakfast. He was back again before nine o’clock to take up duty as offertory collector, standing inside the church door with a little wooden box held in his hand or placed on a stool in front of him, and into which the pennies and halfpennies were dropped.

The cemetery, back then, differed totally from that of today. There were about a dozen trees of different varieties growing here and there in no particular order. An imposing sycamore tree stood just to the right inside the gate. In summer its leafy branches afforded much shade but, in autumn, its discarded leaves caused a problem. Following an engineer’s report in 1955 on the church buildings recommending that the trees be removed due to leaf shedding clogging the gutters, the trees were all cut down. But that is another story.

Sunday Tragedy.

The congregation assembled devotedly for Sunday Mass; seldom was there change. That is, until a warm Sunday morning in early July 1934. As my younger brother and I drew near the church there was considerable commotion. The movement of people coming and going around the area under the big sycamore tree was most unusual. Drawing nearer, one perceived a sense shock and drama in every face. Getting closer to the scene, we too were shocked on seeing Neddy Murphy laid down on the grass, divested of his shoes and socks for anointing. Some of his family, who had just come upon the scene, were crying and totally in shock.

He had performed his earlier duties as usual and taken up his stance at the door when he collapsed and was dead before he fell. There was only one elderly spinster who made it her business to be in church before Neddy took up duty and it was she who is supposed to have called the priest who was in the vicinity near the alter. The priest anointed him and summoned a few others, men and women, who were arriving − the women to console Mrs Murphy, the men to arrange to take his body to his home. This was done by procuring a door from the pub near by, placing his body on it and a relay of men carrying him to his home.

Mass was started later than usual that day. There was constant whispering as worshipers could not resist the temptation of referring to the drama that had disturbed the tranquillity of that Sunday morning. The doctor was notified and confirmed that, as he put it, he had been dying for the last week. He would have been in his early sixties and was never known to have complained of any illness but his family recalled that, for some days previously, he had been in poor humour, a bit contrary without reason. The drama of that Sunday morning is still remembered by the few survivors who were witness to the sudden passing of grave digger Neddy Murphy.

Other Stories

Parish Life in the Past

Other Stories


We have set aside these pages for any other stories that may be of interest to parishioners – stories written by parishioners; stories about parishioners; stories or articles from books or magazines; stories from anywhere at all.

We have only three stories so far. One is about a parishioner, Neddy Murphy, and his life and death around the Fenor church. Another is about an altar boy and his tribulations in the days of the Latin Mass. The last is a story by the Cork writer Frank O’Connor about First Confession.

It would be grand if we could get some stories from the Dunhill end of the parish as most of our stories come from Fenor. So, if you come across a story or would like to write a story that you feel might interest our readers, please let the communications team know about it. Remember, it’s not just people living in the locality who read these stories – it’s people all over the world.

Parish Life In The Past

Parish Life in the Past


The Way It Was

This photo of a woman spinning was taken around the time our two churches were built – about 1890. How on earth did she get by without a mobile phone or a tablet?
Young people are often amazed when they hear how different parish life was when their parents and grandparents were young. So much has changed in the practice of religion. Of course, many religious practices were not religious at all but were merely superstitions, and many of them were driven off by the Archangel Solas – the electric light. Even grannies and granddads forget how it was until they are reminded.

Sore head
For instance, do you remember that characteristic “bonk!” sound that was heard from time to time during Mass when the head of a fainting child banged into the bench in front? Of course you do, but you haven’t heard it for a long time, have you? Not since the rule about fasting from midnight was relaxed.


Now is your chance to remind us all of the way it was. Why not put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and write out a wee something. Post it or hand it in to the parish office or e-mail it to the communications team. You will find contact details on the Contact Us page. It doesn’t have to be a 10,000-word opus. Little things are also important and if you think your story is interesting or humorous, we will too. So send it in to us and we will let everyone enjoy it.


To encourage you we have published a few stories which were, mostly, reproduced from books on Fenor, including the latest book, ‘Fenor 2010 – Growing and Changing’. They are available from the menu on the left of this page. Stories from Dunhill and some new stories are on the way.
We hereby exhort you grannies and granddads to compel your offspring to read these stories. It will do them good and let them see what a tough life you had and how easy it is for them now, and how ungrateful they are, and how they should appreciate you more, and … you know the routine!