David Kopel has a post about the origins of the Thanksgiving hymn We Gather Together. (Originally Dutch: a “Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck,” which is a phrase I could say all day.) It put me in mind of the stuff I learned when growing up in Ireland. Much of it was pretty thin gruel, like the execrable Christ be beside me. But there were a few standouts—mostly leftovers from the pre-Vactican II fire-and-brimstone era. Chief among these was God of Mercy and Compassion. Nothing like hearing a bunch of eight-year-olds cheerily singing lyrics like “See our saviour bleeding, dying / On the cross of Calvary / To that cross my sins have nailed him / Yet he bleeds and dies for me.” Clonk! Clonk! Clonk! Do you hear those nails going in? Do you?
To offset this, though, when I was in fifth class our teacher, Mr Buckley, read us Frank O’Connor’s small masterpiece, “First Confession,” which put a more humane face on the whole thing. My view of religion was never quite the same afterward.
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.