Easter is associated in our family lore, not with Christ’s Passion, or even the Ressurection, but with a pair of camel-hair coats.
You don’t hear much about camel-hair these days, but when myself and my brother were at the psychologically vulnerable age of 10 or 11, the “Ship of the Desert” look was all the rage.
My mother thought that we looked so smart dressed in our matching coats. (She also liked it when we sang Two Little Boys by Rolf Harris). But we hated them.
They had brown leather buttons up the front and belts at the waist. They were cut in a Macintosh style and, when we were dragged along to Mass on Easter Sunday, I thought we looked like mini Columbos.
And not just any old Mass. This was high Mass said by our uncle, Father Joe, in his vast hangar of a church in Raheny. And worse still, my brother and I had to bring up the host and the wine to the altar, our matching coats catching the light from the stained-glass windows.
We did not know much about our priestly uncle. He was kindly to us, and we loved his housekeeper Bridget. But he had the severe regulation haircut and the National Health glasses typical of the army of men who enlisted in the seminaries in the 1940s.
We picked up snippets about him from family conversations over the years. My father, never one to defer to the cloth, resented the fact that Father Joe got special treatment at the family home.
We knew that it was a struggle for the family to put him through the seminary, and that sacrifices had to be made so that he could have his requisite number of surplices and soutanes. “Father Joe’s linen” was much talked-about.
But they were all very proud when he earned a doctorate in Canon Law and eventually became a PP. His role as Devil’s Advocate in the canonisation of St Oliver Plunkett was often mentioned too.
We knew that visiting him was somehow different to visiting our other aunts and uncles. There were rooms we couldn’t go into, and things we could not touch.
My memory is of a house full of heavy mahogany furniture, silver candelabras and cruet sets where “Father” hosted his Monsignor friends to supper. He was known in clerical circles for keeping a good table (and a good cellar).
He liked children to be seen and not heard, and insisted on the proper form at all times. I came away with the impression that the church in his time was a socially competitive place, in which class, background and manners were as important as in Jane Austen’s England.
These three strong-willed ladies shared a stateroom, while Father Joe had one to himself. By all accounts, the ladies were glad to see land
We also knew that he took a special interest in my mother, taking her on holidays with him. Again, I have the impression without knowing precisely why, that this was because she would not let him down by using the wrong fork or by drinking too much and singing Percy French songs.
Once he took my mother, her older sister and his housekeeper on a Mediterranean cruise. These three strong-willed ladies shared a stateroom, while Father Joe had one to himself. By all accounts, the ladies were glad to see land.
Father Joe was a curate in Sandymount and Dun Laoghaire before getting his own parish in Raheny. He brought his sense of middle-class decorum to each place, attended by his faithful Bridget.
During the summer, he went on holidays to Sicily in the company of some brother priests. They had all studied in Rome together and fell somewhat in love with Italian culture – and in Father Joe’s case, I suspect, Italian food – during their time there.
He performed various sacraments for the extended family; it was common enough at the time for each family to have its own priest. Indeed, for many, it was a mark of social distinction.
I don’t go to Mass very often these days, but I make en effort at Easter. And when I do, I find myself thinking about Father Joe. I can picture him on the altar during those Easters long ago, and almost hear that sonorous voice he used from the pulpit.
I often offer a little prayer for him, and for the fact that camel-hair has never come back into fashion.