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A slip of paper with my daughter’s name was pinned to the second pew from the front. “It’s reserved for us,” she whispered to me.

I looked at our small group – my little girl in her Communion dress, my wife and her mum.

Our daughter Grace on the day of her First Communion, May 19 last year.

Our daughter Grace on the day of her First Communion, May 19 last year.

Then I looked at the pews around about us. They were full of grannies, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. Big, country families in their Sunday best, bursting with goodwill and pride.

“Right,” I said. “Spread out.”

I come from a small family. I have one brother, whom I rather half-heartedly invited along to the church part of the day’s celebrations.

My wife is one of six, but her five siblings are all placed somewhere along the agnostic-atheist bell curve. One gave my daughter a Richard Dawkins book for Christmas.

They too had been invited to the church, but also with that semi-apologetic inflection that I promised myself I would avoid.

Our empty pew at the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, before the atheists arrived.

Our empty pew at the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, before the atheists arrived.

Even though we hadn’t been pressing with the invitations, we half thought, half hoped someone would come. My wife and I exchanged sad smiles.

We settled in and tried to look more numerous than we were. All about us, little girls in pretty dresses milled about, running across the aisle to greet friends, dashing back to hug an aunt.

There were boys too, but they didn’t stand out as much as the girls in their brilliant white. “You’d hardly notice the lads,” said one of the mums in the pew behind.

I thought again how much more at home in the church these children are than I was at their age. We were shushed and cowed into reverence; they run about as if they owned the place.

“They do,” said the parish priest.

The "atheists" arrive - Auntie Sarah and Uncles John. Richard and Patrick.

The “atheists” arrive – Auntie Sarah and Uncles John. Richard and Patrick.

Suddenly, there was a sense of urgency in the air. The children who were making their First Communion were ushered away. The organ struck up. The congregation rose.

Mothers adjusted their dresses and tugged at their hems; fathers stood straight and tried to look tall. Younger brothers had their hair smartened and their fidgeting fingers calmed.

The procession came past us. Neat rows of boys and girls looking half like children, half like little adults. This was it, another milestone, another stage, another marker in their journey up and away.

Where, I thought, was that little baby girl who not so long ago would fit in the crook of your arm? In her cousin’s dress, white shoes and flower-covered hairband, she looked so grown-up.

I looked at my wife and saw there was a tear in her eye and realised there was one in mine too.

The priest was talking about an old photo. He showed it to the children. It was of his mother, who made her First Communion in 1938.

I thought of my own mother, and her family, of my old uncle Harry, and of the steadfastness of their faith, of the generations who came here much as we had done, on a summer’s day in their finery to pass their faith on to a new generation.

This sometimes happens to me in churches. I noticed it in the sequence of Masses I and my daughter attended in the run-up to her Communion. Something resonates with me, something about the rhythm of the liturgy, or the sense of history, or the singing of the choir. I always bring a tissue.

I looked at my wife and saw there was a tear in her eye and realised there was one in mine too.

As the priest was speaking, I became aware of activity at the far end of our pew. I saw my daughter’s face light up and followed her gaze.

There, rather awkwardly arranging themselves beside us, were three uncles and an aunt from my wife’s family. And a cousin.

I have never been so happy to see four atheists in a church in my life. They had come, even though they didn’t believe. It was a gesture of support and solidarity and brought another tear to the eye.

My daughter did a reading and received her first Communion with a lovely composure. “It’s very dry, dad,” she said afterwards. “It stuck to the roof of my mouth.”

As we filed out of the church, I found my wife’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

“I suppose we’re going to have to feed them now,” I said.