Catholicism in those days seemed to be all about suffering, punishment and investment in eternity. My teacher at Mullen school, near Frenchpark, Co Roscommon, was Mrs Ford. A devout woman, she had immense influence on me. I saw her cry just once. It was the morning after her daughter entered a convent. She had “died” to the family, who did not know when they might see her again.
It was a cruel religion, particularly to women. My devout grandmother buried her son, Matthew, in a field near our house in Mullen. He died after birth, before he could be baptised, so he could not be buried in consecrated ground and would never see heaven. He was in limbo, which was “abolished” by Pope Benedict in 2007.
At Sunday Mass in Frenchpark, women sat on their own side of the church, with their heads covered. They rarely went outside the home beyond attending confession and Mass.
At the time Ireland was producing so many clergy that between a third and half went on the missions. In 1961 it moved Pope John to say, “Any Christian country will produce a greater or lesser number of priests. But Ireland, that beloved country, is the most fruitful of mothers in this respect.” He might have been talking about Ballaghaderreen.
The priests taught at St Nathy’s diocesan college in the town; more were in the presbytery, with the bishop of Achonry living in a palace out the road. Every committee in the town had a priest on it, and he was usually its chairman.
Men, passing priests or brothers on the street, took off their hats and saluted them. They stepped off the footpath to allow nuns to pass.