That’s Men: Cheese sandwiches, chair legs and other people’s sins


When I was in High Infants, the following letter arrived home to my mother one day from the Sisters of Mercy School in Naas:

“If you give Pat a good big lunch and a bottle of milk every day, I’ll give it to him around 11 o’clock and he can eat the rest of it at 12 o’clock as he looks pale and I want him to keep well to be ready for his First Holy Communion in March D.V.

“Today he ate his lunch about 10.30 and didn’t hesitate when I asked him. He might do it for me as I promised to give him something nice at Christmas if he eats his breakfast well for his mammy, and his lunch for me.

“Pardon this paper, it is in the class I am writing. All good wishes from yours very sincerely, Sr M Teresa.”

Despite Sr Teresa’s concerns, I was certainly not underfed at home. I grew up on a farm and ate everything around me.

Sr Teresa’s attempts to get me looking right for communion day included supplementing the lunches I brought from home with cheese sandwiches made in the convent. These I proceeded to hide behind an unused desk in the classroom, as they did not appeal to me in the least. They were discovered one day, mouldering away, when the desk was pulled out.

I was brought in to be shown the evidence of my sins by two sad-looking nuns, one of whom must have been Sr Teresa. And, no, they didn’t punish me and they stopped making the cheese sandwiches.

The Sisters I encountered during my first two years of schooling, before I was sent on to the Christian Brothers, were, as it happens, a fairly mild-mannered lot when compared with the reputation that has been attached to them over the years.

Health and safety officer

The exception was a nun who patrolled the yard as a sort of health and safety officer. This job consisted largely of discouraging us from climbing on to a wall, falling off and breaking our necks.

She was assisted in her task by the leg of a chair with which she would whack you across your own legs if she found you on the wall to which we were, of course, magnetically drawn. When you got a whack of the chair leg, you felt it, and I can feel it still.

Confession practice

Sr Teresa’s attempts to prepare us all for communion naturally involved sending us off to the priest to practise confession. No doubt she had drilled us beforehand but, even so, I managed to get the wrong idea.

I had convinced myself that in confession you got to tell the priest other people’s sins and not your own.

I was put right on this by the priest and I suppose I must have dredged up some sort of sin for the occasion, though at the age of seven that’s a bit of a challenge.

Some psychotherapists think we go through life making up in some sort of symbolic way for our childhood disappointments.

I wonder if the disappointment of learning that I was not allowed to tell other people’s sins in confession led me into journalism?

In that profession, after all, the most prized commodities are the sins of other people.

It strikes me, by the way, that a modern Sr Teresa would have no need to worry herself about my paleness in preparation for First Holy Communion. I would simply be brought off to a tanning shop to have myself converted to the correct colour for the great day. You might think that cheese sandwiches would be preferable but most children, I am sure, would disagree.

One last thing. I don’t recall Sr Teresa keeping her promise to give me “something nice” for Christmas. I suppose the incident of the cheese sandwiches invalidated the contract in her eyes. Still, it wouldn’t have killed her to give me a Holy Picture at least, even though I insisted on remaining pale and interesting.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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