Subscriber OnlyPeople

Jennifer O’Connell: ‘It’s troubling to discover how much I enjoy a communion bash’

I regret my kids’ missing out on the tradition. And the potato salad

In our three years living abroad, I had forgotten what May in Ireland is all about. The great pink hunks of roast lamb and potato salad; the bowls of coleslaw and cous cous; the adults sitting in the weak sun with glasses of gently warming white wine; the urgent gangs of preteens rushing to wherever the adults are not; the bouncy castle burns on little knees; the shoes gone astray only to turn up when the bouncy castle man comes to take the whole thing away; the three-year-old so exhausted by it all, she falls asleep fully upright, her back against my knee and her head lolling like a drunk.

There was a time when it seemed we spent every single Saturday going to weddings. A decade on, we spend every Saturday in the month of May going to communions. Communion parties are basically weddings for people in their 40s – only better, because they don’t involve the agony of waking with a raging hangover in the overheated bedroom of a mid-range hotel. They don’t involve negotiations with overnight babysitters. Guests are not just permitted, but usually expected, to skip the church part, and just come along for the grub and the craic. Communions are weddings for people who’ve most likely already had a wedding, and are determined to do it right this time.

Warm community

If you could just park your concerns about the church’s depressing attitudes to women and gay people, its outstanding child abuse bills and the wholesale commercialisation, there’s basically nothing not to like about them. The chaos; the potato salad; the 18 different types of dessert; the mild afternoon wine buzz; and, at the centre of it all, a child who is – for that one day – tightly wrapped in the warmth of a community of benevolent adults. It’s slightly troubling actually, as a committed agnostic and conscientious objector, to discover how much I enjoy a good communion bash.

You can't really hand an eight-year-old a card with nothing inside except a note explaining that you're a conscientious objector

Anyway, you can’t really hand an eight-year-old a card with nothing inside except a note explaining that you’re a conscientious objector. Last year, entirely clueless as to the current etiquette surrounding the giving of envelopes, I winged it with vouchers. This year, before communion season kicked off in earnest, I made discreet inquiries via WhatsApp.


One friend said €10 with such confidence I almost went with her recommendation. Oh no, said someone else, just in time, €10 is for kids in the class. Actual friends are no more than €30, though. No, no, no, someone else chimed in. These days, it’s €30 for “lesser family”, €50 for close family or godchildren. For anyone else it’s €40, except the children of best friends, in which case it’s €50 again. It’s €100 for godchildren, someone on Twitter confidently insisted. An iPhone 8 or a two-year-subscription to Three, someone else proffered. I stopped asking at that point.

Money at stake

My own children, who claim to be ambivalent about maths, are quick to do the calculations when there’s an entirely hypothetical pot of money at stake.

You owe us each €600, one of them announces, when it dawns on them after their first communion that they have missed out on the greatest financial wheeze executed by one generation on another since the 2008 property crash.

I remind them that they are not Catholic. I point out that they expressed no interest in making their communion when we lived in California, and it would have involved a voluntary donation of two grand to the parish fund, as well as the devotion of several hours each weekend for eight months to Sunday school. Not to mention, I add, they both seem quite happy to sit in the corner reading novels during religion class. When that doesn’t mollify them, I offer to knock the €600 off the €480,000 they’ll owe me for the cost of raising the pair of them.

The 10 year old, who is planning to be a lawyer when he grows up, does another calculation. You’d be worth €720,000 if you hadn’t had us, he says sadly. He’s never having children, he decides in that moment. But if he did, he’d make sure they made their communion.

The other 361 days of the year, I’m completely reconciled to our decision to raise our children without any formal religion, until they’re old enough to choose for themselves. But during the four Saturdays of May, it’s hard to ignore all the good bits that go with being part of a family larger than your own, even one as troubled and flawed and frequently diffident as the family of Irish Catholics. I’m not talking about the envelopes stuffed with cash. (My kids are. I’m not.) No, it’s the other stuff I regret them missing out on – the feeling of belonging and tradition, the sense of coming of age, the big party, the potato salad. Especially the potato salad.

We’ll have a day out instead, I try. We’ll throw a party anyway. There will be a bouncy castle and 18 types of dessert. They agree, but we all know it’s not really going to be the same.

I’ll put some cash in the bank for you, I say finally. And at that, the 10-year-old brightens instantly.