There is a buzz in the crowd. We’re waiting for the procession to begin. Through a window I can see some of the participants lining up, ready to make their entrance. There are beeps and whirrs as cameras and iWhatsits are turned on. Hesitant dads are nudged by their wives to move around and get a better shot. Grandparents who long suspected their sons’ and daughters’ waning interest in this kind of thing are relieved for the time being. The music starts and the boys and girls of 2nd class troop in for their First Holy Communion Mass.
Along with her classmates, my goddaughter takes the stage today, and I give a little wave as she passes. I’m no expert on Communion dresses but hers seems classy, understated, refined. As a matter of fact, looking around, restraint is widespread. There are no tiaras threatening to be activated by remote control, no carriages waiting outside with golden livery. Helicopters are elsewhere, patrolling the skies, responding to Her Maj-related hoaxes.
It’s left to the boys to rise to the occasion and as they file in, their outfits alternate between sensible and swanky. For every ‘ah-isn’t-he-grand-with-the-little-waistcoat‘ there is a primo don, gleaming in a white suit and Brilliantined hair. For every Denis Irwin there is a David Beckham. For every Noel O’Leary, a Paul Galvin.
Boys’ Holy Communion fashion defies categorisation. It has always been a heady mix of contemporary trends, expressions of parents’ personalities and hand-me-downs. Buried somewhere at home are sepiaed ‘snaps’ of me and my brothers’ ‘Big Days’. As you go further and further back towards the surreality of the 70s, previous O’Regan brothers sport outfits that would not look out of place on Silvio Dante, owner of the Bada Bing club in the Sopranos.
Whatever the variation in garb, the children are all wearing big smiles. They’re the centre of attention and they know it. It’s early in the day and there has been no sugar consumed yet. There is a general amnesty from accusations of ‘getting cranky’, ‘acting up’ or being ‘overtired’. On the other hand older brothers and sisters must stew and hold their fire, unable to deploy sneaky pinches or flick ears. Younger siblings have been warned to behave; this is not THEIR day.
The mass runs like clockwork. No one seems to be afraid of being in front of crowds these days. But there’s no Billie-Barrie showboating. They’re well-behaved and taking the whole thing quite seriously. But, as I watch them, I wonder how will the First Holy Communion (or FHC as it is known on internet discussion forums) change over the coming decades.
The Catholic Church administer 90% of the primary schools in the country. Most FHC preparation is done during school hours. There are plenty of not-that or not-at-all-Catholic parents who may wish their children to opt out but because the occasion is so entwined in the school cycle, do not want their children to feel left out. It’s hard enough at eight years-of-age to have the wrong type of pencil case, let alone miss out on the event of the year.
The Church will eventually relinquish control of half of the state schools. When that happens, in these newly state-administered schools, Holy Communion preparation will probably become a more ‘extra-curricular’ activity. Will people still bother with it?
The last census said 87% of the population were Catholic. Let’s assume – based on no research whatsoever – that half of them were ‘only messing, like’ and eventually they will come clean. In this year’s census, religion was a familiar flashpoint. Sons and daughters argued with (primarily) mammies about what religion to put on the form. One twenty-something reported on Twitter that she asked to be marked as No Religion, left the house and when she came back the census form said she was Catholic. And she was only gone to the shops, not Damascus.
So if half of the schools became non-denominational and half of their attendees’ parents opted out of First Holy Communion preparations, the numbers for the ‘FHC’ could drop by up to 15,000*. What’ll that do to the tiara-and-rosette market?
Perhaps when we finally sort out just how many Catholics there are in the country, there will be room for another ceremony; a non-religious equivalent for those children who will no longer be First Communicants but just want to commemorate the general magnificence of being that age. When you are seven or eight all the pieces of the How To Be A Human puzzle start to fall into place. Around this time begins a wonderful period of breathtaking skill-acquisition, learning and getting on famously with your parents, before the descent into the madness and squalor of adolescence. Many of us will never achieve these glory days again. So even if some do not wish to lock horns with the complex theology of transubstantiation, there is still much to celebrate. We could call it They-Turned-Out-Alright Day.
Back in the church the children are up on the altar now, saying the Our Father, complete with the hand gestures. My arms almost involuntarily move as I take a trip down memory nave. We did those same gestures every day for eight school years. “Lead Us Not into Temptation” is represented by a simple outstretched arm with a pointing finger. If only life’s tempations could be warded off so easily with a wagging digit. They should use it on the Drink-Aware ads.
The children on the altar will need all the temptation-resisting power they can muster given how much money they are landed with after the ceremony is over. At that age, Communion Day is the equivalent of their company being floated on the stock market. It’s a one off event, there’s a lot of hype and if the amount gained is not in line with market norms there is severe disappointment.
On my big day, we weren’t allowed go around canvassing the relatives as they lived too far away. I complained bitterly, feeling my IPO hadn’t been marketed correctly. While my classmates spoke of the new bikes they’d bought, I was implementing austerity measures. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered.
It’s later in the afternoon now and the after-holy-communion party is in full swing. For the moment, all my goddaughter’s donations are being taken care of by her parents. Both God and Mammon are momentarily placed to one side as the children get down to the important matter at hand: eating chicken nuggets, spilling ketchup on their finery and running around. It’s not holy, but it is communal.
(*Numbers loosely based on CSO 2010 figure of 500,000 students at primary level in Ireland or approx 60,000 per class, 90% of which currently go to Catholic Church-administered schools)