He was a very young priest—very young indeed: in fact, he was only about ten years old!
His vestments, too, were somewhat unecclesiastical. A long white nightdress, taken from his mother’s room, and held in at the waist by a piece of twine, constituted the alb; whilst his own little shirt, hanging from his shoulders with the arms crossed in front to represent the stole, did duty for the chasuble.
The acolyte who served was a chubby little fellow, only a year or so younger—the priest’s own small brother. His duties consisted in ringing a tiny bell and moving a large book from side to side of the bedroom altar. This small Mass-server—whose big eyes seemed always ready to brim over—had a perfect passion for ringing the bell, very often at the wrong time.
But his brother was the sweetest-tempered ‘sagart’ imaginable, and never an angry word fell from his lips. Not even when the congregation of two small maidens started quarrelling, and shrieks of defiance filled the air, would he lose his rare composure of manner. Sometimes the sobs of the little altar-boy would swell the woeful chorus, and then the poor ‘sagart,’ in great dismay, would endeavour to make peace.
Yet, despite the fantastic garments and the absurd conduct of the congregation, the whole performance (including a sermon) was the quintessence of dignity. For the ‘little priest’s’ gestures were reverent, his voice low and earnest, his childish face innocent and good, his grave shy eyes aglow with feeling.
I can see, as in a glass, this gentle boy-priest in many different phases of his life. I can see him as a small laddie, serene-eyed and happy-hearted—though always rather quiet—hurrying to school, the ‘little brother of his heart’ trotting beside him, for the two were never apart.
I can see him as an earnest student toiling unceasingly in preparation for examinations, and winning many fine laurels. I can see him in his young manhood, a little less dreamy than when he was a boy, but still with his broad white brows bent over his books; still climbing the ladder which leads to fame.
But although all these visions are as clear to me as is the shining of crystals in dark places, there is one vision more vivid than all the rest—that tender vision of the innocent little sagart standing before the homely altar in the sunny room of the old house in Brunswick Street. I can see his little outstretched hands and earnest boyish face. I can even hear his young voice whispering reverently—Ite, misse est.
I know it is not necessary for me to tell my readers—either old or young—the name of this quaint little priest, or equally quaint little acolyte. Their names are known and loved through the length and breadth of Ireland. The dreamy young ‘sagart,’ when he became a man, endeared himself to every young child by writing for them many beautiful stories. Later, he founded schools for the boys and girls he loved so much, that they might be fostered under his gentle rule. From the delicate little human story ‘The Priest’ we see that he found a replica of himself in another little priest, only eight years old.
His description of his ‘Páraig’ might have been a perfectly accurate description of himself in the same circumstances. Let me quote it:
Páraig stood out opposite the table, bent his knee, blessed himself, and began praying loudly … Whatever wonder was on Nora at this, it was seven times greater the wonder was on her when she saw Páraig genuflecting, beating his breast, kissing the table, letting on he was reading Latin prayers of the ‘Second Book,’ and playing one trick odder than another. She didn’t know rightly what he was up to, till he turned round and said: Dominus vobiscum!
‘God save us!’ she says to herself when she saw this. ‘He’s pretending that he’s a priest and he reading Mass! That’s the Mass vestment he’s wearing, and the little Gaelic book is the book of the Mass!’
It’s no exaggeration to say that Nora was scared.
However Nora was scared when her son pretended to be a priest, our mother certainly was not. I really think that she believed her adored little son could not do wrong!
I recollect that we all had a strong predilection for May Devotions, and on these occasions, of course, Pat was the officiating ‘clergyman.’ The Devotions consisted of the Rosary and Litany, recited before the Blessed Virgin’s altar, followed by a procession through the bedrooms. We carried lighted candles, and my sister and I wore veils. These processions were always accompanied by a weird style of singing peculiar to ourselves. Of course, my brother always ‘vested’ for his part, and actually preached a little sermon!
Sometimes (rather often, I fear) my sister, Willie and I would squabble, for Maggie liked to domineer over us, and we resented it. Pat, like a true ‘priest,’ always made peace, for his grave reasonableness was very forceful.
Accidents would sometimes mar the smoothness of our Devotions. The vases would fall over and soak the altar cloth, or the altar itself would suddenly blaze up. Once, indeed, Maggie’s veil caught fire, which was serious. But she and the equally courageous ‘priest’ kept their nerve perfectly.
Truly, children are incomprehensible beings! My brother’s quaint garb never appeared funny or even peculiar to any of us: neither did his impersonation ever lessen our veneration for the awful dignity of the priesthood. Somehow, on such occasions there was always such a sweet gravity about him that it commanded our respect.
Both Pat and Maggie were very keen on the different ceremonies of Holy Week. They went regularly to Tenebrae, and religiously made many visits for Portiuncula. Once my brother was in such a hurry for his devotions that he slipped when getting off the tram, and narrowly escaped a bad accident.
A funny thing comes to my mind at the moment of writing. Maggie’s and Pat’s constant attendance at church, and their speaking about priests, must have greatly impressed me. I had a toy village at the time, everything complete, with the top portion of a lovely Noah’s Ark belonging to Pat for the village chapel. It had an altar and seats and a confessional, so we had to have a priest. Pat purchased a small statue—of St. Dominic, I think—and he made a wee chasuble from paper, and painted it green. Every week this quaint priest said Mass for the equally quaint villagers!
From his earnest years Pat constituted himself Willie’s champion; and woe betide anyone who ventured to browbeat the ‘Little Brother’! As he tells us himself in his own reminiscences: ‘I was always wounded if Willie were slighted or ill-used.’ His zeal in this self-appointed task sometimes drove him to extremes.
On one occasion, when he was only a small laddie, he and his schoolmistress (Miss Murphy) had a tussle of wills. She was about to punish Willie for some trifling fault, when Pat started up to the rescue. Quietly, yet with flashing eyes, he informed her that he would not allow her to touch his brother! The lady was so amazed at his innocent audacity (for indeed, Pat was not defiant, only solicitous about his nervous little brother!) that she merely remarked: ‘Sit down, Patrick!’ That intrepid youth replied with extreme politeness, yet with unconscious irony: ‘I am not tired, Miss Murphy!’
Years later at the Christian Brothers Schools, Westland Row, Pat again stood up for Willie and won his cause with the kindly teachers there, as he had won it long before with the austere mistress. Looking back, I now realise that neither of my brothers was quite like other boys. Neither joined in the usual rough sport beloved of schoolboys, and they were rarely mischievous. They both loved home and were content to stay there.
My mother tells of one very mild escapade. She had sent them to visit a dear old lady of whom we were all very fond. The evening suddenly turned wet; and the anxious mother, fearing her darlings might catch cold, journeyed after them to Rathmines, with overcoats and umbrellas.
When she arrived at the old lady’s tiny cottage, she was stricken with horror on learning that there was no trace of her sons! Then she heard the most curious sounds proceeding from the roof, and discovered that the two lads were on top of the house, in the rain, instead of under shelter! Her coats and umbrellas seemed superfluous! Pat’s defence, when sadly reproached by his afflicted mother, was that they wished to find out if the roof was in order!
There was one very curious game which my brothers used to play, principally to amuse me. They called it ‘Playing Clowns.’ At night, when they were half undressed, they would tumble into my room, in their stockinged feet, and swarm over the furniture, and chase each other in the oddest manner. After many freakish antics—all performed in absolute silence—the ‘Clowns’ would be put to flight by the sound of father’s step on the stairs. This pantomime was gone through almost every night.
When we lived in Sandymount, in the house which my brother has described, he was the hero of rather a funny exploit. There was a good orchard attached to the house, with fine rosy apples in abundance. Most boys would have wished for those apples just to eat; but Pat, who was only about nine, although exceedingly fond of fruit, wanted to apples to sell, to help poor children! So one fine day he purloined a quantity of the apples, found a big basket in the store-room, dressed himself and Willie in their oldest clothes, and sallied forth on an adventurous journey to sell his wares.
But the praiseworthy expedition ended disastrously for the small apple-vendors. The ragged boys in the neighbourhood, strongly resenting the conduct of the ‘young gents’ in stealing their trade, fell on the two philanthropists and scattered the apples in every direction. Then they started beating the two lads, who had been striving merely to be kind.
Pat put up a good fight, but he was hopelessly outnumbered, and very much younger than his assailants. Things were becoming serious, when, providentially, the son of one of our neighbours arrived on the scene. He was a big lad, over sixteen, and quickly put the cowardly street urchins to flight. Then he led my brothers home, Pat, flushed, tired, dishevelled, bruised, but—undaunted!
I think that this was his first real adventure, and he enjoyed it, I am sure in his own odd way. Like his last ‘big adventure,’ its finish was, to him, a triumph—not a defeat.