I’M UP on the west coast in deepest rural Ireland, lying on the sofa in a friend’s sitting room.
Looking out of the window, I can see a car weaving in and out of view on the lakeside road — my friend returning home from work. She comes in, throws her keys on the kitchen table and drops her bag. Then she sits down on the sofa and leans back, smiling.
“How was your day?” I ask.
She looks at me. “One of these days you’ll have to come to my school and meet some of the kids,” she says. “I swear they’d crack you up.”
My friend teaches in a tiny national school — somewhere tricky to find on the edge of the map. Its social demographic has remained unchanged for donkey’s years and has her in stitches half the time. “Well, Fachtna does, anyway,” she says.
“There are five boys that sit at the back of my class in a knot,” she explains, “farmers’ sons — just like their fathers, only down-sized.”
I can see these boys in my mind’s eye; so integral to their place of birth, that it’s easier to imagine their feet grew straight up out of the warm earth, rather than their mother’s bellies.
Stocky, with a round, wind-blown farmer’s head, Fachtna sits with his pals at the back, cheerily discussing all things land and animal in an accent thick enough to cut. Today he was giving up the names of the cows in his father’s herd to anyone who might listen. “Shlack-Arse” was one name he mentioned in passing.
Her seven and eight-year-old pupils are typically credulous — as certain that the world is round as they are that God is real — which expedites my friend’s job of preparing them for their First Holy Communion and Confession.
If the rest of Ireland is dancing on the grave of the Catholic Church’s authority, her pupils don’t know it. “They’re seven,” she says. They’re not in the habit of sanding down the edges of their catechetical training with scepticism, nor does it occur to them to question the system of which these two sacraments are a part.
Today she took them for a practice-run to church, hoping, she says, that they might acquire at least a patina of decorum before the big day — just enough to see them from pew to altar-rail and back again without unfortunate incident.
On their return to school, Fachtna and his four pals resume their position at the back of the classroom. My friend notices that Fachtna was uncharacteristically quiet.
“He’s looking at me, kind of… speculatively,” she says. He sits for a while, staring at his teacher, who’s re-capping key parts of the catechism. At which point, Fachtna approaches her desk with purpose in his step.
He stands in front of her, arms folded, eyebrows up. “Hey Miss,” he says and fixes her with a presaging look.
“Hey Miss, you mean to tell me that my sister did all a dis in first class?”
“Yes, Fachtna, both your sisters made their First Holy Communion,” she says.
“Y’sure now that Sinead did it, y’know, Sinead, in fifth class, Miss?”
“I prepared Sinead for Holy Communion myself, Fachtna.”
“And y’sure now she made her confession an all a dat, Miss?”
“Yes, Fachtna, I’m sure.”
“And Miss, you told her all about the lovin’ and the prayin’ and about the bein’ kind and all?”
“Yes, Fachtna. Don’t you remember going to the church with your family, when she made her First Communion?”
“No Miss,” he says shaking his head, “sure I don’t.”
“Well, Fachtna, all I can say, I taught your sister Sinead everything, just like I’m teaching you.”
“Well, Miss,” he says, “if y’don’t mind, I’ll tell you somethin’.”
My friend doesn’t mind at all. She’s keen to understand the precise nature of Fachtna’s dilemma.
“What’s that then, Fachtna?”
He fixes her with a different look; the kind that a disappointed judge might give over the top of his specs, after he’s considered all the incriminating evidence that’s been presented to him, and reached his final verdict.
“Well Miss,” he says, conclusively, “you know Sinead?”
“Well,” he says, “she still be’s mean.”
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