How we marked Lent and Easter in old days

No meat, no parties, no dancing, and even some types of knitting were outlawed. JO KERRIGAN recalls how Lent was once a gruelling regime for many Catholics
How we marked Lent and Easter in old days

Ladies making Easter egg baskets for children’s hospitals at the Technical School in Cork in April, 1954.

SHROVE Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and Lent. Three consecutive dates that in the 1950s and ’60s hovered over February like a threatening black shroud.

Back then, Lent was something to be taken very seriously. Parents enforced it, teachers supported it, priests constantly reminded us of it, and the bishop, Heaven help us, ruled with a rod of iron over a time of strict penance and abstinence..

Shrove Tuesday at least did have one merit, rather like the condemned prisoner’s last meal. We had pancakes.

The idea was to use up any eggs that might be in the larder, since nothing as indulgent as a boiled egg could be considered during the long lenten weeks ahead.

Today, the supermarkets are packed with ready-mix batter, chocolate sauce, Nutella and other quick-fix treats, but back then it was individual pancakes made by a long-suffering mother, and served with a shake of sugar and a good squeeze of lemon juice.

“I remember that she always said the batter had to be left to stand for at least an hour,” remembers Katie. “I never understood why —still don’t — but when I think of how all of us crowded greedily around the kitchen stove, holding up our plates and demanding another one, another one, while she worked non-stop, I feel ashamed at how little we cared about the work that went into making them.”

Katie admits that she occasionally tries to fob off her own children now with packets of shop-bought pancakes, “but they’re not the same. You have to enjoy them straight from the frying pan.”

Richard remembers tossing the light thin cake and trying to get it back into the pan neatly turned.

“I think I succeeded about once in every four goes. The dog used to stand by eagerly, waiting for the disasters!”

After that, the rigours of Lent descended. Ash Wednesday was all-important for getting that good smudge of grey ash on your forehead. If you appeared at school without the mark, you were scorned by fellow pupils, and quite often questioned by the eagle-eyed teacher.

None of us knew back then that it’s a tradition far older than Christianity, being linked to the ritual bonfires in fields at this time of year, to ask the old nature gods for a fertile spring and summer.

The resulting ashes were daubed on cattle sheds and stables, and over the house door, as well as being marked on young children’s clothing to make sure evil spirits didn’t carry them off.

Nevertheless, the Church recognised it as a good visual marketing ploy and took it over.

Did you give up sweets for Lent? Most children back then made some sort of effort, and hard enough it was too, since at that age you crave sugar constantly.

“I used to admire the girls in my class so much,” recalls Eileen. “They seemed to be able to stick to the rules and not touch a sweet or bar of chocolate right through Lent.

“I did try, but more often than not the urge would be far too strong, and I would fall from grace!”

Gilbert agrees. “If you did sneak a sweet on the quiet, you had to be careful that no wrappers were left around for your parents to spot. And of course you didn’t dare ask for sweet money.

“For a religious pamphlet (remember the displays of those outside church doors?) or a new missal, yes, but definitely not for sweets.”

Many people made a point of going to Mass every morning, and doing the Stations of the Cross too.

“Some of the people here in the valley would walk all the way into Ballingeary every morning to get Mass,” says Breda Lucey, of Gougane Barra.

“My mother would go over to the island and do the Stations each day when she had the time.”

And then there was fasting, where a cup of tea and a biscuit was considered quite enough to keep body and soul together.

Some thought their children should do likewise as regards daily churchgoing and even fasting, but for most, the demands of long days at school, followed by homework and household jobs, were considered effort enough without adding to it.

“We didn’t do morning Mass every day, thank God,” says Mary O’Leary. 

“Maybe my sister’s asthma saved us the rigours of that. Giving up sweets was the extent of it and we had a dispensation on Patrick’s Day.

“Also, Mum maintained Easter started at noon on Easter Saturday. We were happy to agree!”

Mary’s mother was a member of the Altar Society at the SMA church in Wilton.

“Doing the flowers for the Altar of Repose on Holy Thursday, and pulling out all the stops for Easter Sunday a few days later, was a big feature of her life and we were often roped in to help once we were old enough to be useful.”

A procession of well turned-out ladies make their way along Skibbereen’s North Street in 1912, in the type of hats and bonnets that would have been worn to an Easter ceremony in the nearby Catholic church.
A procession of well turned-out ladies make their way along Skibbereen’s North Street in 1912, in the type of hats and bonnets that would have been worn to an Easter ceremony in the nearby Catholic church.

Mary’s father was the choirmaster in St Augustine’s, and in later years two of Mary’s sisters sang in the choir, so they were caught up in all the ceremonies.

“I never knew my father-in-law,” says Mary. “He died in 1959. My husband, Sean, told me that his father didn’t believe that the fast applied to them at all. He maintained it only applied to the rich whose food supply was never in doubt, but that poorer people should eat whatever they could whenever they had it. Seems understandable to me.”

Also, she reveals, her father didn’t do the ashes on Ash Wednesday. He once scandalised my mother by maintaining it was ‘only an old pagan custom’. I stress he was a well versed, conservative Catholic!”

Breda Lucey remembers a time when no meat was allowed on either Wednesdays or Fridays.

“Black tea, too, was the thing for Lent, and men gave up cigarettes and/or alcohol. Or at least they said they were going to!”

We have mentioned that Cork unique delicacy, the Connie Dodger, before in these columns, but it’s worth mentioning them again.

The Green Door is credited with their invention, but probably a few other cafes and restaurants had their own recipes.

“A grand big old biscuit, nearly the size of a small plate, and covered with chocolate it was,” says Tom. “You’d be feeling grand after it, and ready to tackle the rest of the day.”

No parties or dances of course, during Lent (why does that remind one of the current lockdown?) and no weddings either. That usually meant a rush of celebrations up to and including Shrove Tuesday.

One wonders if it was the same in every country which principally embraced Roman Catholicism, or was it that our bishops were particularly stringent?

Ger Fitzgibbon concurs on the tradition of giving up sweets, but says that it was also customary to collect any you could lay hands on and save them up for Easter Sunday.

“Good Fridays were a whole other story. Everything was shut. Fish (which my mother hated, and so took a pride in making it as penitential as possible). A grim but theatrical religious service with a slow revelation of the cross. Tenebrae when I was quite small. I even sang at Tenebrae as a boy chorister in the Holy Trinity. I loved the theatricality of some of the Easter services but getting through Good Friday was a bit deadly.”

Later on, when TV had arrived, Ger recalls: “The best thing about Good Friday was that Jellyfish Eireann felt compelled to show only programmes that were serious and improving. So, along with the usual religious service bits, there might be a biblical epic or (if you were lucky) a black-and-white Shakespeare movie of the more sombre kind.”

Bishop Cornelius Lucey, who gave his name to the Connie Dodger, a biscuit eaten during Lent
Bishop Cornelius Lucey, who gave his name to the Connie Dodger, a biscuit eaten during Lent

Ger also brings into the light the great ‘knitting on Sunday’ controversy”, which is hard to believe today, but was certainly one of Cornelius Lucey’s greatest moments.

You may remember the principle of ‘servile work’ being strongly disapproved of on Sundays, feast days, and during Lent? (Incidentally, slaving in the kitchen was never regarded as servile work, comments Ger ironically. “It was your mother’s destiny as a Good Woman, and part of The Duties of Her Station in Life — remember those?)

But the knitting on Sunday, the knitting on Sunday?!

“That might not have been specifically associated with Lent, but I know part of the context was that some shops were considering opening on a Sunday and the Bishop was defending the sanctity of the day and people’s right not to work (and their obligation to go to Mass).

“Somebody had the stupidity to seek clarification on whether knitting constituted servile work. So the answer came back that it depended on the knitting.

“According to the Bishop, it was okay if the knitting was purely for pleasure, as a pastime. But what if a woman were knitting because her child needed a jumper and she couldn’t afford to buy one?

“Well, to the Bishop, that sounded suspiciously like servile work and so shouldn’t be done on a Sunday.

“But suppose she was knitting a jumper and enjoying the knitting process, how would she know whether it was servile work or not?

“Well, all those years in Maynooth were not wasted on Connie Lucey. He pondered deeply and came up with a wonderfully Jesuitical answer: if the woman was prepared to unravel the knitting after doing it, then clearly she was doing it just for the pleasure of doing it and so that would not constitute servile work.

“(She doesn’t have to unravel it, you understand. She just has to convince herself that she wouldn’t mind doing so because doing the knitting all over again would be great gas.)”

Told you it was hard to believe.

We are, after all, talking of a time when poverty-stricken women desperately knitted Aran jumpers for Gaeltarra Eireann in order to be able to buy food for their families and pay rent.

And even then they were at the mercy of the checkers, who would on a whim reject a jumper on which some poor woman had worked all night so she could keep her kids from going hungry.

One woman vividly remembers her own mother weeping after just such a rejection.

“I still can’t bring myself to ever take up knitting needles again, having experienced that in younger years.”

Different times. You wouldn’t want them back again — would you?

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