Tangled up is the word ‘confession’ with its religious associations. My mind immediately goes to The Sacrament of Penance. It is as though linguistically, cognitively, the Church has maintained its influence. This experience has been echoed by many of my contemporaries, Irish people in their 20s and 30s, for whom Catholic schooling was accepted as the default. Despite the cultural shift in the past few years towards secularism, our lexicon remains replete with blessings and curses. I still have a library of prayer and song, in both English and Irish, stored away in my mind.
I am plunged back to 2005, the year I made my First Confession. I remember having a lie prepared for the Priest. I sat in that foreboding Confessional box and told him something obviously untrue, that I had called my brother a stinky-head, or a doofus. Charlie Brown-level aspersions. In reality I was sending much more colourful language his way. Whether he believed me or not, the Priest blessed and absolved me, and assigned two decades of The Rosary as atonement.
I had reasoned that the strategy of Confession was to expose just enough of your ‘badness’, but not too much that you would destabilise your sense of self as inherently ‘good’. Asking friends recently what the meat of their First Confession was, one said, “I told him I had been picking on my brother, and cursing a lot”, the other, “I said I had been bullying my sister, which I probably was.” All of our sins seemed to be rooted in the domestic – no tax evaders, or adulterers, or crypto fascists, yet.
There was a whole palaver to making one’s First Confession and one’s Communion. I do not remember detecting much preoccupation with the spiritual components on the part of the parents. All of the hometime chatter seemed to revolve around on the material practicalities; where the communion dresses were being sourced, was Síofra going to be wearing a tailored hand-me-down from an older cousin or sibling, could Jake be talked into wearing a peach-coloured suit? While trawling YouTube for a reading of Frank O’Connor’s short story The First Confession, I came across a daytime TV segment on ‘Communion Fashion’. There is a small runway on which 7-year-old models Shirley Temple their way up and down for the camera. There is a stylist talking two presenters through the trends of 2014; she tells them, “The whole thing comes together with getting your little darling suited and booted for the day.” The presenters remark on the suitability of the garments, of the niceness. “And he can take jacket off for when visitors call round to the house,” one of the women says, indeed he can. There is no mention of the significance of the sacrament.
One got the sense, at that time, that Ireland had lost its culture of piety, and that we were just going through the motions. Upon reading Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, I was struck by this familiar theme of ritual enacted for ritual's sake. Jackson’s story ends on an incredibly dark note, and I am not comparing our compulsory engagement with Catholicism to the horror manifest in the tale. The story is a sort of thought experiment, what could the worst possible outcome for a community's acquiescence to tradition be? It is this exploration of unchallenged custom that interests me.
“There was the proper swearing-in of Mr. Summers by the postmaster, as the official of the lottery; at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse.”
The ‘tuneless chant’ resonates, too. I think of the sloppy, half-forgotten recitations of prayer during a particularly dull Mass, one of our teachers flapping her arms manically, missal in hand, begging us to breathe some life into the words we were saying. There was always a disjuncture, between the severity of the language and our lacklustre delivery: “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and what I have failed to do.” Sure.
Confessionalism, as a literary genre, is similarly fraught with discomfort. The form is intrinsically risky. The conceit is that the writer lays bare elements of themselves, of their personal histories. Jacques Derrida, in The Purveyor of Truth, categorises life-writing as one of the more exposing forms, in which the writer ‘unveils’ themselves to their reader. While this is true, the form also lends itself to a kind of a performance. As my 8-year-old self knew, one can evade and omit. History can be reframed. Doris Lessing writes in her memoir Under My Skin, that this evasion and omission can be either conscious or unconscious. She writes, “Telling the truth or not telling it, and how much, is a lesser problem than the one of shifting perspectives, for you see your life differently at different stages, like climbing a mountain while the landscape changes with every turn in the path.”
Time warps memory, and looking back retrospectively often lends an element of the unreal. Lessing calls memory “a careless and lazy organ”. In On Writing: A Memoir of Craft, Stephen King points to his own childhood recollections as fragmentary and unreliable, “a fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like broken trees.” I am aware that I, for example, have glossed over my own memory with a kind of protective varnish. All is imbued with a touch of the ridiculous, the overblown. The feature film inside my head is peopled with Trunchbullian basketball coaches, simpering nuns who sing hymns over the school intercom, and geriatric priests droning through liturgies and psalms. This impulse to remember these adults in a kind of cartoonish Dahlian extremity is an adaptive mechanism.
I had a brief stint as an 11-year-old zealot. That year we had a teacher who was enthusiastic about all things Jesus, Mary and Joseph. This enthusiasm was infectious and we were all taken in by it to some degree. My holy phase was short-lived. Much to my parents' amusement, I insisted we only listen to the Hymn CD on car rides. When this demand was not met, I burst into singing Walking in the Light of God / Siúl i Solas Dé in protest. It’s a banger, if you’re wondering. YouTube it if you don’t believe me. This period had a touch of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The stages of finding and losing faith manifested similarly: enchantment, rhapsodic fervour and devotion, then disenchantment.
Afterwards, a kind of facetious cynicism took hold, and continued on through adolescence.
At age 13, I was sent to an Irish-speaking Catholic Boarding School. The school was austere and academically rigorous. Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son used to hang facing the chapel. We would congregate around it, pointing and giggling. The way the figures were assembled, the kneeling, the intimation of fellatio, was too much for us, and would send us into fits of raucous derision. I think it was after much of this that the school resolved to move it from view. I can't remember what replaced it.
This image, and memory, is emblematic of how one learned to deal with the stultifying religiosity. It had to be mocked and made silly, or it became a cowing force. The painting itself, the sauldy, piteous head on the son, evokes the performance of contrition and self-abnegation that is tied into the act of confession. The function of this work, and the other iconography around the school, the lachrymal statues of the Virgin and of Christ, was to instruct. Functionally, I suppose it backfired.
With no television during the week, and many hours of study hall (no reading for pleasure permitted!), we had to resort to finding suggestive elements in baroque paintings for entertainment; this is a barometer for our collective boredom. Opening up a page in the health textbook, pointing at a particularly unfortunate stock photo of someone with impetigo or severe acne, and telling the person next to you, “That’s you,” was thought of as quality comedy.
I rewatched Lady Bird recently, and one moment in particular resonated with me. Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein are laying on their backs snacking on holy bread. When another student happens upon them, and chastises them for doing so, they yell, “They’re not consecrated yet!” and burst into laughter. The scene is tender and epitomises the distancing effect of humour. Watching it, I recognised that mechanism as one I had employed for years. The injection of levity was essential to easing my feelings of alienation within the strictures of the institution. One night, we also snuck into the vestry and drank some of the Priest’s wine. It was watered-down and not very good, of course.
Still from Lady Bird (2017), dir. Greta Gerwig
In the lead-up to making her First Confession, my mother recalls the Archbishop coming to speak to her class. He said something alarming about God being able to see you everywhere, even in the bath. She remembers thinking, how strange, that he said the bath in particular, not the garden, nor the kitchen.
Thinking of the story-telling and personhood, I am brought back to that oft-cited line from the late Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. [...] We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”