The death took place during the week of Frank McCourt, one of Ireland’s greatest and most popular writers and a major literary figure in his native New York.
The following is an extract from his novel, ‘Angela’s Ashes’.
First Communion day is the happiest day of your life because of The Collection and James Cagney at the Lyric Cinema. The night before I was so excited I couldn’t sleep till dawn. I’d still be sleeping if my grandmother hadn’t come banging at the door.
Get up! Get up! Get that child outa the bed. Happiest day of his life an’ him snorin’ above in the bed.
I ran to the kitchen. Take off that shirt, she said. I took off the shirt and she pushed me into a tin tub of icy cold water. My mother scrubbed me, my grandmother scrubbed me. I was raw, I was red.
They dried me. They dressed me in my black velvet First Communion suit with the white frilly shirt, the short pants, the white stockings, the black patent leather shoes. Around my arm they tied a white satin bow and on my lapel they pinned the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a picture with blood dripping from it, flames erupting all around it and on top a nasty-looking crown of thorns.
Come here till I comb your hair, said Grandma. Look at that mop, it won’t lie down. You didn’t get that hair from my side of the family. That’s that North of Ireland hair you got from your father. That’s the kind of hair you see on Presbyterians. If your mother had married a proper decent Limerick man you wouldn’t have this standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair.
She spat twice on my head.
Grandma, will you please stop spitting on my head.
If you have anything to say, shut up. A little spit won’t kill you. Come on, we’ll be late for the Mass.
We ran to the church. My mother panted along behind with Michael in her arms. We arrived at the church just in time to see the last of the boys leaving the altar rail where the priest stood with the chalice and the host, glaring at me. Then he placed on my tongue the wafer, the body and blood of Jesus. At last, at last.
It’s on my tongue. I draw it back.
I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master’s voice, Don’t let that host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you’ll roast in hell for eternity. I tried to get God down with my tongue but the priest hissed at me, Stop that clucking and get back to your seat. God was good. He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner.
When the Mass ended there they were at the door of the church, my mother with Michael in her arms, my grandmother. They each hugged me to their bosoms. They each told me it was the happiest day of my life. They each cried all over my head and after my grandmother’s contribution that morning my head was a swamp.
Mam, can I go now and make The Collection?
She said, After you have a little breakfast.
No, said Grandma. You’re not making no collection till you have a proper First Communion breakfast at my house. Come on.
We followed her. She banged pots and rattled pans and complained that the whole world expected her to be at their beck and call. I ate the egg, I ate the sausage, and when I reached for more sugar for my tea she slapped my hand away.
Go easy with that sugar. Is it a millionaire you think I am? An American? Is it bedecked in glitterin’ jewelry you think I am? Smothered in fancy furs?
The food churned in my stomach. I gagged. I ran to her backyard and threw it all up. Out she came.
Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in me backyard. What am I goin’ to do? I’ll take him to the Jesuits for they know the sins of the Pope himself.
She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told the neighbors and passing strangers about God in her backyard. She pushed me into the confession box.
In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s a day since my last confession.
A day? And what sins have you committed in a day, my child?
I overslept. I nearly missed my First Communion. My grandmother said I have standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair. I threw up my First Communion breakfast. Now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.
The priest is like the First Confession priest. He has the heavy breathing and the choking sounds.
Ah ... ah ... tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water and for your penance say one Hail Mary and one Our Father. Say a prayer for me and God bless you, my child.
Grandma and Mam were waiting close to the confession box. Grandma said, Were you telling jokes to that priest in the confession box? If ‘tis a thing I ever find out you were telling jokes to Jesuits I’ll tear the bloody kidneys outa you. Now what did he say about God in my backyard?
He said wash Him away with a little water, Grandma.
Holy water or ordinary water?
He didn’t say, Grandma.
Well, go back and ask him.
But, Grandma ...
She pushed me back into the confessional.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it’s a minute since my last confession.
A minute! Are you the boy that was just here?
I am, Father.
What is it now?
My grandma says, Holy water or ordinary water?
Ordinary water, and tell your grandmother not to be bothering me again.
I told her, Ordinary water, Grandma, and he said don’t be bothering him again.
Don’t be bothering him again. That bloody ignorant bogtrotter.
I asked Mam, Can I go now and make The Collection? I want to see James Cagney.
Grandma said, You can forget about The Collection and James Cagney because you’re not a proper Catholic the way you left God on the ground. Come on, go home.
Mam said, wait a minute. That’s my son. That’s my son on his First Communion day. He’s going to see James Cagney.
No he’s not.
Yes he is.
Grandma said, Take him then to James Cagney and see if that will save his Presbyterian North of Ireland American soul. Go ahead.
She pulled her shawl around her and walked away.
Mam said, God, it’s getting very late for The Collection and you’ll never see James Cagney. We’ll go to the Lyric Cinema and see if they’ll let you in anyway in your First Communion suit. We met Mikey Molloy on Barrington Street. He asked if I was going to the Lyric and I said I was trying. Trying? he said. You don’t have money? I was ashamed to say no but I had to and he said, That’s all right. I’ll get you in. I’ll create a diversion.
What’s a diversion?
I have the money to go and when I get in I’ll pretend to have the fit and the ticket man will be out of his mind and you can slip in when I let out the big scream. I’ll be watching the door and when I see you in I’ll have a miraculous recovery. That’s a diversion. That’s what I do to get my brothers in all the time.
Mam said, Oh, I don’t know about that, Mikey. Wouldn’t that be a sin and surely you wouldn’t want Frank to commit a sin on his Communion day.
Mikey said if there was a sin it would be on his soul and he wasn’t a proper Catholic anyway so it didn’t matter. He let out his scream and I slipped in and sat next to Question Quigley and the ticket man, Frank Goggin, was so worried over Mikey he never noticed. It was a thrilling film but sad in the end because James Cagney was a public enemy and when they shot him they wrapped him in bandages and threw him in the door, shocking his poor old Irish mother, and that was the end of my First Communion day.