Tom Phelan on a recent trip to Mountmellick. PHOTO BY PATRICIA PHELAN
This is the latest installment in Tom Phelan’s series about growing up in a farming family in Mountmellick, Co. Laois, in the 1940s and ‘50s.
One day when I was in First Class, Sister Martha opened the door of the tall cabinet with a dramatic flourish to reveal a statue of Blessed Martin de Porres of Peru. She said that if we brought a penny for the Black Babies in Africa and dropped it into the slot at Blessed Martin’s feet, he would nod his head in thanks. Then she told us how Martin could talk to dogs and cats and mice, float in the air, walk through locked doors, and be in two places at the same time.
“Sister! My father talks to our ass and tells it to ‘hup and go,’ and the ass does it,” Jack Deegan said.
“Sister! If I could float in the air, I’d get the high apples off the apple tree in Father McCluskey’s garden,” Billy Marshall said.
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“Sister! If I could be in two places at the same time, one of me would stay in bed all day warm, an’ I’d send the other one to school,” Sheila Feeney said.
Besides pennies for Black Babies, Sister Martha encouraged us to bring in cancelled stamps and silver paper from the insides of cigarette boxes for the foreign missions. Thus the Irish mania for the conversion of happy pagans into miserable Catholics was instilled in me at early age.
Next Sister Martha taught us to sing a hymn. She began by whacking her tuning fork on the edge of her desk and then humming till her hum matched that of the fork. Still humming, she put down the tuning fork, walked to the center of the classroom, hummed louder, and used her hands to tell us children to hum along with her. As we took up the hum, she pointed to the blackboard where she had written the verses of the hymn. With her bobbing head, she counted out, “One, two, three!” and then waved us into song.
“Hail, Queen of heav’n, the ocean star!
Guide of the wand’rer here below!..”.
Suddenly a demanding knock on the classroom door interrupted our uplifted voices. When Sister Martha opened it, a priest was standing in the corridor holding a suitcase. As he stepped into the room, we stood up and bleated, “Good morning, Fa-aa-ther.”
“Good morning, children. You may sit down,” the priest said, smiling at the room of 7- and 8-year-olds. I could see he was not thorny like our parish priest Father McCluskey, who always moved about in a cloud of fussiness.
“Children!” Sister Martha said. “This is Father Dalton and he is home from the foreign missions. He’s going to tell us about his life in a country in Africa that’s full of jungles and monkeys and zebras and elephants.”
Having a real live missionary in our classroom was almost as exciting as a visit from a clown in Duffys’ Circus.
Father Dalton plonked his suitcase on Sister Martha’s desk. Then he opened it slowly, as if something might jump out and bite him. I held my breath.
“You are the first children to see my surprise from Africa,” he said. Carefully, he put his hands in the suitcase and began to draw out a piece of cloth the color of burnt orange, with diamond shapes made by two black lines crisscrossing each other. He moved away from the suitcase and the cloth kept coming. Slowly he walked backward through the rows of desks until he was at the rear wall, one end of the cloth in his hands and the other end still in the suitcase.
I was goggle-eyed at this un-priestly behavior.
“Who can tell me what this is?” Father Dalton asked.
Wagging hands filled the air.
“A scarf for a giant?”
“No…I’ll give you a hint: hisssssssss.”
“A goose?” a chorus of children sang out.
“A cross cat,” a boy yelled.
“A bike wheel after someone rides their bike over a bush that’s full of thorns that Bill Horgan left on the road after cutting his hedge?”
“No,” Father Dalton said. “It’s a snake skin.”
He may as well have said, “It’s a lion that hasn’t eaten a child for a month.”
Screeching and screaming, all the girls and boys scrambled out of their chairs and pressed themselves in bunches against the classroom walls.
Sister Martha laid down a blanket of calmness by walking over to the snake skin and running the flat of her hand along it. “See,” she said calmly, “it’s not alive.” But at that moment, as if to show how wrong she was, Father Dalton sent a ripple running along the hide of the dead reptile.
As the children teetered on the edge of hysteria, Sister Martha gave the priest a withering look, as if to ask, “What kind of a fecking eegit are you?”
African rock python, southern subspecies, drawn in 1840 by Scottish zoologist Sir Andrew Smith.
Then she lifted the end of the snake skin out of the suitcase and began to roll it up. The priest had no choice but to do the same from his end.
When the suitcase was firmly hasped, Father Dalton asked if any of the children were going to be missionaries when they got big.
“Would there be snakes, Fadder?”
The priest looked at Sister Martha. “Are there any snakes in Ireland, children?” she asked.
“Who drove the snakes out of Ireland, children?”
‘Saint Pa-aa-trick,’ chorused 34 mouths.
“And why did he drive them out?”
Only one girl answered. “Because they frighten little children, Sister.”
Sister Martha looked at the priest. “Isn’t that right, Father? Snakes frighten little children?”
“That’s right, Sister. But it was just a ski—“
Sister Martha interrupted him. “Out of the mouths of babes, Father,” she said, and she raised her eyebrows into spears.
Father Dalton lifted his suitcase off Sister Martha’s desk, and the nun waved us children to our feet as he left.
We all sat down.
‘We’ll start the hymn again, children,’ Sister Martha said. She held up her tuning fork for all to see and then whacked it on the edge of her desk. Holding the fork to her ear, she nodded us into song.
“Hail, Queen of heav’n…”
Copyright © 2017 by Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd. For more about Tom Phelan and his books, go to www.tomphelan.net