Keeping the faith

The author on her First Communion day, June 1969. Private collection.

We all recognise 1969 as the year that man first stepped on the moon but few would recall that it was also the year that Pope Paul VI became the first reigning pope to step onto the African continent in Uganda.

At that time there was a practice in Catholic schools for children preparing to make their First Holy Communion to make an offering to become ‘god-parents’ to children in Africa so that they could be baptised into the Catholic faith.  At Belgrove National School in Clontarf, my teacher Miss Heid, told us to choose a name for our ‘baby’.   I was only six years old and I came up with the name Anne. In my young mind I thought that all these babies would be brought to the school and I would get to bring mine home.  I puzzled over where she would sleep.  The penny dropped when I received my god-parent card with my name and Anne’s name handwritten on the back……we would never meet.  It was simply a very successful fund raising effort to support mission work in Africa.  Try explaining that to a six year old!

The only tangible connection I had with Anne was the card. So it was a real trip down memory lane when I came across it in a box while clearing out my attic recently and our Manuscripts and Archives Research Library were pleased to accept it as a donation.

 In 1969 the Catholic population of Uganda was approximately 3 million and no one batted an eye in Ireland at holding a collection for the ‘black babies’ or of referring to an unbaptised infant as a pagan. Today the Catholic population of Uganda stands at around 13 million.

I was lucky to attend Belgrove School. It had a broad curriculum and imbued in me a love of reading and of mystical Celtic Ireland.  We learnt poetry, painted and took part in school concerts.

However, it was also the school that dismissed a teacher in 1965 for writing subversive material. That teacher was the writer John McGahern.  The subversive material was the novel The Dark and he was dismissed under the orders of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, whose name is printed on my little card.

Sex education for girls, circa 1970. TCD MS 9308/793/1

Along with the card, I also donated a booklet called My Dear Daughter, which my dear late mother gave to me when I was twelve to help me along the path to womanhood. It was written by Sister Joseph of the Incarnation.  It makes for interesting reading especially when it gets to the part of how to confess ‘impure thoughts’ in the confessional.What a contradictory world it was. On the one hand we marvelled at men rocketing into space and on the other tied one another down with unenlightened thinking and restrictive ideology.   Today, depending on where you are in the world, people are free to make their own decisions about how to live their lives and raise their children and in 2016 a memorial lecture was held in Belgrove School to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of John McGahern.

For me this card and the booklet are an example of some of the ways the Catholic Church and the wider population’s affiliation with that institution influenced children’s lives, both here and abroad.  It also reminds me of the innocence of children and I would hope that we would never presume on that innocence again.

Therese Mulpeter

The Library of Trinity College Dublin