‘mixing religion’

‘mixing religion’

Connie did not say anything to the rest of the family and felt very privileged that her Gran had shared part of her private history with her. She hadn’t arrived for lunch yet and Connie wondered if she was not coming because she had decided not to talk about Grandad’s Spanish experience. Perhaps it was so awful and maybe would be too much for her mum to hear. As they were clearing the plates away from the main course her Gran came through the kitchen door with apologies for being late. One of her neighbours had died and, as was the case in the Markets, Maggie Cunningham helped to lay out the body and prepare it for burial. This neighbourly service was performed because Maggie was good at it and the skills of Cumann na nBan never left you. She took great care of the deceased, preparing them for burial which helped to keep down the costs of the undertakers. Connie’s mother had asked if she wanted something warmed in the oven.
‘No, don’t go to any bother. I’ll just have a larger piece of dessert, especially since I can smell it’s your apple pie, and, a wee cup of tea with it.’
‘Connie cut your Gran a slice of that pie and I’ll put the tea on.’
‘It’s amazing how death can put so many things into perspective.’
Maggie Cunningham shook her head and almost absentmindedly made the remark. Connie’s dad always picked up the little nuances around people’s behaviour that other folk never seem to notice.
‘What do you mean, Maggie, is something wrong?’
‘No. Not really, Tommy. I was coming here today to tell you all a story and when I got up this morning I had decided not to share it. I knew Connie would be disappointed but I was resolved not to tell the story as I began to think it was best left in the past. Then old James Henry died and his wife came round and asked me if I would lay him out for burial. As I was preparing him for the undertakers I began thinking of my day out with Connie. This led me to think about my Sean and what he had said to me before he died, when he realised, that his time was nearly through.’
Connie’s Gran looked at Rosaleen, ‘I should have told you before now because it might help to explain some things about your dad. It might not, but you can make up your own mind.’
She finished her apple pie and settled back into the armchair sipping her tea from the best china cup in the house.
‘After the civil war in Ireland we eventually got back to some kind of normal living, if you call intermittent outbreaks of sectarian strife normal. Sean had settled in to working as a manager at the Markets and he was making a fine job of it, even though he never considered it a proper job and it didn’t pay well anyway. He probably hated it but he never said so. The stallholders respected him because he was always fair and if any disputes developed, Sean had to broker a suitable accommodation for everyone concerned. I could see though, he was restless. I know now that it is very difficult for someone like him to switch off from the highs he must have experienced when he was on operations for the IRA, here in Belfast protecting his own or playing a role in the fighting down South.’
‘I didn’t know dad fought down South?’
‘I know Rosaleen. I never told you, I’m sorry. Connie is the first to hear at least some of that family history. She can fill you in later, if you don’t mind. As I say, Sean was restless and I suppose it was only a matter of time before something came along that would fire him up and capture his imagination. This time it was the Spanish Civil War. A war fought between the Nationalists led by Franco and what was then the legitimately elected Republican Government. We have problems understanding all the political in-fighting on this island of ours over the last three hundred years. To understand the complexities of Spain at that time is even more difficult. Anyway this is my Sean’s story. I know he never told me half of what went on but what he did tell me helped me understand why he never sang again and why institutionalised religion became such anathema to him.’

Sean Cunningham had gone to seven o clock mass on Sunday morning as usual. He had left Maggie at home with the children. Neither of them believed that putting the children through an hour and twenty minutes of a religious ceremony did them any good, especially since on most occasions, over forty minutes of it was the priest’s sermon.
On this September morning the sermon was to be very different.
Instead of taking the gospel as his subject the priest launched into a diatribe about what the godless communists and anarchists were doing to the Catholic Church in Spain. Priests and nuns had been tortured and killed. Churches had been desecrated to the point of total destruction. Fr Connolly didn’t spare any of the detail even though there were women and young children in the congregation. He more or less finished his ‘sermon’ by throwing out a challenge to the men in the pews. He informed them that duty to your religion is more than just attending mass on Sunday. Sean felt deeply uncomfortable during this sermon and it was only the social pressure of his community that stopped him walking out. The power of the priests was such that no-one would have dared challenge them, particularly in ‘their’ church. If you did voice any objections they would probably have invoked excommunication and accused you of blaspheming against God and his holy church.
When Sean got home he had told Maggie.
‘If that’s what the pulpit is being used for I’ll not be there today or any other day for that matter. You and I know that mixing religion and politics is no good. We see enough of it here.’
Sean was silent as he finished his breakfast.
The Irish papers had been full of the atrocities in Spain and Sean had felt that maybe here was a war where he could clearly be seen to be fighting on the right side. He had wondered what Fr Cairns would have said if he was still alive. Perhaps he might have seen it differently, but he might, like the rest, have seen it as an attack on his church.

It was when Eoin O’ Duffy, the old IRA leader, began recruiting volunteers with the support of the Catholic Church in Ireland that decided Sean that he should go and fight. Maggie had said to him ‘remember there are always two sides to any disagreement and how can you be sure that there is any right side in this conflict?’
Sean had understood her concern, but felt compelled to do something.
‘Are you sure that you’re not escaping from the fact that the work that you’re doing is a bit of a dead end. There’s no challenge in it for you?’
Sean had looked at her.
‘Maggie I love you dearly and the kids too but I just feel that I’m choking. You’re bringing in more money than I am, and if I went,’ he paused, ’there would be one less mouth to feed.’
‘Aye, and a damn big one at that.’
They had laughed which helped to ease some of the tension.

There was no excitement when Sean left. The miserable weather seemed to compound the bleakness of the future. Maggie had kissed him lightly with no hugs.
‘Take care. If things don’t work out, come on home. Above all keep safe and bring that old Bandoleer back to me.’
She had tried to smile, but the inner tension of her body contracted the corners of her mouth down to resemble something more like a grimace.

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