The altar at Mark Egan’s guesthouse on Battery Road, Athlone.

Processions: then and now

By Jean Farrell

Recently Saints Peter and Paul’s Parish held a Corpus Christi Procession. I went along to it for a few reasons.

I happened to be minding my six-year-old granddaughter and I wanted her to see a procession. I was also curious to know what a procession is like nowadays and, for old time sake, I wanted to walk in one.

It was a nice, sacred occasion, but very different than long ago.

First, I had difficulty explaining what a procession was to my little granddaughter.

“Do you mean that we’re going to a parade and that we’ll be in it?” she asked. I told her what we were told by the nuns, many moons ago. I said that God would be leaving the church and coming with us through the streets of our town.

As the end of Saturday evening Mass, Fr. John Deignan, Fr. Innocent Sunu, Rev. Joseph Wenjeslaus and Deacon Tony Larkin walked down the main aisle of the church. One of them was carrying the host aloft.

We all followed them outside. Much to my surprise the host was not placed into the big golden monstrance. I wasn’t really surprised that there was no canopy or canopy bearers.

The priest held up a small glass disc, no bigger than a tennis ball. This contained the host. He walked up Pearse Street, on the footpath, followed by about 100 people. The vast majority of us were females, aged 60 plus. Much to my surprise, I didn’t know a single person.

The folk group handed out leaflets with the words of well-known hymns on them. As we turned into Ganly Lane, we sang ‘Sweet Heart of Jesus.’ As we walked through Connaught Gardens we sang ‘Soul of My Saviour.’

As we walked across the top of Connaught Street I noticed an altar outside McNeill’s bar and it lifted my heart.

My granddaughter observed all and asked the inevitable question. “Where’s God? I thought he was coming with us.” I considered pointing to the small host in the priest’s hand and saying that that was God, but decided to say instead, “He’s with us in our hearts.”

I saw only two other children in the procession. They were two little boys wearing their First Holy Communion suits. One was holding his granny’s hand, the other was with his mother.

We had Benediction on the green area, at Westlodge. This small estate is behind The Shamrock Lodge Hotel. An altar was set up there in advance and the monstrance was on it.

Tantum Ergo was sung, bringing back many memories of The Devotions long ago.

I saw one more altar at a gate, in this area. It was at Mark Egan’s lovely guesthouse, on Battery Road, opposite Westlodge. There was a large statue of Our Lady, candles, Blessed Palm and a photograph of his recently deceased mother on this altar. Eileen Egan was her name and I remember this lovely woman well.

And there our procession ended. I don’t think my granddaughter was much impressed!

I’ll go back down memory lane now, to the 1950s.

For weeks before the actual procession took place, much painting and cleaning would take place in all the streets and terraces that the procession would be passing through.

On the morning of the procession bunting would be hung up all along the route. Little altars were placed at doorways. Every religious item in the house would be placed on these, as well as candles and vases of lilac, lilies and lupins.

As a child, I remember the great excitement as hundreds of us waited in St Peter’s Square to hear the army band marching up along The Accommodation Road, playing ‘Faith of Our Fathers.’

The Canon would then come out of the church with the very impressive golden monstrance, which contained The Blessed Sacrament.

Four ‘important’ men from the parish would be holding up a big white canopy (with a fringe on the top!)

The Altar boys, in their cassocks and surplices, lead the procession, followed by the girls who were strewing rose petals, wearing their Communion dresses.

Groups followed behind The Blessed Sacrament – Vincent de Paul, The Legion of Mary, The Pioneers, the choirs and other parish Catholic organisations, of which there were many. Adults and school children followed. We walked in class groups, with our teachers.

Sister Dymphna would be leading the singing as we roared out ‘Sweet Heart of Jesus,’ ‘Soul of My Saviour’ and more.

It’s good that we never thought about the words we were singing in ‘Faith of Our Fathers. Consider, “Our fathers, chained in prisons dark were still in heart and conscience free. How sweet would be our children’s fate, if they, like them, could die for thee,” as we vowed that “We will be true to Thee ‘til death, in spite of dungeon, fire and sword!”

As we walked along the streets and terraces we admired the altars at every doorway and gate. The army bands throughout.

Benediction took place on The Batteries. It was then a huge green open area. I have a memory of the army presenting arms before the blessing. This was marvellous drama altogether, our street theatre.

It was very different from the small procession I walked in last week.

I don’t know whether I am a lapsed Catholic or a collapsed Catholic. However, I have great admiration for the good priests who must struggle on, trying to keep the show on the road. God bless them.