Irish Sundays


THE liberality of their Sundays is a change which I do not envy the children of to-day. Having grown up in a rectory in Lancashire during late Victorian days, I look back with a wistful tenderness to those Sundays of old, beginning, as they did, with the crackling of starched underlinen and ending in a ‘Now the day is over, stars begin to peep’ atmosphere.

I must admit that the rigors of many rectories were not known in ours. Weekday amusements were given a Biblical twist which sanctified but did not diminish them. There were jigsaw puzzles of Bible subjects. To this day I see the expression of the ram caught by his horns, and the look of the infant Moses among the bulrushes. The games that on weekdays turned to history or to geography were now Scriptural. We worked through the alphabet gasping out Abljah, Abraham, Absalom, and coming down to Zabulon, Zaccheus, Zachariah. In the difference of Sunday lay its charm. Even in church we enjoyed a laxity which was, I suppose, due to a considerate mother who enforced no rigidities of attendance. Provided we did not annoy our fellows in the pews around us, we might look at sacred picture books, or in a subdued manner play trains with the prayer books. We were at a safe distance from the paternal eye, which was engaged in pulpit or reading desk.

During the sermon and the lessons we could lean our cheeks against a gray fur cape that my mother wore — a curious-smelling, warm garment. At these reflective times I gave my entire attention to the stained-glass windows, so modern that their origin was within childhood’s memory. Late parishioners of note, such as churchwardens and their female relations, having ceased to harry the clergy at vestry meetings, quickly reappeared in stained glass as apostles, martyrs, and holy women. Old Mr. York, who had made his rector’s life a burden, now shone out as a tetchy-looking Saint Peter. Dear old Mrs. Briscoe, the baker’s wife, was Anna the Prophetess; and, most interesting of all, Mr. Clough was Blind Bartimæus. Mr. Clough was still alive and in America, and my real interest in seeing him as Bartimæus was a certain hasty promise on his part of American stamps for my album. How the sun shone through Bartimæus! Would he remember the stamps? That window kindled new hopes each Sunday.

As for the afternoon, there was quite a pleasant home Sunday class with a little instruction and a story by Miss Yonge, or someone of a like mind; or sometimes the heroic adventures of Selwyn, Hannington, or Livingstone. If the modern young do not get some such reading they miss the very classics of adventure.

Now and again we went to tea at the big house of the parish. We had comrades there of like ages, but distinguished from ourselves in being rich. The very word impressed me then as it does now. ‘Rich’ — a state one imagines and sees at a distance. A beloved old lady called ‘Granny’ used to start us on our demure walks with dates in our pockets. Her kindness filled me with horror. I loathed dates and never dared to say so. It was always the problem of the afternoon, how to cast them behind me unnoticed. Even then I was not at ease, for I feared that the dates might grow up and accuse me some day by their reappearance as flourishing date palms. I pictured Mr. Taylor, that handsome, severe-looking person, pointing his finger at a fullblown palm while he fixed me with his one eye and his monocle and asked, ‘Do you know how that tree came there?’

Sunday teas had always some pleasant difference. At the rectory it was hot muffins with fat sultanas in them; at the big house, jam with hot buttered toast, a luxury which almost appalled our simpler souls.

Rectory suppers were generally social affairs with a coming of curates and much cutting of cold sirloin served with piccalilli and pickled walnuts, my father telling excellent stories and drinking good British beer from an old silver mug. I had an inward sense that it was all very English and so different from Ireland, but that one preferred Ireland every time and all the time.


Ireland meant Knockmaroon and a state of the blessed, a life of perpetual summer holiday. So it is to our Irish summer Sundays that I turn with the country benediction: ‘God be with the days.’

Now indeed was Sunday put to an acid test, for our weekdays held such freedom of woods and fields and river bank that we might have grudged the dues of Sunday.

But, no, there were interests peculiar to the day, and though I can offer no record of infant piety I can say that churchgoing was never a weariness to us. From the well-adapted children’s services of to-day we might have gained in grace but not in pleasure.

There was always a discussion at breakfast (I believe the household at Earlham had the same) as to who should drive and who should walk. There was also the question whether to go down to Chapelizod Church at the foot of the hill or up to Castleknock. I never had the slightest doubt that to drive to Castleknock Church was my entire aim and object.

My grandfather must have taken polite but slightly unwilling grandchildren to Chapelizod on some occasions, for I do remember that there was a thin excitement in being shut into one’s pew by a severely jowled sextoness. Also the height of the pew must have made it necessary for us to reverse and kneel at our seats during the prayers. That the cotton fingers of my gloves had a nasty taste when sucked is all that I recall of these churchgoings.

But of Castleknock — yet I hurry away too fast. There was first a reading of Keble’s Christian Year before we tackled the solemn excitement of dressing.

The drives that live in my memory are those when the family was in mourning. It was for my grandfather. And, while I realize this, I never then or later thought of him as dead or really connected him with that brougham full of crape.

To wear crape — what a glorious indulgence it seemed. I had hoped that seven-years-old might be allowed some little show of crape somewhere. But even Victorian taste forbade it, and I had the chastened joy of gray print with a black sash and a black hatband. As for my grandmother, her lovely little face, with its cameo features, shone in pale beauty from veils and swathings of black. Black-edged handkerchiefs, lavender-scented, were dragged from pockets hidden deep in crape. The only adornment was ivory, those tiny billiard balls strung to hold a cross. In this billowing of black and scented draperies a small child drove to church in a chastened dignity that was more worth having than the commonplaces of walking.

Besides, to one who esteemed a cab drive a rare treat in her Manchester life, this journey by brougham transcended mere weekday jollities. It was something to lay aside for later boasting. One could say to a school friend, speaking quite casually and to the manner born, ‘So when the brougham came round,’ or, ‘I like the box of a brougham best, don’t you? I always drove home that way on ours’ — one would say that to little vulgar Manchester ears and pass carelessly on to other matters.

Of course the box was preferable to the inside. It was so high and exciting, and what fun it was to sit up there by dear Bob Smith, who was with the family, boy and man, for fifty years — in fact, till he died in a service that was love and perfect friendship on both sides. Bob was as dear as our kind relations, and it was a coveted treat to sit up there beside him. What pride one felt in seeing curtsies accorded to the carriage and in waiting for the recognitions of lifted hat or waved hand! However happy were the walkers, I rather despised them. Although on a mere weekday I esteemed the back axle of the brougham the only suitable place for traveling, on Sunday there was a decorum to maintain.

Every church has an individual smell, obvious to children’s keen noses. I think the smell of Castleknock was like the chant Mornington, which to this day sings in my head, clearer than all the Plainsong of Solesmes. What chant was more suitable to this congregation, where a row of daisy-like children, the descendants of this same musical lord, filled a pew? Indeed, I feel aggrieved with Mr. Philip Guedalla for writing rather flippantly of the Iron Duke’s father and his musical habit. However, we sang the psalms to Mornington with a sanctified cheerfulness. The Ferrier pew was in a side aisle. We sat behind Sir Robert Ball and his family. He was astronomer at Dunsink at this time. His row of sons and daughters filled us with profound interest. (I have already precluded infant piety from our church attention.) Our heroes were the boys in such stories as the Honorable Mrs. Greene’s Cushions and Corners, or in the Ballantyne and Henty books. We thought the Ball family fit to figure in these pages.

The greatness of Sir Robert Ball properly impressed us. When he sat on the collection plate and it could not be found, it was felt that his mind surveyed stars beyond our dreaming or pronunciation.

The Balls and others remain immortally young in memory. Sir George Brooke is there with a quiverful of little boys in Eton jackets. The Hamiltons of Abbotstown are still little girls with a little brother in a sailor suit. That he is now Lord Holmpatrick with a son of his own has not changed the little boy in a sailor suit. And the late Lord Iveagh’s sons, the three Guinnesses, still rollic round their tutor as they go to church, while Sir Robert Ball’s family are boys and girls.

As for the little girls, the problem that was warranted to pass one over the Confession and some further prayers was this — had they new hats or last year’s leghorns with new daisy wreaths? I found it a crude unkindness when, a kind little Hamilton having offered me thumb room on her prayer book, an elder sister whispered loudly, ‘She can’t read yet.’ After all, subterfuge was one of the games of churchgoing. One stood on a hassock, — or even perilously on two, — and pretended to have grown that much since last summer.


My mother remembered a braver time of churchgoing when the Marquis of Abercorn was Viceroy, and when he, ‘Old Magnificent,’ and the Duchess and two pewsful of handsome sons and daughters came to Castleknock Church. As a girl she delighted in the looks of those sons, as later she delighted in their books. From her came the stories of certain thrills which distinguished Sundays. In her day, as in ours, Canon Ralph Sadleir was the rector, a man unique in his way. I can only say that no one could have contrived or invented two of his kind. He was a law to himself, and neither Archbishop nor any potency ever restrained him from doing what he wished to do. He flourished in his self-chosen ways, and rode a horse in the streets of Dublin till he was in the eighties. I have only on hearsay the story of his wrath with his refined and languid congregation after a well-nigh inaudible repetition of the Nicene Creed.

‘Am I,’ he cried, ‘the only Christian in this church, or why have I only heard my own voice repeat the articles of our faith? If you would not have me think you a congregation of atheists and heathen you will repeat the creed with me.’

Another time it was his favorite hymn that had been sung languidly. ‘You have massacred a hymn I love — no feeling whatsoever!’ He sat himself more firmly on the stool t hat was concealed in an opaque pulpit. ‘Now then, we’ll have it again, please.’

No, I only knew Dr. Sadleir on the uneventful Sundays. But even so the impression he made on one child never faded. I should like to know if he impressed other children as much. I still seem to hear his voice in the reading of those wonderful dramas in the history of Israel. Of the New Testament I remember nothing — a proof, I think, that children are far more impressed by justice than by mercy. It was not piety but a child’s sense of drama which held me spellbound while Dr. Sadleir read the lessons. I still can hear his voice when these chapters recur in the order of service. For me Elijah will always wear a D. D.’s gown and have a warm Irish accent, for did I not identify him with Dr. Sadleir? With what a scorn he spoke to the priests of Baal! How he taunted them with his ‘ Call again . . . peradventure he sleepcth.’ I pictured the slaughter outside the doors of the church on the well-mown grass. Almost I expected that we should pick our way out over the fallen bodies of the priests of Baal.

‘Abner, Abner’ — Dr. Sadleir would beckon with a dramatic finger. He must have sensed the scarlet and purple and gold of those old chronicles. How one longed to join in the drama; to warn that reckless young Rehoboam that he should not and could not speak to the old men of chastising them with scorpions and of making their yokes as heavy as a man’s body. Wonderful indeed were all these stories, but none impressed me like the drama of Jehu the son of Nimshi, and Jezebel, the proud queen. I find now that my version of it does not quite tally with the Bible story. But what I have stored in memory is the series of pictures evoked by the old man reading behind the brass eagle.

I found myself standing on an old city wall beside a chronicler; below us and away from us stretched a great plain. On it was a speck that grew and grew until it was a man driving a chariot. Dr. Sadleir’s voice said: ‘It is the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi, for he driveth furyously.’ That ‘furyously’ was much more striking than the more English ‘furiously,’just as his ‘charyot’ gripped one more than ‘chariot.’

There was Jehu coming nearer and nearer in his ‘charyot’ with the sweating black horses. Then he was in the narrow street of the old town and I could see Jezebel peering at him out of her window, the black faces of the eunuchs behind her. How painted and gay she was! One could not but admire her and her taunting voice: ‘Had Zimri peace, who slew his master?’ But there was Jehu looking up, a bearded face with red cruel lips. ‘Is anyone on my side?’ Ah! those black faces! And he said: ‘Throw her down.’

What a splendid swirl of skirts and arms and legs as Jezebel fell from that high window! Later (one thought of it as after church, even after dinner) there was nothing left but two hands. The dogs had eaten Jezebel. It all had the callous justice that is found in fairy stories. I could not think that the pointer and setter who were our daily companions would have eaten Jezebel, — they were too fastidious, — and I was hard put to it to picture the sort of dogs who made so revolting a meal. And then the story was finished; we were back in church singing the ‘Te Deum,’ which grew wearisome in length.

I do not remember any sermon, only the look of our pastor sitting down in the pulpit and leaning out to admonish us in that warm, rounded voice. At this time I fell to gazing at the kaleidoscope windows with their gay patterns, or at the marble memorial with a weeping angel who bent over an urn.

The only line in the hymns that ever really impressed me was one about the ‘wave of Euroclydon.’ I have never discovered what it was. I would rather keep the splendid mystery of it and my childhood’s picture of a long, curling, foamy, jade-bellied wave rushing upon us to swallow the whole congregation.

On Communion Sundays we children were sent out to the carriage, there to wait for our elders. At once we pulled down the red blinds and became Russian princesses, chased across the steppes by howling wolves.


I cannot remember if Sunday dinner differed from our ordinary excellent three-course dinner. But I recall the indulgence that let us play games at dessert. After all, we had t he freedom of gooseberry and currant bushes all day and dessert could only add peaches and Marie biscuits to our fare, or melons with their luscious warm scent and the possibility of making endless seed necklaces. We were allowed to make notes of music on the rims of our finger glasses, to bite Marie biscuits round and round till only a hub remained. (I cannot think that this was noticed and countenanced.) After all, what can you do with a Marie biscuit but play games with it? You can break it secretly and hold it in place, telling your neighbor to find the crack; and with a finger bowl many things can be done.

At some period in the afternoon, after Sunday reading in an aunt’s room, a procession formed and went happily from the coach yard down to the river. Male relations carried oars and rowlocks, we followed as blithely as children on a Greek vase. The wood paths were steep; down, down they plunged into green, sun-smitten depths till we reached the boat fastened below Undine’s Bower, a summerhouse on the brink of the Liffey.

Then for an enchanted hour we rowed up and down near cider-golden shallows and peat-colored depths, by trailing willows and forget-me-not banks, by towering willow herb and hemp agrimony, and lush grasses. Sometimes we were in the swirl of waters by Glorny’s Weir or near those mysterious tunnels of the deserted mill. Again we were gliding under the banks of the Stewart Asylum toward the lower weir, awed by the deeper water. A kingfisher would flash by, halcyon gleam of emerald and sapphire, or the water ouzel would slip among the stones.

All went happily through those slow, quiet, Victorian Sundays until bedtime came and we fell asleep with the hope of a glorious week to follow. Only one shadow could cloud the evening, and that was the pious practice of singing hymns. Impossible for a child to define the agony of melancholy that can fall with certain music. I know that I felt in my heart at these times ‘ the pang of all the partings gone and partings yet to be.’ I think only a poet who knew and loved children could have written that line. When we sang hymns, so often pitched too high for elderly voices, so often a little flat, I knew that life held terrors and heartaches that they, these grown-ups, knew and would not admit. Was it the harmonium which filled us with a vague terror of loneliness? An elder sister, having crept away to weep on some such occasion, was asked the reason and could only reply with the deep wisdom of childhood, ‘It’s so like the children of Israel going through the Wilderness’ — an entirely adequate reason for tears.

I cannot but agree that the child of to-day has a far more sensible, athletic, suitable Sunday; I can only protest that we Victorians did not always fare so badly as our present youngsters suppose.