She’s four. We were sitting at the dinner table a couple of weeks before Christmas when, in that apropos of nothing way of the pre-schooler, she turns to me.
“I can’t believe it.”
“What can’t you believe?” I countered.
“I can’t believe my teacher picked me to be Mary.” Jesus Christ.
Only minutes before there’d been a discussion on the radio warning the public about ticket scams for Midnight Mass and I’d shaken my head with a sort of affectionate levity, but now this.
She’s not christened you see and it wasn’t a decision that was taken with ease, nor one that’s reached its denouement. She’s due to start school this September and despite being the largest inland county, no multi-denominational schools exist in Tipperary. So she must go to a Catholic school and I’m left agonising over whether I should just sprinkle her with holy water and be done with it. I oscillate back and forth like a thurible. Weighing the cultural capital of her belonging against my own perceptions of morality.
She was still in my belly when I first began to fret about it. The year she was born the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child warned of the need for “concrete measures” to significantly increase the availability of multi-denominational schools in Ireland. They said this should be done “expeditiously”. Great, that will sort it, I thought. By the time she gets to five they’ll have fixed it. Except it didn’t and they haven’t.
We argue about it, her Dad and I. Not over the religious teachings – he’s just as absent from the church on Sundays as I am – but he feels the pressure a little more I suspect. He was born into this rural parish, there’s familial expectation, communal even. His main thorn however, is that she will be left out, excluded. I quote hoary old adages about conviction being more important than adherence. He tells me to stop forcing her to be a part of my “crusade”. Crusade!
Despite my lack of personal faith I see the merit of her studying religion academically, but religious literacy is not the same as collective worship. Irish faith schools – which account for more than 95% of all Irish schools – aren’t tasked with developing cultural knowledge so students can recognise religious nuance in early modern literature, or so they can appreciate Rembrandt’s ‘The Hundred Guilder Print’. Faith formation for cailíní agus buachaillí is not concerned with developing contextual insight into how other people of all faiths, and none, live their lives. No. Indoctrination is the only means to the only end. Lord help us.
We’ve gone backwards you see. When we’re grappling with that particularly Irish brand of self-loathing, we often deride our country as backwards. In this case it’s apt. Look back towards 1831. They say it’s impossible to achieve now, but when the Irish school system was first established it had to offer a curriculum which combined moral and literary instruction but kept religious instruction separate. As schools became increasingly denominational in character, this separation of education and religion diminished and the concept of the integrated curriculum, whereby religion was expected to be integrated into all subjects and school life, settled in for the long haul.
Some might say it did me no harm, so why the need for dissidence? It took me almost three decades to pinpoint my motivations. I was little older than her when my heresy began. Seven perhaps. The Age of Reason. But there was a time before that when I did accede, as all children do. We took it as gospel, revelled in the pageantry and pomp of the sacraments.
Oddly, I don’t remember the Big Day itself too well. My six-year-old recollections are from a week or two later, walking round and around our gritty estates on Corpus Christi, the repetition possibly ensuring the memory’s formation in my temporal lobe. I can still recall the collective murmur of the rosary as the crowd circled the 5,000 year-old megalithic passage tomb, situated on a roundabout in the middle of a housing estate, upon which the church had erected a Calvary scene. If it seems my childhood memories have descended into some sort of Dali-Kafkaesque hybrid I assure you this place existed then and remains today on the outskirts of Sligo town.
Delighted were we with our second chance to wheel out The Dress, fit with Guinness and gravy stains. “Aren’t they lovely!” they said. And we were. Loveliness being the yardstick with which to measure our worth. Teeth missing, freckles mingling with summer sweat, beads arranged like tail feathers atop French plaits as we marched proudly in our procession. We prayed to honour the Blessed Sacrament and we were lovely and we were good and therefore we were happy.
The confliction settled in soon after. As a child, naturally predisposed to believe what my parents and teachers told me, I couldn’t yet recognise why religion unsettled me but a perception began to form and the undertones were dark.
Usually a compliant girl, I started to put up a resistance to Sunday mass. Kicking and screaming and making a general spectacle of myself in the front garden before I’d eventually acquiesce. Yes I found the sermons dull, but this was something more. It was the 90’s and secrets were being exposed, hushed whisperings and vague news reports absorbed. Banners outside the post office depicting the murder of babies left their mark. Little trinkets from the past were gifted to me along the way, like my Granny having to ask the priest’s permission to be sterilised after her ninth baby. A mosaic coming together tile by tile.
My pre-schooler was 10 months old on that Wednesday in 2017 when the new Taoiseach announced that a referendum would be held. It was also my birthday, and it felt it. Though women’s bodies were once more up for public steering, I thought this was the shift. The vicious fight that ensued should not have surprised me but I had naively assumed we were further on than the comment sections suggested. I thought the misogyny had been tempered. I expected joy at the result but I was weary. It was still there. The religious virtue, the judgment, the disapproval.
It strengthened my resolve to shield my daughter from moral paternalism. Not realising Catholic influence would begin as early as pre-school, I had tried to get ahead before junior infants. I bought picture books on evolution to counter the soft-creationism that awaited her. I inquired about what was involved in opting her out of religious instruction. She will be put down the back while her classmates are tasked with colouring in crucifixions, their bright red crayolas used for depictions of ladybirds and love hearts and wounds torn apart. Scenes of torture.
Still I faltered. I worried about ostracism, ridicule, manipulation. They just want to fit in. Fit in to what though? So I swing back yet again and research the primary school religious curriculum. It starts out soft no doubt. Promoting kindness and care for the poor and the sick. Then I come across a picture depicting a little girl, sitting on her bed looking startled. ‘Mary says yes!’ the text enthuses, yes to God ‘working through her’ by making her pregnant, despite Mary being afraid, confused and not understanding what was going on. Oh my God.
It’s the final piece. This is the merit of religious literacy. Yes it’s important in order to understand the history of humanity but as a woman: it’s important to know your enemy.
For all the decrees of Christian kindness, such favour does not seem to extend to female autonomy. I’m not married. I’m a child of divorce. My own child belongs to no church. If she had been conceived back in the year of my birth only a shotgun wedding would have saved my sweet girl from being considered an illegitimate bastard and saved me from being socially ranked as a Fallen Woman. If we were lucky. Lucky! Good Lord.
Should I waver again, consider offering her up to the purveyors of such social conventions, I will remind myself of those who didn’t have the choice. Those marked by the signs of the faith. The ones who weren’t merely grappling with ideological stances but wrestling the physical and emotional manifestations of an iniquitous culture writ large.
“Ireland is a Catholic country,” many still bay. “If you don’t like it…” Yet none of that sort were extolled in retort, no not in the aftermath of the report. Illegal adoptions, malnutrition, sewerage systems. This is where the hypocrisy becomes painful. And I can’t be a part of it.
Those women. Their babies. Hundreds of little upturned noses and thousands of tiny kissable toes, and I looked to my baby at the kitchen table. Selecting ignorance as my tool of choice I gently probed.
“Oh wonderful, who’s Mary?”
“You know…Mary had a little lamb”.
Little lambs indeed.