Every year, our little city of Galway turns into a devout religious city whether or not you are part of it.
The Solemn Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help started over 30 years ago. It runs for nine days in early February. Mass is celebrated six times each day—which meant, growing up, I had no excuse not to go.
The mass we ‘chose’ to attend was the 4.30pm. Being such a big family, we all attended different times through the week, but Saturday and Sunday, we went as one big group. For the remaining days we were assigned our Novena times, ours being the 4.30pm.
Mucker and I went together, as we were the only children still in primary school, meaning, unlike our older siblings, we finished school at 2.40pm. Our older siblings went during their lunch breaks – apparently!?
Each day, we’d be given instructions by our ever-trusting father, ‘No messing, no blaggarding, put the money in the collection box, hold hands crossing the road, and in the honour of Jayziz, can’t ye l’histen to C – within reason’, he’d add after he thought about C for a moment.
C was our neighbour. Looking back, I can tell you now, that C was eccentric, but as kids we thought she was mighty craic.
We enjoyed going to the Novena because of C and her stories. She’d walk like there was a fire chasing her, telling us about everything from how the Cathedral was once a prison to how JFK visited Galway. She had apparently been there in Kennedy Square when JFK gave his speech. I loved history and enjoyed her tales of long ago.
Mucker, on the other hand, much preferred her stories about the ‘naughty’ neighbourhood kids and their parents, who may or may not have been spying on us all.
She’d give us 20p to spend in the stalls after the Novena, if we were quiet. We got the 20 pence more often than not.
When we misbehaved she’d spend the walk home educating us on Purgatory. She scared the crap out of us, so misbehaving wasn’t really an issue when she took us the following years to the Novena.
C never really spoke to us. She tended to shout but I believe that was due to her speed walking.
C had one great trait, above all else, she was generous. We would get back from the Novena just before 6pm, run into our house, let Dad know we were back but we were invited into hers for a snack, which our father never questioned.’Off ye go so and ah, don’t be annoying C. 10 minutes, don’t make me come get ye,’ he’d threaten as we ran out the front door.
One particular day, we had spotted Mammy at the Novena. We both looked at each other, knowing if mam spotted us she’d make us walk with her, we’d get no 20p, no funny story and certainly no treat back at C’s house.
We tried to keep C from eyeballing around the Cathedral, which was pointless as C’s favourite past time was ‘people watching’ known locally as ‘curtain twitching’ or ‘eyeballing’.
‘What is so special in C’s house?’ our mother asked us later that evening. ‘Milkshakes,’ we both rubbed our tummies.
This was Ireland in the late 1980’s, early 90’s. Milkshakes were very much the ‘holy grail’ of sweet drinks.
‘Milkshakes!’ Mammy scoffed. ‘Willie did you know this?’ she looked at my father.
‘Ahh, no, no Philo I didn’t,’ he stammered as he has always done. ‘Ahh to be honest with ya now Philo, I was, amm, I, I was happy they were happy to go to mass there with C and didn’t see the, am,am, ha, harm.’ he answered like a guilty man. ‘I, I shou…should have guessed…shite food,’ he rolled his eyes.
‘Jesus, Willie! You should have asked the first time they went off to her house. Milkshakes, why the hell would she have milkshakes?’ Mammy glared at him.
Mucker and I had no idea why Mammy appeared to be annoyed or who exactly she was annoyed with. Dad, C or us?
‘Are we not allowed milkshakes?’ I finally asked. ‘Oh, no, no it’s not that, it’s just that, I’m not sure they are real milkshakes she is giving you. Go and watch TV and I’ll talk to Daddy, good guys,’ she patted our heads. ‘They are real,’ Mucker pipped up.’ ‘Yes, okay, off you go,’ she guided us off into the sitting room.
I knew there and then that I’d never have another C milkshake – ever again.
The following day, we came back from school to find C and Dad having a cup of tea in our kitchen. ‘Ah here they are now. Okay kids, C is bringing you to the last day of the Novena then straight home. Okay!’ We both nodded, asked no questions and got ready to leave.
We knew C would answer our questions, she always did, even if we didn’t understand her, she would just talk and talk.
‘Why can’t we have anymore milkshakes?’ we asked as soon as we left for the Cathedral. ‘Oh, yes. Oh yes. Well, now, Willie and Phil don’t agree with diets. They think if I am on one I should not be giving it to children. But, I didn’t force ye.’
We threw each other confused looks, which she caught, ‘Don’t be doing that, if the wind changes your face will stay like that. Honest to God,’ she tutted.
We were shocked and left thinking about how the wind could change our faces.
‘Ye bloody idiots,’ our older brother, Action Jackson laughed as he opened the door for us. ‘Milkshakes! From C!’
‘Shut up, they were lovely,’ I defended – ourselves and C’s milkshakes, which I longed for.
‘Will ya shtop. Will ya,’ our father interrupted him with a clip around the ear. ‘Ah come on Dad, it’s funny,’ Action rubbed his ear.
Apparently C had been on a diet for many many weeks. She had told anyone, (including our father) who would listen. The problem with that was Dad was great at nodding and not listening, especially when C went off on a tangent, which she did so regularly that she would even lose the run of herself. Mammy found out and Dad got in more ‘trouble’ for not listening when he should have been.
C had joined the newest diet fad called ‘Slimfast’ which was made up of, you guessed it milkshakes, a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch and a shake for dinner, you may remember the advertisement. If you’ve no idea what I am on about, I now envy your youth!
So at the tender ages of 10 and 8, Mucker and I, unknowingly had our first diet and boy, were we addicted. It later emerged that particular batch had some sort of issues and had to be taken off the market. Rumour had it, according to reports from our older and ‘wiser’ siblings, that they had worms in it that ate the fat off the body!
I have had a fear of worms ever since— and I don’t drink milkshakes.