It’s 50 years since the little self-assembly charity box came into our lives at Lent. And with it came a long – or maybe short – list of all the things we were ‘giving up’ for 40 days and nights – except one
LENT always seemed to creep up on you after the unsuccessful New Year’s resolutions, like it was lurking in the shadows … waiting for failure. Back in the 1970s, the period of abstinence was strictly observed, and as I attended a Catholic primary school, there was no getting away from it.
Ash Wednesday wasn’t a day off school, but it was certainly a trip to mass, so my mam packed me off to school that morning in my Sunday best and a stern warning to keep my clothes spotless – or there would be trouble. As I waited in the playground with my friends for the Sisters of Mercy to open the door, we discussed how many pancakes we wolfed down the night before.
As there were a few hours before church, the nuns passed around a worksheet so I could list the items I was going to give up for Lent. It was my written commitment to my suffering by deprivation. It was a reminder of what I must abstain from, or a dose of ingrained guilt and shame would strike.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Sister Carmel made us stand up and, one by one, we read our list out loud to the class. For me, sweets were enough to go on the list, but there were always the self-righteous ones who gave up everything that brought any joy. They oozed smugness as they announced they were not just giving up everything wonderful; they were also going to help their mother more around the house, or they were going to go to mass every evening, or give up TV. The nuns loved all that. Those girls made me look bad with my short list. But there was no way I was giving up Little House on the Prairie, The Adventures of Black Beauty or CHiPs. How much suffering did they want?
Soon enough, it was time to go to mass. As usual, each class formed lines like an army of ants in a convoy. We had to be as quiet as possible as we took our seats in the church and throughout the service, which is really hard when you’re with your mates and all that seriousness makes you want to laugh more.
When the time came to make my way to the altar, the priest used his right thumb to apply the ashes to my forehead while saying: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust, you shall return.’
Once I received the symbolic black cross on Ash Wednesday, that was it with the crisps, sweets, fizzy drinks, cakes and biscuits. Isn’t 40 days and 40 nights a terribly long time for a child?
I spent the rest of the day taking care I didn’t wipe off the ashen mark to prove I had been to church. After all, what was the point of going to all that trouble if I couldn’t show it off?
Once back in the classroom, the Trócaire box appeared. The box was introduced in 1973 when I was at primary school. Everyone got one to assemble and take home to fill with any spare change over the Lent period. We were to return it after Easter. The money raised went to Trócaire, the Catholic development agency that helps some of the world’s poorest people.
Ever since I made my First Communion, my mam gave me two pence every week to spend as I wished. I always bought half-penny sweets like cola bottles, fruit salads and blackjacks every Sunday morning after mass.
As I was abstaining from all sweets during Lent, my pocket money was expected to go in the box for the starving children.
However, the reality was the Trócaire box was more or less ignored until the week before it had to be returned to school. Then there would be panic trying to fill it.
There would be a massive rooting behind the couch to see if there were any rogue half-pennies, or a penny or two. Then there was the begging from my mam and my nan because the competition among my classmates to have the heaviest box was fierce.
Giving up junk food for the first week of Lent wasn’t that difficult. It wasn’t as if we had sweets every day, goodies were rare treats back then. However, by the second week, my willpower faded. The consolation was that St Patrick’s Day was on its way. It was pure Irish genius to put Paddy’s Day in the middle of Lent because there was no way I was going to last until Easter without something yummy. The thought of that break kept me motivated.
The church (or at least me and my mates had convinced ourselves) granted a special dispensation in honour of St Patrick and ordained a pause in the purgatory of Lenten sacrifice; when fasting was the norm.
St Patrick’s Day offered a reprieve: to break that fast, have treats, drink lemonade all day long, suck sweets, chew toffee, munch chocolate and gorge on biscuits to the point of hysterical hyperglycaemia.
But it was over all too soon and the deprivation was back again.
Next, it was full steam ahead until Easter and dreaming of those eggs that had already started to woo us in the shops.