My visit to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dundalk, Ireland, was frightening. I’d been there before, to show visitors around, once or twice when the kids and I were about just before noon. We’d tiptoe inside, go and stand at the bottom of the belltower and listen to the awesome duff! duff! accompanying every peal when the bells sang their tune and rang the midday hour. There’s something about knowing the small room you stand in is not small by any stretch of the imagination – if you count the space above the ceiling – and hearing the strikes against the bells far above your head.
Today my purpose was different. No foreign accent and discreet camera clicks would announce my goal of admiring the beauty of the building. No hushed children’s whispers would leave a door open that we’d come to pray, disguising our true aim of enjoying the thrill of the bell tower. Today I was, in a way, abusing the church. It wasn’t built for people like me, or for my purpose. In fact, a few hundred years ago the organisation it represents actively hunted down and killed my kind. A good few long-dead faithful no doubt did some revolutions in their graves as I stepped over the threshhold.
I’m not only not Catholic, I’m not Christian. Or Muslim. Or Buddhist, Sihk, Jain, Hindu, nor a follower of Quetzlcoatl. I don’t believe any gods exist. I couldn’t help but feel I walked into the church with a huge sign over my head, in neon lights, that proclaimed my disbelief. A kind of anti-halo. Even if whoever waited inside missed this, me walking in and getting busy with a hook and wool would be a rather large clue that I didn’t belong here.
Catholicism wasn’t big at all in the Afrikaner community where I grew up, and was in fact considered evil by many of the Dutch Reformed Church faithful in the suburbs where I spent my childhood. I therefore came to Ireland with little clue of what this religion was all about beyond lessons learned from television and films. I knew priests weren’t allowed to marry, and that this was a crime against humanity, because all the priests I saw on screen were to-die-for-handsome. I’ve since seen two or three priests in the flesh, and none of them were movie star material.
The first one I ever laid eyes on was also not, I hope, the face of Catholicism’s recruitment posters. I was walking along St Alphonsus Road with the kids, and saw no harm in letting the boys walk on top of the low wall separating the parking lot in front of the church from the pavement. I mean, it’s some twenty metres away from the front of the church. This naive thought was brought to an end by my first priest sighting: a very angry old man in black, waving his arms and shouting. Because I have a deep-seated horror of stepping on other people’s toes when I don’t intend to, the incident left me shaken. I know, I’m a bit of an idtiot, but there’s little I can do about it at my advanced age.
The second priest I had the pleasure of meeting did his part to dispel my notion that they are angry old men who consider boundary walls sacred. He was a gentle soul who’d been ordained over fifty years. While it was a trial for me to sit beside him at a wedding reception, not knowing how to start a conversation that wouldn’t possibly give offence, he was the man who started me thinking that perhaps the majority of priests in small parishes all over the world were good people, who served the church as an avenue to live out a philantropic spirit.
Yet it was the memory of the angry, shouting priest which floated in my mind as I stepped into the foyer of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
I was spoiled for choice when deciding where I’d go to crochet my first granny square. There’s the Presbyterian church, where an old grave tells us about a minister who died tending to those in his care. Across the street from it is the weird old Methodist church, squashed between other buildings terrace-style. Clanbrassil Street becomes Church Street when it meets Church of Ireland’s St Nicholas’ – known locally as the Green Church, after the colour of its roof – before splitting into Bridge and Linenhall around the cunningly named Catholic Church of St Nicholas no more than a hundred metres away, as if the street is the Red Sea, the building Moses. Why they had to give two churches so close to each other the same name, beats me. Possibly to trick devotees of the one into accidentally becoming devotees of the other.
Twenty minutes or so’s walk from there, St Joseph’s Redemptorist Church plays songs with its bells as major Catholic holidays approach, loud enough for most of Dundalk to hear. It’s lovely to listen to, except, I’m sure, if you live in the estate right beside it.
They’re all beautiful, but St Patrick’s Cathedral is the most impressive. It was built in the middle of the nineteenth century, huge grey stones manhandled into position over a period of 12 years. When it was completed in 1847, the church was grand and imposing, but not, apparently, imposing enough. A belltower was added, its construction made possible by the generous donation of Julia Hammil, in memory of her late husband, John. Or not.
People believed at the time – some probably still do – that when a person died, their soul went into a kind of waiting room. From here, relatives, loved ones and strangers could push them closer and closer to heaven’s gates through prayer. Gravestones and memorials everywhere ask you to ‘pray for the soul of’ someone who died. In the case of John and Julia, the request for prayer is spelled out across the massive belltower attached to the church.
I have to wonder how much of the motivation for her donation to the church lay with philantrophy, and how much with a desire to skip the queue in purgatory. Most likely, it was a mixture of both. Who can blame anyone for soliciting prayer long after their deaths if they had the means to do so? And if you spend money on something beautiful which lifts the hearts of many in your time and beyond, surely you’re entitled to asking for the reward of prayer for your soul.
Above the door where countless feet have scuffed the granite steps is a huge stained glass window. The stone-carved heads of two old, bearded men could have frozen in the act of pusing through the building blocks on either side. They look distressed, with open mouths. Rain and snow over the years have for some reason washed a streak of black down the wall from their bearded chins. I stared at their hollow eyes that cold December morning, standing at the bottom of the wide flight of steps leading to the entrance.
My plan was to take a seat in my beloved bell tower, then quietly – and very, very quickly – crocheting a granny square before making my escape. I pushed open one of the light-coloured wooden double doors, and crossed into the echoing silence of the church. There it was: my intended destination, mere steps away. Right behind that locked, barred gate.
What was I going to do now? I strolled around the entry doors, eyes belying my calm tread with their frantic darting to and fro to find a suitable spot to sit. Somewhere I wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Like water soaking into clay, thoughts of my goal slipped from my mind.
The interior of St Patrick’s Cathedral is a visual feast of carved granite, marble, and mosaic tiles laid out, no doubt painstakingly, to depict biblical scenes. Walls above this are painted a deep rose colour, before arched ribs in a pure white ceiling curve up, up above it to the apex of the roof. A smaller replica of this much grander design is echoed in the foyer.
And there, on the much lower yet still impressive white ceiling, I saw cobwebs. I saw dust on the fibreglass statues reminding us of what the Bible teaches, a touch of shabbiness to the rack of electric candles you can switch on with a coin. The more I rested my gaze on one after another corner of the entrance to this old church, the more sad I felt. It was like looking at an old matriarch who once ruled her family with an iron fist, now dressed to the nines in outdated fashion, alone at a long table where once her children joined her for formal meals eaten in fearful silence. You know she did them no good, that her iron fist crushed many spirits and her insistence on decorum, on appearances over love, left many who adored her stunted. Yet you cannot help but feel saddened at the fading of her beauty.
My desire to furtively crochet a granny square in this place melted. My intention was to make clear in the written description of my experience that the act was carried out with no disrespect. That I chose this spot precisely because I thought it was intrinsic to the fabric of the town, the country that allowed me to call it home. Now I wasn’t so sure it would be possible to convey this thought.
I cast my glance over the rows of pews facing the ornate stage under the stained glass window. The thought settled unwelcome in my brain: this would be the ideal place to do my deed. There, in the pews, sitting quietly, not disturbing anyone. Reluctant now, I tiptoed to a seat on the right hand side, at the back, beside a carved grey pillar. There was only one other person in the church, a woman, and she sat much farther to the front. Little wooden houses big enough for only two, seated, lined the wall. Were there priests waiting in the confession boxes? Would one of them burst from behind the thick velvet curtain if he spotted me, waving angry arms and shouting? Probably not. It would be a firm but quiet approach, a hand clamped around my arm, seething fury more powerful perhaps for its silence.
God, I was nervous.
The paper bag containing the red wool I would use crinkled loud enough to shake dust from the rafters. I made a sliding knot, slipped the hook through, and made six chain stitches. Put the hook through the first to make a circle. Three more chain stitches, then…
The door behind me made a thack! sound, and I thanked God – not without a later wry grin – that I’d gone to the toilet before I came here, or there’d have been a large wet spot on the seat. A man hurried inside, carrying an air of urgency with him. He sat down to my left, not far enough ahead for me to stare unnoticed, but far enough for me to watch him from the corner of my eye. His body was like a strung bow, bent forward, exuding a sense of tension. I felt even more like an intruder as he sat there, deep in some private conversation with God which I couldn’t hear even if he’d screamed it. My heart sat in my throat, but somehow managed to still hammer against my ribs from its perch, loud enough to drown out all other sound. What brought this man here? What troubled him? I’ll never know.
What I did know, what I was starting to understand, was why he was here. I’d often wondered about the majesty of this huge building, the opulence of the details inside, the wealth of intricately carved confessionals and painstakingly placed mosaic tiles. How was this right, in the centre of a town wracked with poverty at the time it was built? How was it good, to lavish these riches on God’s dwelling places, hundreds of them, in a country where millions starved to death in the nineteenth century? St Patrick’s Cathedral’s twelve-year construction encompassed the years of the worst famine in Irish history. Where’s the sense in pouring the equivalent of almost three million American Dollars into a building, however beautiful, while not far away, stick-thin people, too weak to move, lay dying?
As I watched my temporary neighbour share his troubles with God, a new thought came into my mind. This church is not for God. It never was. It’s for people like this man, like his grandfather, and his grandfather’s grandfather. It’s a place of more beauty than even rich people had in their houses, where butchers, bakers, shopkeepers, street sweepers, peasants with dirt under their fingernails were all welcome. It was a place of rest, a place of peace, a place where people could sit still and just relax. Where no chores pressed, where it was your duty to just let your mind wander.
My own mind wandered a bit too far. I managed to mess up the stitches, the granny square wasn’t shaping the way it should. The anguished man left, and though I felt the peacefulness which I suspected many came here for, my nerves were now shot. I packed my stuff away and left.
Back home, I pulled out the faulty stitches until the fledgling granny square was at a point where I could rescue it. There was no way I’d finish it at home, that would be against the rules I’d laid down for myself. The only thing for it would be to go back.
Snow lay heavily on the ground when finally I found some time to return to St Patrick’s Cathedral. This time I felt no fear as I stepped inside. I felt warmer to the church. A suspicion was growing in my mind that perhaps, at grassroots level, the church was good. Here, far below the cut-off world of the pope, bishops and others who put intellectual discourse about the sanctity of sperm above the wellbeing of people living in unspeakable poverty, there were perhaps a majority of people who worked in service of what is right, not what is doctrine.
There were quite a few people in the church this time, dotted here and there in the pews. I thought it was perhaps because Christmas was not far away. People maybe came around to dwell in this peaceful place to escape the frantic rush outside. I settled among them, pulled out my crinkly paper packet and started hooking wool, pulling through, forming stitches, shaping the square. Two rounds, three rounds were done. I cut the thread just as a doorbell-like ring sounded from the back. To let people know the confessional was now manned? I was tying off the wool when a voice sounded over the PA system.
“When Zacharia wanted to name the child John, he had to write it in the dirt, as he could not speak. Sometimes, God uses adversity to strengthen and renew our faith: sickness, injury, bereavement. Let us be silent in remembrance of those who died.”
I packed my granny square, hook and wool away. Doing my best not to disturb the silence, I got up, shifted out of the narrow pew and slipped to the back. I pushed the wooden door open, stepped through. I caught it as it closed so it wouldn’t bang.