Monday, November 2, 2015

Prayers for the Dead

(Apologies for the formatting problems that continue to dog me whenever I copy and paste a long quotation. I don't have time to sort it out right now. I will later. I wish I knew how to stop this happening.)

It is All Souls' Day, the day when we especially remember our dead. And I have many souls to remember today, especially souls that have passed over in very recent times.

Most importantly, my children, Ruadhan Pádraig and Sadbh Treasa. They both lived all their mortal days in the womb. Ruadhan Padraig would probably have been born on St. Patrick's Day and Sadbh Treasa would probably have been born on my birthday, which is also Saint John Paul's feast day, October 22nd. Ruadhán means 'rowan'. Sadbh means 'sweet' or 'gentle', and  'Treasa' is the Irish name for 'Theresa', as in Saint Therese.

They are both loved and missed every day, and they are the first names in my prayers every morning. I wonder what they would have looked like. I wonder what they would have played like and laughed like, what nursery rhymes they would have wanted to hear again and again, what would subjects have stirred their interest, if they had been born. When I see little children running in the supermarket my heart stops, thinking of them. They are an irreplaceable, ever-fresh loss. They are with God now, forever.

I pray for my mother. She died in 2001, when I was twenty-three. She had been sick for a long time. This is the poem I wrote for her Mass card:

We would dishonour her with ringing phrases
Because her ways were all of gentleness;
The night-black hair, unwhitened by distress,
The patient voice so quick to form our praises;
The pale blues eyes, the softest of all hazes;
The hands that seemed created to caress;
Such virtues as are God’s alone to bless
Nor need the swell that rhetoric upraises.

Death is a tender angel to the tender
And tenderness was all the art she knew.
She wants no polished clauses to commend her
No words to paint her deeds a brighter hue
Where all our brittle human words surrender
And deeper, soften tones pronounce her due.

I felt a bit inauthentic writing that at the time, because I wasn't sure if I really did believe in life after death. Now I'm glad I avoided those scruples.

My mother was very lady-like, very gentle (though very firm when she wanted to be). She was the kind of person that people 'fall for'. She seemed to both see the good and inspire the good in others.  I feel very guilty when I remember her because I wish I'd been nicer to her; I feel that we lost her just when I was going through my sullen years, and that I might have had a better relationship with her even a few years later. I often dream of her.

There is a rowan tree planted to her memory in Ballymun, just outside the school I attended. I stop there to pray every time I pass it.

The two other people whose names on the tree's dedicatory plaque are also, now, deceased. This was my mother's sister Kitty and my mother's brother Michael. 

Kitty was a farmer's wife through and through. She had a hearty laugh and a penchant for embarrassing me. Her straightforwardness could be both comic and touching. I remember once, in her front room we were watching Roots, the TV series about an African-American slave and his descendants. After the central character made a first failed attempt to escape, Kitty declared, quite feelingly, "I hope he does not try to escape again for he will be severely punished." (Yes, she said for.)

I have happy memories of the scones she would make for us in the evening, while we watched television-- at least once, it was while we were watching the Rose of the Tralee, an Irish beauty contest (where there is not a swimsuit to be seen). She had a painting of some pastoral, bucolic scene on the wall to the right of her television, and the memory of it fills me with peace.

It was during one of our visits to her farm, when I was fourteen, that I had a fleeting temporary conversion to Christianity, after attending Mass with her at her local church. It was many years later, at her funeral in (I presume) the same church, that I found myself yearning to actually practice the Christian faith that kept alive so many of the things I was increasingly coming to admire. The priest mentioned, in his funeral homily, that she had been singing in the choir for years, and I felt a kind of shamed wonder that people really did go to Mass every week.

Her brother Michael I knew less well. The only time I can really remember speaking to him was when he visited my mother in hospital. He quoted some lines from 'The Sunlight on the Garden' by Louis Macneice (either there, or in a letter that my father showed me), which impressed me. And how appropriate that poem is to this post! "The sunlight on the gardens hardens and grows cold; we cannot cage the minute within its nets of gold".

I pray for my grandfather Frank, the only grandparent I knew, who was the living embodiment of the word 'patriarch'. He had a mane of unruly white hair, he lived with my aunt, he had a hall full of woodworking tools (and the bits and pieces he made are as sturdy as ever, though he died during the First Gulf War), and I was vaguely aware that he was an intellectual of some kind. (He was a socialist-republican activist, and he was imprisoned at one point.)

He had a droll sense of humour. Once he gave me and my brother about a dozen Star Wars action figures, all of which came within plain white cardboard boxes. Unfortunately, they were the same two characters over and over. On one of the boxes he wrote the words: "Star Warrior". The obverse side of the box had a cartoony picture and the words: "The warrior". One Christmas, I was very excited to find a pen in a local shop with the name 'Francis' on it. I handed it to him, in wrapping, and he said: "I hope this isn't a pen". To be fair, as soon as he saw my face fall, he looked repentant and thanked me very courteously for it.

It's from him, through my father, I inherit my crusader blood. And who knows from who else, before that? I've heard that he was somewhat at odds with the Church, because of its firm rejection of violent republicanism, but I also understood that he never actually turned against the Faith itself. I'm very glad.

I pray for my other grandparents, who I never met. My paternal grandmother died at thirty-six. She said to my father (who was a boy): "Take care of the others. I'll see you in heaven", and closed her eyes. My maternal grandmother died in old age, but still before I was born.

I pray for my mother's stepfather, Conn, in whose house I stayed several times as a kid, and which had a profound effect on me. It was here that I saw the explosion of crows against a grey dawn sky, as mentioned in my notorious Purple Notebooks series of posts. There were holy pictures on the wall of the bedroom where I slept which filled me with a sense of awe before the sacred. (Even though, at first, I thought that the halos were supposed to describe solid globes, like astronaut's helmets.) My step-grandfather himself was, apparently, not at all pious himself. I was sitting alone with him in the kitchen one day (he had an old-fashioned range, which fascinated me) while John Paul II was speaking on television. (He had his TV in his kitchen.) "Lies, lies and more lies", he said, switching if off. Perhaps he was joking. Another time, he frightened me by predicting that, when he was dead, the Devil would cry: "I have you now, Conn!". I hope and trust he was wrong about that.

I pray for my uncle Danny. This is an uncle who disappeared from my family's knowledge for many, many years-- from before I was born-- and then dramatically reappeared, with an English wife in tow. He had been very ill as a boy, and indeed he had not been expected to live. But he did live, and he overcame many trials. He was enthusiastically litigious, as much for the excitement (I think) as for the hope of compensation. He was very blunt. I remember him once asking me point-blank, in a casual shopping centre chat, how much money I was paying on rent. I also remember the Christmas he handed me and my brother gift-wrapped presents and said: "There you go; aftershave and socks."

He was a good man. I remember him sitting by my mother's body at her wake, and saying: "Without religion, none of it means anything". I was an agnostic at the time and I thought: "That doesn't prove anything". Now I realize that, though it proves nothing on its own, it is certainly a major part of the riddle, and a hint towards the answer. When he went into hospital himself, for his final illness, he faced it very bravely; apparently, he said that he was only coming out in a wooden box.

I pray with especial sadness for my cousin Billy, who was not much older than me. He died only last year, of lung cancer. He was very handsome and intelligent. I found him a glamorous figure in my boyhood, and-- to be honest-- ever since. I can remember him, at one child's party (when he was probably in his teens), cracking open a monkey nut, throwing the kernel into the air, and catching it with his mouth. I thought it was the coolest thing I've ever seen. At this funeral service, which he planned himself, there were poems by Longfellow and Shakespeare, as well as the Kink song 'Days', all of which was very classy and impressive. May perpetual light shine upon him.

I pray for my friend Sonya, who died only a few months ago. I wrote this post about her. Outside of family, she is the closest friend I have ever lost. I wrote a poem remembering her, for the library bulletin. But I never submitted it, realizing she was too private a person for that. I am still shocked at her death. May perpetual light shine upon her, too.

I pray for a very old woman, Hassie, behind whom I sat at a dinner party a couple of years ago, and who told me about her life as an art collector (amongst other things). A few months later, when I asked the friend in whose house it had been held, "How is Hassie?", I learned she had passed on. God bless her.

I pray for my wife's grandmother Patricia, beside whose grave I was privileged to stand quite recently, though she had died before I met Michelle. She nurtured my wife's Catholic faith, for which I am very grateful.

I pray for the woman whose funeral we were attending at that time, and who was such a fan of frogs that there was quite a lot of frog imagery on display in the funeral home. I never met her, but I often remember her in my prayers.

I pray for everybody who died in the Great Irish Famine, the Black Death, the First World War, the Second World War, the Irish Troubles, the Jonestown Massacre, the Holocaust, and all the other crimes and catastrophes in human history.

I pray for everybody buried in Glasnevin and Deansgrange cemeteries, the two great Dublin cemeteries-- and especially for those buried in unmarked graves in Glasnevin's 'cholera pit'.

I pray for all the UCD students whose memorial Masses I have attended in my time attending UCD Our Lady Seat of Wisdom church-- far too many.

I pray for the two children my own mother lost in miscarriage-- two siblings of whose existence I only learned very recently.

I prefer for my nephew Cuan, who died as a newborn baby.

I pray for my aunt Carmel, who I barely knew at all, though she died relatively recently. I know she was a good woman, though, and I remember her very sweet and gentle smile.

I pray for all the deceased friends and loved ones of readers of this blog. I am thinking of some particularly, as well as all of them in general.

I pray for all the children around the world lost to miscarriage and abortion.

Finally, I pray for all the suffering souls in Purgatory, with St. Gertrude's prayer, which I often recite: "Eternal Father, I offer you the most precious blood of your divine son Jesus, in union with all the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, for those within my own home and my own family, amen."

Writing this post has filled me with a sense of tenderness and melancholy. I'm put in mind of the almost unbearably poignant last lines of 'The Mower', by Philip Larkin, (an atheist): "We should be careful of each other, we should be kind while there is still time."

Of course, we believe that we can still be kind after somebody has died, by praying for their souls. But that takes nothing away from the force of that line. We should be kind.


  1. What a beautiful post. I have always loved prayers for the Holy Souls and I really like that you remember those poor people who were buried in the cholera pit.

    1. Thanks Michele! I appreciate your comment very much.