Writing by Ali Gavin. Illustration by Sarah Dobbs.
There is a point at which words turn to muscle memory. A point at which the tongue, long acquainted with the shapes, curls itself into speech on autopilot. The mind can have travelled across bodies of water, over borders, even beyond the exosphere, and still the mouth will make itself heard. Do you believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty? Your mouth mutters that you do.
Do you remember primary school? Aw, would ye look! Aren’t ye only gorgeous standing there in your little pinafore and your little tie, pure beaming in front of Scoil Mhuire na nAingeal. School of Mary of the Angels! And, sure, what were ye only little angels back then! Butter wouldn’t melt.
That’s where you learned to write, like. They taught ye Irish from that first day, and you’ll never forget your ‘go raibh maith agat’ now, will you? Soon enough, you could recite the Our Father and the Hail Mary in English and in Irish. How’s that for bilingualism!
And then there was the First Confession. Your first “forgive me, Father, for I have sinned” - what a thrill. What was it you confessed to? Ah yeah, you fought with your brother, you shouted at your sister. The sins of an eight-year-old. But you confessed, and your heart was made pure. You dropped a stone into a basin of water. “That’s your heart, child,” the kind-faced priest assured you. “It’s clean now.”
If you’re being honest, you found the confession booth lonely and eerie at that age. Before you went in, you would repeat the words over and over beneath your breath: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been a year since my last confession.” Just to make sure you had it right. You couldn’t be embarrassing yourself in front of the parish priest. You were ashamed to admit it, but the moment in which you were instructed to say ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers for your sins, and then allowed to step out of the dim little box, brought upon you a sense of relief. You knew it was silly, but something about seeing the darkened face of the priest through the gap in the wooden panel unsettled you.
Who could forget your First Holy Communion? You in your little white dress, the satin bag with the prayer book and the rosary beads, your hair in ringlets. Such dotes, the lot of ye. The body of Christ was oddly dry, and stuck to your throat. And then, your Confirmation. You’d grown up so much by then. Someone in school told you that if you crossed your legs while taking the pledge it didn’t count.
How was it that those seeds of isolation began to plant themselves within you? After all, you hardly sat alone there on that solid wooden pew in Ss. Peter & Paul’s murky church. Yours were not the only pair of gleaming school shoes (specially polished for the occasion) resting on the worn kneeler. It wasn’t just to you that the Angelus bells sang out the same tattoo day in and day out, piercing the smoke of the roads you knew so well. How could you feel alone? God is with you, always. Omnipotent, omnipresent. Gloria in excelsis Deo. You sat in mass and heard of the gospels. You sat in the classroom and heard of the good samaritan. You were a child of God, surrounded by children of God.
The process of realisation is sickening. You feel queasy as you shatter your own earth. You are surrounded by children of God, but you are not a child of God. You are fifteen and, when you stand for the creed inside the walls of the church that have burned themselves into your subconscious each Sunday since time began for you, you only pretend to utter those words that know your mouth so well. They can’t call you a liar that way. You sit in a secondary school named after the order of nuns by which it was founded. You mustn't dye your hair, you mustn't wear makeup, your pinafore mustn't fall above your knee - have some respect! No mirrors adorn the bathroom walls lest you fall victim to the worst beast a girl can fall victim to - vanity. Cruci dum spiro fido. But do you?
You have known this priest for as long as you can remember. Now, he stands upon that raised stone altar, he wants to speak candidly to his parishioners. There is an upcoming referendum, and he wants them to remember that God’s love is unconditional. He also wants them to remember that God has one definition of marriage. Think of that sacred union between a man and a woman when standing in the voting booth. You seethe alone.
Growing pains are a solitary sort of soreness. You must justify your realisations to those who ask, and the loneliness is caustic. Are the buried babies not enough? Does the abuse not suffice? Why should you be the odd one out here? Alone in your bedroom, as you wonder how you will tell those who had you christened, your throat is closed. It has dawned on you that this place, this country, is a shrine to Rome, and you question whether you can escape while still within its borders. You aren’t so sure.
But you notice, then, the country lurching around you. Things shake within their foundations. You aren’t, it seems, the only one with questions. Now you observe those around you, as they begin to mould the systems. The monopoly of that institution crumbles from the bottom, and it is warmth unlike any other. Solitary stinging melts into solidarity as your growing pains finish stretching your limbs. You are not a child any longer, and you can outlive muscle memory. And would ye look at it all now.