Irish Republican Army soldier, teacher, theatre director, librarian writer of over 150 short stories (Guests of the Nation, The Majesty of Law, My Oedipus Complex).
First Confession, first published in the collection Traveller’s Samples, in 1951
Available to read online here
This is the first of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction starts: “Each speaker in the next stories tells about what happened to him in the past. Now he is in a frame of mind that has changed greatly since the time he underwent the experience he describes, a frame of mind that may even be a result of what he has learned from the experience.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Young Jackie tells us about how embarrassed he was when his grandmother came to live with the family, eating her potatoes with her hands, sneaking a jug of porter into the house, and not knowing what she’d say in front of his friends. She used to give his older sister Nora a penny from her weekly pension, but he got nothing – not that he would take it from her anyway. If she cooked dinner for the family he’d refuse to eat it.
It was coming up for the time for Jackie’s first confession and he was dreading it – mainly because of the terrifying tales of Mrs Ryan who prepared the children for their first confession and communion. She told him about people who made a bad confession and who started to burn in hell on the spot. His mother couldn’t accompany him for confession so Nora did instead – and she did everything she could to make him feel bad; his sins were so extraordinarily severe that he’d be lucky to come out of it alive.
When he finally gets inside the confessional box, he’s confused as to where she should sit or stand – and decides to climb up onto a moulding high up in the box, much to the priest’s annoyance. As a result, “I lost my grip, tumbled, and hit the door an unmerciful wallop before I found myself flat on my back in the middle of the aisle.” Nora lands him a clip around the ear in fury at his behaviour – but the priest’s reaction shocks them both.
He tells Nora off for being so cruel, and takes Jackie aside and kindly welcomes him to take his first confession, pretending to be horrified at the awful things Jackie has been keeping inside, but in reality finding it all very funny. The priest is the epitome of kindness – and when Nora finds out he has only been given Three Hail Marys (the same as her) she’s mad. “Some people have all the luck! Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good. I might just as well be a sinner like you.”
It’s a delightful little tale – O’Connor really gets under the skin of this earnest little scamp and plays with his fears only for him to be rewarded with kindness. You know that Jackie will never be scared of going to confession again! There’s clearly a lot of love – critical love maybe, but love all the same – for old Irish traditions of food and drink, family relationships, sibling rivalry and everyone’s relationship with the Church. O’Connor’s writing has a lively lightness of touch that finds the humour in unlikely places and provides the reader – whether they be Irish Catholic or not – a lot to recognise from their own childhood. I really wasn’t expecting the priest to be so kindly and friendly – perhaps that’s a lesson for me not to prejudge the characteristics of people before you’ve met them!
The next story in the anthology is the second of the detached autobiography stories, Warm River by Erskine Caldwell. This is yet another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!