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My memories of May during another era...

By Frances Burscough

If you were brought up a Catholic, you will remember this: “May is the Month of Mary, month we all love so well...” It’s a hymn I must have sung hundreds of times over the years.

At least once a day, every day, in May during my school years, at every Sunday mass in that month throughout my life, and at every religious ceremony I attended, too.

As all Catholics know, there are more ceremonies in May than any other time of the year. For example, back in the day, there was always a May Procession on or around the first Sunday in May, during which a statue of Our Lady was carried a certain distance, headed by members of the clergy, while the congregation followed behind carrying seasonal flowers, which were then laid at the foot of the statue when it reaches its destination, all the while being serenaded with the above hymn.

In my school, which was a proper cloistered convent complete with nuns in full habit (think Sound of Music), its own ornate chapel and an actual replica Lourdes grotto within the grounds, the May Procession had all the pomp and ceremony of a royal wedding.

Mass, celebrated by every available priest from the parish (often led by the bishop himself), was followed by a procession that carried the statue from the chapel to the grotto, flanked by a heavenly host of the local Catholic hierarchy in full regalia.

Our nuns were from the FCJ (Faithful Companions of Jesus) order and wore black floor-length gowns with matching veils (not unlike an Islamic hijab, interestingly) with a wimple and white rim. When advancing en masse from a distance, they must have looked like a scene from The March of the Penguins.

Behind them were us girls, all 200-plus of us, bedecked in white as though we were brides at a wedding, with little white gloves and veils, all carrying flowers we’d picked from our gardens at home, held together with tin foil wrapped around the stems. But the piece de resistance was the sight of the ‘strewers’ — a selection of hand-picked girls whom the nuns all loved (swots, basically)  and who walked on ahead of the throng, throwing (‘strewing’) flower petals from baskets onto the ground to line the way for the blessed statue.

Such memories! When I try to describe events like that — all of which seemed so normal at the time — to my ultra-cynical 21st century sons (both sworn atheists to boot), they look at me as though I’m mad, or simply making the whole thing up.

So I have great pleasure in reminding them both that they were once involved in similar proceedings themselves when they made their First Holy Communion.

In fact, Finn was so serious about his ceremony that it gave rise to one of the funniest moments in his childhood, which I’ll share with you all just out of badness.    

It was the first week in May circa 2002. Finn was preparing for his First Communion and getting nervous about the formalities of the event, which was to include a procession through the church and the recital of a prayer at the lectern.

The night before the ceremony, my mum and dad arrived from England, and as I helped them unpack we started to discuss our outfits.

“I’m wearing that black dress from Per Una and a pair of strappy sandals, what are you wearing, mum?” I asked casually.

“Oh, I’ve just brought my camel suit,” she replied, lifting the outfit from her suitcase and hanging it carefully in the wardrobe.   

As I left their room, I bumped into Finn, who had been listening at the door and was looking extremely agitated.

“Mummy, I really don’t mind if grandma doesn’t come to church with us tomorrow, you know,” he blurted out after much coaxing.

“But, son, whatever makes you say that?” I asked. “After they flew all the way from Manchester especially just to be there?”

“Well, grandma must think that its fancy dress and it’s not,” he replied. “I’m going to be really embarrassed when she walks into church wearing a camel outfit !!”

This week I'll ...

Mostly be looking forward to seeing the completely brilliant singer-songwriter duo Hat Fitz and Cara, who have returned to these shores on another eagerly anticipated European tour from their base in Australia. Cara Robinson is originally from Bangor, while her husband, Fitz, is a proper non-nonsense Aussie bushman. Their unusual, if not completely unique style of retro blues, features every imaginable percussion instrument — including the washboard! This is an act that has to be seen to be believed, and you’re sure to instantly love them. They’re playing at the Black Box on Friday, May 19. Tickets and information are available from blackboxbelfast.com.

Sex scandals clearly 'de rigueur' in France

I’ve been immersed in French politics past and present recently. Mais pourquoi? I hear you ask. Well, for a start I’ve been watching the magnifique historical drama Versailles, a sumptuous, no-expense spared retelling of the decadent, debauched reign of ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV. 

It really is a spectacle to behold, as one can imagine, leaving very little to the imagination in terms of the louche and licentious lives of the French aristocracy.

I’ve also been riveted by another Gallic drama, Spin, also known as Les Hommes de l’Ombres. It’s a present-day saga about a President of France plagued by assorted scandals, most of which are, naturellement, sexual in origin.

And then, of course, we have real life in the form of the French presidential election. You might think that this would be rather less dramatic than the TV dramas, but not so! It transpires that the new — youngest ever, at 39 — Monsieur Le President, Emmanuel Macron, is married to a woman who is 64. They, ahem, ‘met’ when he was at school, age 15, and she was his (married) teacher. He now has a step-son two years older than him and seven step-grandchildren. Sacre bleu!

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