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'I wanted curls and spent the night tossing and turning as the spiky rollers stung my head'

In her latest novel, Sinead Moriarty tells the story of a young girl preparing for her First Holy Communion against the backdrop of a family tragedy. Here, the best-selling author remembers longing for a maxi dress and Shirley Temple hairstyle for her own 'big day'

Childhood memory: author Sinead Moriarty
Childhood memory: author Sinead Moriarty

By Sinead Moriarty

My two first memories are Elvis dying and the day I made my First Holy Communion. I remember Elvis dying because the newsreader kept saying: "The king is dead." I didn't know a singer could be a king. I remember my communion day because, let's just say, it didn't go according to plan.

Even back then, it was all about the dress. The maxi was in. My friends were all getting floor sweeping dresses with big frills at the bottom. I knew exactly which type of maxi dress I wanted to wear sashaying into the church.

When I asked my mother when we were going communion dress shopping, she looked at me as if I was simple. "Why would we need to go shopping? You'll be wearing your sister's beautiful dress."

My heart sank. I didn't want to wear my sister's dress. It was short. I wanted a maxi. In the three years since she had made her communion, fashion had moved on. Short was out, long was in.

I knew money was tight and that buying a new dress was pushing things, but I had hoped that there might be a magic pot of money somewhere.

Selfish six-year-olds don't think about stressed out parents trying to pay mortgages and bills. But I was wise enough to know by the look on my mother's face, that this was not an argument I was going to win. I was going to wear my sister's dress and that was that.

I grumpily went upstairs and tried it on. It just didn't work. She was taller with much longer legs. I was short and kind of dumpy. I pulled it and tugged it, but it made no difference. The dress wasn't going to change, so my attitude had to. "Right," I thought, "if I can't have the dress I want, at least I'll have my hair all curly and bouncy."

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I was desperate to have curly hair. This was a few years before the Kevin Keegan perm became de rigueur and every teenage girl in Ireland ended up paying good money to look like Kevin's demented sister. It never worked, not even on gorgeous-looking girls. The Kevin Keegan perm wasn't a friend to anyone.

But, even pre the Kevin perm, curls were in. I watched every movie Shirley Temple starred in. I adored her. I wanted serious curls for my big day. But, with mousy brown, limp hair, curls were not that easy to come by.

These were the days when no communion child ever stepped foot inside a hairdresser. It was going to be a DIY job. This was also long before soft, pliable curlers were invented. My patient mother washed my hair, towel dried it and then rolled sections of it into hard rollers. Next, she put me under a hairdryer that was like a space machine.

Sinead (front row, centre) on the day of her First Holy Communion
Sinead (front row, centre) on the day of her First Holy Communion

You put on a big shower-cap like hat - and then a tube was attached to the side of it to blow hot air in. The only problem was, the big tube scalded one side of your head and didn't really dry the other side at all.

After examining the results, one side of my head was marginally curly, the other side was as a limp as a wet rag.

It was decided that I'd better sleep in the rollers. A full night in tightly wound, rolled-up hair would definitely achieve some kind of bounce.

Have you ever tried sleeping in rock-hard rollers? It's impossible. I was six and spent the night tossing and turning as the spiky rollers stung my head, and the big clips that kept the rollers in place tried to impale themselves into my skull. But I was determined to have curls. I didn't have the dress I wanted, so I was damn sure I was going to have the hair I wanted. I sucked it up and spent most of the night trying not to cry out from the pain.

The big day finally arrived. I jumped out of bed and rushed to take out the rollers, convinced that my hair would be a revelation.

My scalp breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled the clips and rollers out. It was a revelation alright... my hair was a frizzy ball, with clumps going in all kinds of different directions. I looked like I'd been electrocuted.

After a fair amount of squealing and caterwauling by me, it was decided that a hairband and a veil were the only way to hide the frizz. It was a disaster - I now had the wrong dress and the wrong hair.

A new girl in my class, who lived down the road, was also feeling "put upon" because she had to (shock, horror!) borrow her neighbour's communion dress. Her parents were French and very practical. They were having no truck with wasting money on a dress their daughter would wear for about three hours.

She became my kindred spirit. We were both hard-done-by in our short dresses. When we arrived at the church I saw my classmate climbing out of the car. I waved to her as she closed the car door. Then I heard her gasp and a loud "Oh la la" from her mother.

Sinead Moriarty
Sinead Moriarty

She had closed the door on her dress - the middle of the dress was covered in oil.

Tissues were passed around, handkerchiefs pulled out of pockets. Spit was applied, but the stain just got worse.

Into the church we walked. Side by side. All around us, maxi dresses swished along the tiled church floor. We were united in our short dresses, hair fiasco and oil stain. And that friendship, strengthened in solidarity on that fateful day, has lasted a lifetime. I often wonder if that moment was when our bond was sealed.

Fast forward a few decades and I took my youngest, and only girl, to find a communion dress. She wanted a maxi - who was I to argue?

Seeing the whole communion palaver as a parent was very illuminating. Obviously, things have moved on since the 1970s and, let's be honest, gone a little over the top.

We first tried on communion dresses in Dunnes Stores and then went to a posh and completely overpriced shop in the city centre. In Dunnes, the dressing room was big, airy and warm. The assistant couldn't have been more helpful. While in the fancy shop, the experience was… let's just say, less positive.

As we entered the shop, the manager looked me up and down and gave me an icy smile before going back to her phone. Perhaps my lack of designer handbag was the problem. "Is there something I can help you with?" she asked, barely looking up from the phone. I was tempted to say, "yes, we're looking for deep sea diving equipment", but refrained. Instead I said: "Well, yes we're looking for a communion dress."

She produced a dress she claimed would be "perfect" for my daughter. I pulled the price tag out and tried not to gasp.

"That's not in my price range," I said.

"Well what is?" she snapped.

"A lot less than that," I replied.

She grumpily went off and came back with two dresses that would not require me to re-mortgage my house. We were shown into a tiny dressing room. It was freezing. My daughter shivered not wanting to take her coat off.

'"Any chance you could put the heating on?" I asked. At these prices the sale of one dress would have covered the heating bill for a couple of months.

"It is on," she barked. She was clearly part-Inuit.

My daughter bravely got undressed and tried on the dresses - neither were nice on her.

"What school is your daughter in?" the lady asked me. I didn't understand why she needed to know.

"I have to ask because we have to make sure no two girls in the same school buy the same dress."

"Why not?" I asked. "They all kind of look the same anyway."

She looked horrified. "Well it just wouldn't do. It would be mortifying for the girls. Our customers want their daughters to look unique."

I stuck my head back into the Arctic tin-can of a changing room and told my daughter we were leaving.

We hurried out of the shop to go and get her a hot drink so that she could feel her extremities again.

All children are unique and they don't need a dress to prove it. And if you do end up in the 'wrong' dress, you just might make a lifelong friend out of it.

Sinead Moriarty's latest novel Seven Letters is out now, published by Penguin Ireland, £12.99

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