Irish Catholic Boy

Irish Catholic Boy

“Uncle Bertie’s a Protestant!”

That’s what we were told!

That’s what we believed!

Things got exciting when Uncle Bertie came to visit.  You see, being the country cousins from Cork, we’d never even seen a Protestant before! Uncle Bertie was Daddy’s third brother who’d often visit from Dublin. They were all fairly well behaved in that family, it seemed, except of course, for Uncle Bertie. I mean, he smoked a pipe and would often drink pints of Guinness and rarely, if ever, went to mass on Sundays!

We always loved his visits!

There was nothing wrong with smoking or even drinking but somehow it was the way he did it that got to us! To innocent Irish Catholic children in the mid-sixties, the story fitted well! Catholics would surely never both drink and smoke!

But just like all forbidden fruits Uncle Bertie had a certain irresistible charm! His voice was hoarse and husky from the pipe. His hair was a wild raging red and his face was cracked, which to us made him look old and very interesting!

He’d slowly bend and lean in towards us, drawing his smoky pipe down from his lips with one hand, whilst resting the other on our little innocent shoulders. With a wink of an eye, he’d openly admit to being a Protestant. Grinning from ear to ear, his deep blue eyes would dance and sparkle with delight. At some level he was actually enjoying his terrible shame!  As he straightened up again, he’d return the pipe to his waiting mouth and a broad smile would break out across his craggy face, unhiding his smoky stained teeth!

Yuck! He was wonderfully exciting and seriously scary, all in the one breath!

We loved his visits and of course he’d only encourage us more every time we looked! I think he very much enjoyed being a Protestant! And of course, Daddy had to write a song, as was customary, to celebrate great moments in family life.

It went like this!

The Ecumenical Council met in Rome the other day

They listened to the Protestants and what they had to say

When in came Uncle Bertie and the Bishops looked around

To see this famous Protestant upon the Holy Ground

We’d all join in for the chorus of course, standing in a big circle surrounding the Great Protestant. With arms stretching up and away beyond our smiling heads, we’d sing out loud, at the ‘top of our little voices’. Then bending in half, we’d drop our wavering hands, all the way to the ground and bow before his feet. We sang and we sang and we laughed out loud as we swayed back and forth, in great praise and in great awe!

We sang “Uncle Bertie’s a Protestant” at the ‘top of our little voices’, over and over again!

I was ten years old before I ever even saw a Protestant or a black man.

That was how it was in Ireland back then. We piled all Protestants and black men into the same unholy basket!  If it hadn’t been for the brazen Uncle Bertie, God knows how we’d have finally broken the membrane of an overzealous, newly emerging Irish culture. In school, we used to give a penny every Monday to the “black babies”, who were starving and always a long way away!

Times were different then!

Our ever-romantic Granny, whilst reminding us how lucky we were to have been born Irish Catholic Boys, would boast “You know of course, my dear, I don’t mind coloured people, we’re all the same in God’s eyes”. That was big of her!

“A man is limited by the times he lives in”, Daddy used to often say.

What he meant to say I believe was that  ‘The process of changing and evolving, although natural, may well be as difficult as avoiding ‘stickiness’ whilst living in a pot of jam!

But I’d still like to think that each generation, in the modern world, would do its part and open up just a little more than those gone before them. In some ways, modern technology and especially the Internet, whether we like it or not, is stirring us all up in one great big melting pot and like the song says “Turn [ing] out coffee-coloured people by the score!”

If only that would stop the famine and the fighting then maybe it’d be worth it!

I’d like to think we could keep our wonderfully colourful, cultural differences and celebrate them together in dance but if the cost of difference is the horror of war then I’ll gladly surrender to the great big melting pot. My greatest dream, naive as it may seem, is that we might all live in this diverse infinity of our differing worlds, openly and proudly celebrating that which sets us apart, that which makes us interesting and exciting, without the need for rage and war!

That would be a nice dream!

Maybe this common enemy COVID19 will take us all a step closer to that dream, assuming, of course, it doesn’t kill us first!

Here’s a short song my brother Dezy wrote after many years ‘a growing’ in an Irish Catholic family … ‘back then’!

Irish Catholic Boy

Be proud be proud my granny said

Be proud celebrate in joy

Isn’t it great that you’ve been born an Irish Catholic Boy?

I remember this happy young teenager back in nineteen sixty-two

When the Irish Christian Brothers thought me three things not to do

Don’t drink until you’re twenty-one

Don’t smoke ‘till you’re twenty-eight

And if you live to be a hundred

Don’t ever masturbate!

* * *

Be proud be proud my granny said

Be proud celebrate in joy

Isn’t it great that you’ve been born an Irish Catholic Boy?

* * *

And the priest came to talk to us

To teach us all about sex

He said “Don’t even think about it

That’s all the God expects

Just keep your mind on football

We tried and we did so well

Then a girl in a short skirt passed by on a bicycle

And we were all doomed to hell!

* * *

Be proud be proud my granny said

Be proud celebrate in joy

Isn’t it great that you’ve been born an Irish Catholic Boy?

* * *

And you will burn and burn in the flames of hell

Or will you reach the glory of purgatory

Where you’ll burn and burn but the good news is

You’ll only burn for a thousand years

Don’t go into a Protestant church”

“Don’t give the English a break”

“Even as a joke, don’t laugh at the Pope”

“And for God’s sake, don’t masturbate!

* * *

Be proud be proud my granny said

Be proud celebrate in joy

Isn’t it great that you’ve been born an Irish Catholic Boy?

Peter Petra, The Manse, Derry, 20200324

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