Recalling my Catholic upbringing when attitudes were so different

Fine art portrait of a novice nun in deep prayer with rosary

Helen McDermott recalls her fairly strict upbringing at a Catholic school - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As a teenager in the sixties and brought up as a Catholic, one of the worst things that might ever have happened to me was to get pregnant, “out of wedlock” as they used to say.

My family came from a fairly strict Catholic background, regularly attending church where the priest was to be respected and feared. With an auntie who was a nun and an uncle who was a priest there was a lot in our family to live up to. Although I was never forced to go to church it was a part of life; not going would have meant that I would be doomed forever.

I have to say that there were many aspects of being a Catholic that I actually enjoyed. At school, we Catholics had to attend our own morning assembly and worship in a separate room; I really liked being different from the majority of the other girls in the school.

Our family were also in the church choir and a I loved the music (well, some of it) and I learned many hymns and other pieces of church music that have stayed with me all my life. I also enjoyed mass when it was in Latin. It had a certain mystery and elegance of sound and I was disappointed when the service was translated into English. It just didn’t have that magic for me any more.

And then there was confession, of course.

We had to go every week and more often than not we had to make up wicked things we’d done, like swearing under my breath or having rude thoughts about someone, or anything that might warrant a few Hail Marys and an Our Father.

Before going to stage school at an early age I used to go to a convent. I don’t remember much about my time there except for one occasion when we were playing rounders, and I got shouted at because I didn’t pick up the bat quickly enough.

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The experience left a scar. Every time I pick something up now I get this image of an angry nun. It’s a daft thing to remember but it was the unfairness of the telling off over such a petty misdemeanour that’s stayed with me.

On the whole the nuns were OK but I spent a lot of my time being terrified of them and worrying about what God might do to me if I didn’t obey or if I didn’t pick up a rounders bat when I should have done.

My fears and treatment were nothing compared with what was happening to many desperate youngsters at the time.

This all came back to me with the appalling story of the treatment of unmarried mothers in Ireland from 1922 to 1990. Arlene Foster, the first minister of Northern Ireland, has ordered an enquiry into what went on in homes for unmarried mums, some of them sadly and wickedly victims of rape and incest.

Many of them were young women of around 19, and the youngest was 12.

These poor women had their babies taken from them while they were cruelly shut away.

It’s not that long ago when to get pregnant while unmarried was considered by some to be almost worse than murder.

Thankfully, in most countries this is no longer the case. Let’s hope this enquiry brings some sort of comfort and closure to those women who survived this appalling time.

I am still fascinated by religion and although I rarely go to church any more, as they say “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”.

I’m not sure what I believe any more, but I do envy anyone whose faith is strong. It must be a huge comfort in these difficult times. Whether or not I go, I am glad that churches are there.

Some prayers might have been answered by the arrival of the various vaccines that promise to bring us further hope in these dark days.

I’m glad to be living at a time when there are so many brilliant scientists working on our behalf. We should cherish them.