A Catholic neighbour in our village called on me recently (keeping the appropriate distance, naturally.) She has published a slim memoir of her childhood in an Edinburgh tenement, remarking to me drily, “Now is not a good time for a book launch.” Having enjoyed blogging about Valerie Murray’s Flight from the Brothers Grimm, reminiscences of her Catholic girlhood as an immigrant to Australia after the War, I have spent my free time (of which there is currently a surfeit) reading The Storyteller’s Child by Christine Brown (Austin Macauley Publishers, £8.99).
She describes the typical city tenement accommodation of the day: a bedroom, kitchen and toilet into which a family that might include several children (she had two brothers and a sister) had to fit themselves. This was made easier by a small miracle of domestic design: the bed closet. These were double beds, hidden by curtains, fitted into recesses in the kitchen walls. Christine and her sister shared one, her parents another, while her brother shared a bed in the separate room.
What stands out in the memoir is the inner strength of Christine’s mother: a very devout Scottish Catholic, she held her family together with thrift, discipline and determination. Her father, the “storyteller”, had migrated from Ireland to Edinburgh in the 1920s in search of work; an easy-going character, he had a series of labouring jobs, ending up as a grave-digger at the Catholic cemetery. Although he never practised his own Catholic faith, he tolerated his wife’s fidelity to hers with good humour: “He never missed an opportunity to make some joke about her faith.” Despite having very different personalities, their daughter writes that there was rarely friction between them.
What has remained most sharply etched in her memory – she writes, “I could not have known then that they would stay with me all my life” – is her father’s penchant for telling stories of the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the civil war of the 1920s, along with listening to Irish ballads and songs on an old radiogram. Perhaps he clung to this attachment because he never returned to Ireland again; his youthful memories were kept alive by snatches of poetry, music and history.
Her mother ensured that the children were educated by the Sisters of Charity until they left primary school. As was the case in those days, this meant learning the Penny Catechism and the Latin responses to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. The Liturgical Year was followed scrupulously; Christine recalls, “As far as being a Catholic was concerned, it seemed to me that we had to be in a constant state of preparation for something” – fasting in Lent, May processions, observing the Feast of the Sacred Heart and so on. This was the pre-Vatican II Church, when every Sunday at Mass, they prayed for Russia, the conversion of England and for “our separated brethren.”
What was particularly moving to learn from Christine’s account of her mother’s lifelong loyalty to her faith was the fact that she was in an ambiguous position: she had run away from a drunken and abusive first husband, whom she later divorced, and had married the author’s father in a civil ceremony. This meant she was debarred from the Sacraments. That this must have been a source of inner anguish is only implied – but her adherence to the Faith remained staunch, as did her own children’s later practice of it. Christine writes that as a child she enjoyed going to Confession; now in her 80s, the habit of examining her conscience has remained with her all her life.
It is good to read a memoir like this that does not mention cruel nuns or “Catholic guilt”.
Image: Front cover of ‘The Storyteller’s Child’ by Christine Brown