Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Stations - they'll miss it when it's gone

Everyone complains about the Stations. A common theme of conversation hereabouts is it's time they were abolished. I don't agree, but as a blow-in and a non-believer my views count for little. Twice a year on a weekday in March and October all the neighbours from 15 houses in this vicinity of North Cork gather at one house where the parish priest celebrates a mass, followed by sandwiches, cakes, tea and beer. This is known as a Station Mass, or more commonly, just "the stations". Three weeks ago it was our name on the rota, and consequently we spent much of the preceding month painting and cleaning. This is regarded as a huge pain and it's what gives rise to the calls for abolition. But to me it's a price worth paying. Some neighbours help with making sandwiches, some bring apple pies, and some bottles, and it's all very chummy. Mary brought the mass kit and dressed our dining table into an altar. An official church website advises that for this purpose the host family is meant to supply: a table cloth, two candles, a crucifix, holy water, and a small jug of tap water.

Clockwise from top left: making sandwiches in the utility room, dressing the altar, admiring the altar, the priest robes up, studying the prayer sheet, the priest hands out communion, an altar no more.
Including ourselves, 32 people were present. The priest turned up at 8, and heard confessions in the parlour, though few participated in this. The mass started about fifteen minutes later and  lasted about half an hour, whereupon envelopes were collected. These envelopes contain “dues”, money for the priest. €20 is the going rate. Up to only a few years ago, everyone’s name was read out and defaulters were noted, but that has lapsed. [1] The empty envelopes were handed round in the preceding couple of weeks. As host of the stations this time round, it was Eileen’s job to attend to this. 

The final agenda item was agreeing who hosts the stations next October. Then it was on with the kettles and out with the sandwiches.

A compromise without merit

Sadly the abolitionists will get their way. And I fear all too soon. Because it's really only the over-50’s who participate in all this. The younger families absent themselves, and gradually the pool of those able and willing to host the stations dwindles. A compromise in which I see no merit whatsoever is for the station mass to be held in the local church.  When the number willing to host the stations reduces to the level where your turn comes round every two years instead of every four, then I foresee that the last hardy few will say enough’s enough and the institution will suddenly die. And then everyone will say do you remember what great times we had when we used to have the stations.

A starched white cloth

In most houses round here after the mass the priest is ushered to a table in the parlour, with a starched white cloth, and it’s considered an honour to be asked to join him, while the remaining neighbours shift for themselves in the kitchen, or have to await the priest’s convenience for a second sitting. Up to the 1970’s, it was the men who joined the priest and the women who stayed in the kitchen.  I witnessed the tail-end of this tradition. I must have attended my first stations during the 1980’s, and I can recall once, and I think only once, being ushered in to join the priest for a cold plate along with all the men. Very uncomfortable, but this was already widely deemed old-fashioned. 

Being seated next to the priest is a dubious honour for most people who don't actually know what to say to him. Eileen and I frequently manoeuvre ourselves into the hot seats, which seems to be suit everyone;  though Eileen and our neighbour Sean place me under strict interdict against “haranguing”. How I've acquired a reputation for “haranguing” priests I'm at a loss to know. But in whatever this haranguing consists, it appears to cause remarkably little offence, if I can judge by the lack of reluctance to be sitting next to me on these occasions.

I remember a station mass soon after the 2011 general election.  Fr Michael Fitzgerald (since elevated to Canon) discussed the allocation of cabinet posts in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, and went on to comment that Labour was a bit too radical for him. At this point, had I not been under interdict, I should have hit him with the Jesus was a socialist theme. But I dutifully let it go.

A little bit of history

The stations seem to date from the 17th century and the Penal Laws. At that time in Ireland and up to about 1750, the Catholic church was oppressed and public ceremonies involving Catholic clergy were banned. Moreover there were no Catholic churches. In this climate two new traditions emerged: the Mass Rock and the Station Mass. I think it’s a matter of debate amongst historians how energetically the penal laws were enforced, but the popular image is of the priest arriving in disguise while locals kept a look-out from vantage points in the landscape on alert for any approaching English militia.

A modern reconstruction of an 18th century open-air mass with look-outs and approaching soldiers, reproduced here on a devotional card
The Irish countryside is peppered with mass rocks which are still considered by some to be special sacred places. An alternative mass venue was in private homes. Word was put about locally that mass would be said at a given house on a given day. The neighbours would gather for what was often a rare opportunity to receive the sacrament. This mass became known as the "station mass" because the venue was only temporary, one of the early meanings of the English word station.  And for all I know, of the Irish word stáisiúnA discussion of etymology if you want it.

Lack of church buildings, as much as fear of persecution, may have driven open air and station masses.

Abolishing dinners

In the 19th century, the Catholic Church tried to regulate the stations, as well as some other aspects of popular Catholicism. A strange leap from persecution to control, which remains a puzzle to me. Some clerics thought the stations were just an excuse for partying, and would have abolished them altogether. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin from 1819–1834, was influential. He saw the station dinner rather than the station itself as the main abuse, so the dinners were abolished, but stations allowed to continue. In 1843 the statutes of the Armagh diocese permitted stations but forbade the station dinner, the priest only being allowed to have a snack. [2] How far was this observed I wonder?

I understand that until the 1970’s, the station mass in our area was always held in the morning and was followed by breakfast for the priest and neighbours.

[1] Even further in the past, before my time, the actual amounts were read out. A farmer £10, a labourer £1, and so on. That I understand occurred up to the 1960’s and is now recalled with disgust.  It seems priests in those days were unfamiliar with the gospel story of the widow’s mite: witnessing temple donations made by rich men, Jesus calls attention to a poor widow contributing only two mites, and observes this was all she had, whilst the rich give only a small portion of their own wealth.  (Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4)

[2] The Religious Condition of Ireland 1770-1850, Nigel Yates, Oxford 2006. Some day I shall read the 1843 statutes for myself to see if this means the priest alone being allowed to have a snack, and everyone else nothing at all.


  1. So, the only person who wants The Stations to continue is someone who has a reputation for “haranguing” priests?!

    Interesting that there were no Catholic churches in the 1700s. When did they first allow them?

  2. In the Reformation (16th century) all existing churches were assigned to the protestant Church of Ireland and no new Catholic churches could be built. I'm no expert on what follows, but penal laws were enacted against Catholics, especially after 1640, and then during the 18th century appear to have been mitigated somewhat. So far as I can tell, from around 1750 the Roman Catholic church was able to function as an institution with little hindrance from the penal state, holding synods and building churches. Restrictions were removed altogether in 1829 (Catholic emancipation).