'We all went on our knees in the kitchen for the rosary every night'

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'We all went on our knees in the kitchen for the rosary every night'


Frank remembers going to mass on Sundays.


Frank Gaynor


Trinity College Dublin




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Frank Gaynor

Is Part Of

Adolescence and Early Adulthood


Life Story

Spatial Coverage

Clondaliever, Westmeath

Temporal Coverage


Life Story Item Type Metadata


Religion was taken seriously in our house. This was not exceptional. At that time the vast majority of people in Ireland attended mass every Sunday and said the rosary every night. While my father was happy on a diet of Sunday mass, the rosary every night and sometimes the Angelus during the day, my mother was big into the trappings of religion - the holy water, the medals, the novenas, indulgences, sodalities, First Fridays and the like, but she was not pious in any way. Two of her sisters were nuns and she would have been thrilled to have had a son a priest. Children for First Communion had to be seven years old in the September of that year. As my birthday is October 2nd, in the year I reached the age of seven I missed out on being in the First Communion class by two days. My mother was not happy with this. She approached the priest after mass one Sunday, and then wrote a letter to my teacher. The teacher was less than impressed, abandoned teaching for a couple of hours and ranted and raved on and on to the whole classroom about how Mrs Gaynor wanted to run the school. The teacher then proceeded to include me in the First Communion class for that year. We all went on our knees in the kitchen for the rosary every night. My father would close his eyes, tilt his head slightly sideways, and in a special prayerful voice say the Hail Marys for his decade of the rosary. When my mother's turn came she rattled through the Hail Marys using a special version of the English language for this exercise. Sometimes in mid - rosary a cat would seek permission to go to the toilet. If the request came a little too late a certain sound would come from under the table or a chair, my father would shout a command, my mother would sprint to open the door while still rattling on with the Hail Marys and the rest of us would get locked into an uncontrollable fit of giggling. A lot of primary school time was devoted to learning the 400 or so answers in the Catechism. It was my mother who drilled us in this task and through sheer repetition ensured that many of the answers remained with us for the rest of our lives. For a number of years the first task on a Sunday morning in Clondaliever was to go to the pump field to catch the horse. He nearly always played hard to get. When he was harnessed to the trap, and we were all dressed in our Sunday best, we set off for 9am mass in Killulagh church, which more recently has been in the news as the setting for the wedding of Ryanair's Michael O'Leary. My father had contributed to the building of the church and had his own box where the horse was parked during mass. He also laid claim to the bench seat that was situated on the right of the isle, third row from the altar. We blamed the horse for the fact that we were usually five minutes late for mass and had to endure the seemingly long walk after my father up the centre isle to his seat. I was a mass server for a number of years. This added to the embarrassment of being late. One of my tasks as a server was to open the little gate in front of the altar and let the priest out to take up the collection. One Sunday Fr. Smith returned to the little gate with his box full of pennies and, to his surprise, found me asleep on the steps of the altar. On a few occasions during school time the curate, Father Brady, who was a bit slow in leaving his bed in the mornings, collected me from Johnstown school to serve mass for him in Killulagh church. The priests I served mass for were all pleasant towards me. I liked the things that were used around the altar - the colourful vestments, the gold plated chalice, the brass altar bell that I rang at certain times during mass, and the spotless white linen on the altar. I was fascinated by the benediction ceremony that we had once a month at the end of mass. The smell of the burning incense and the sight of the smoke curling up around the altar stayed with me for hours. One Sunday morning on the way home from mass, as the horse trotted along, breaking wind into our faces now and then, I casually said that I would like to be a priest. My words hit very receptive ears, and set in motion a line of thinking that eventually resulted in me entering Maynooth seminary as a clerical student in September 1960. During my final year in St Finian's I decided that I would like to be a priest in an English speaking diocese, but I did not wish to be in a position where I might have to share a parish with any of the priests I had met in St Finian's. I opted for All Hallows College in Dublin because priests from that college went to work in the diocese of San Antonio in Texas. I was very happy with my decision. A couple of weeks before I was due to leave St Finian's I was called to a meeting with two of the more senior priests. They had heard that I was planning to go to All Hallows and their mission was to talk me into going to Maynooth. This they did by being unexpectedly friendly, by informing me that after three years in Maynooth I would have a university degree, and by assuring me that after ordination in Maynooth I would have the option of working outside Ireland if I wished. Although I did not realise it at the time, the switch to Maynooth turned out to be a very good move. By the end of three years there my interest in becoming a priest had gone but I did have my Bachelor of Arts degree. That Maynooth BA made the rest of my life possible. In 1960 access to university education in Ireland was still limited to families who had the money to pay for it and to individuals who had the ability to win one of the few scholarships on offer. My family did not have the necessary money and I did not have the ability to win a scholarship. When I entered Maynooth seminary in September 1960 the total student population there was 600 - all seminarians. There were 106 in my class - the largest single intake in the history of the seminary. The annual intake in recent years has been less than 10. My classmates were young men from all over Ireland with an average age of 18 years - less than 40 of these men completed the 7 - year course that led to ordination. Some weeks before I was due in Maynooth I was given a list of what was required and directed to Clery's store in Dublin where I was measured, fitted and supplied with the necessary clerical clothes. From day one we were dressed like priests, with long black soutanes and white clerical collars. For the first three years we were simply university students studying for a BA degree. It was only during the final four years that students studied theology. It might have made some sense to have them beginning to look like priests at that stage. I started off in Maynooth with a great feeling of inner happiness, at peace with my god, and satisfied that I was doing what I wanted to do. I expected that my time in Maynooth would be all about preparation for the priesthood, even though I had only a hazy idea of what that might entail. As it turned out my three years there were focused on studying for a BA degree, which felt like a drawn out re - run of the Leaving Certificate. I was not very interested in what I was studying, and did just enough to successfully complete the course. There were times, especially when I was struggling with some Latin text, that I regretted the great bonfire I had contributed to at the back of St Finian's college after the final Leaving Cert exam, when myself and some classmates gleefully burned the notes we had laboured over during the previous five years. The many happy memories I have of the time I spent in Maynooth, are not related to religion or studying for a degree. They are all due to the opportunity I had to play hurling with men from the leading hurling counties, to spend time in an indoor heated swimming pool, and to enjoy the great company of my classmates. There were enjoyable sessions when we got together to relax. There were some good singers in our class and a few played musical instruments. The debates that arose during these sessions were a new experience for me. The men from Derry in particular were highly politicised. When Gerry talked passionately about Vietnam and the Domino Theory I was lost. I was amazed when Dennis posed the question: Is Ireland a priest - ridden society? When Pat talked about the curse of emigration I was really confused. My colleagues who went to London after leaving Johnstown school came back a year or so later well dressed and with plenty of money to spend. I wondered how anyone could describe this as a curse. The religion aspect of my time in Maynooth was disappointing. The very first morning as soon as we arrived in Junior Chapel we were instructed to meditate for half an hour. I had no idea where to begin, but I do know that what dominated my thoughts for the following 30 minutes was the heavy defeat we had suffered in the junior hurling championship the previous Sunday. My religious beliefs were never challenged and nothing that we did seemed to be related to preparation for priesthood. It was somehow presumed that if you got a group of young men together, dressed them up to look like priests, and isolated them from females and the rest of the outside world for a number of years, they would automatically become good priests. As I left after three years I can only presume that all the good bits came during the final four years when the seminarians studied theology. The fixation with sex was never far below the surface. One night in St Joseph's chapel during a homily one of our spiritual directors urged us to be careful when riding a bicycle so that we did not use the saddle for sexual arousal I began to see more clearly the path that some of our parish priests had followed, and I was surprised at what I saw: five years in St Finian's, followed by seven years in Maynooth as a seminarian, then one year studying for a teaching diploma at Dunboyne House (which is on the seminary grounds), 12 or 14 years teaching in St Finian's, and finally appointed to run a parish. I concluded that the most surprising thing in all this is that a majority of parish priests managed to do a reasonably good job. Apart from the standard breaks for a month at Christmas and three months during the summer, I was allowed out twice on compassionate visits: once to visit my ill father, and once to visit my grandmother, Granny Farrell, a few months before she died. At the time of my visit Granny Farrell was living in her daughter's family home on Baggot Street, Dublin. What I remember most about this visit is meeting with some of my city cousins for the first time in their home environment. The house furnishings and carpets were impressive. On the coffee - table in the sitting room were copies of Time, Newsweek and The Economist. My admission that I was not familiar with any of these magazines was greeted by a mixture of surprise and sympathy. Conversation around the dinner table touched on attending university, entertainment in the city and a couple of international news items of the day. There was a noticeable absence of parochial chitchat. I was asked about Maynooth and where I hoped to go next. I said that following ordination it was usual for a priest to spend a number of years as a curate in one or more parishes in his diocese. At this point one of my cousins became very alert and very serious looking. He asked me was I seriously considering spending my life as a curate in some rural parish in Westmeath. I got the message: he thought I was in urgent need of some career guidance. I was beginning to appreciate that the distance between Bagott Street and Clondaliever was much greater than the 80km by road. During the third year in Maynooth my enthusiasm for becoming a priest began to wane. At the time I was almost unaware of the fact that after eight consecutive years of boarding I was itching to get out into a free world. A couple of minor incidents encouraged me to take stock of where I was going. Because I was caught smoking on the wrong side of an avenue I was omitted from the list of students to receive Tonsure, which was a prerequisite for receiving Minor Orders. When I was asked to assist with the Easter ceremonies I hoped that the experience would help in giving me a deeper understanding of what Easter was all about. As we practised the drill for the ceremonies around the altar (five steps forward, right turn, three steps forward, stand still, and so on, I lost sight of the religious significance of it all, and soon lost interest. After sitting the final exams I decided to have a chat with Dr Paddy Muldoon, who was the Dean with responsibility over my year group. Paddy always walked with his head held high, and made every effort not to be friendly. Behind this show of aloofness was a caring and interesting person, with a distinctive sense of humour. One night when he found a student standing outside his door at an irregular hour he asked 'Why did you come at this time?' The student explained: 'When I saw that the light was on in your room I decided to come and see you'. Paddy famously replied: 'When the light is on in the Dean's room that means that the light is on in the Dean's room'. This powerful lesson in jumping to conclusions has often helped me to avoid putting two and two together and getting five. When I informed Paddy Muldoon that I was having doubts about continuing in Maynooth he made no attempt to encourage me to stay. That was standard Maynooth practice at that time. He simply told me that as soon as I had made my final decision I should let him know, and then write a letter to the Bishop of Meath, thanking him for his support over the previous three years. That was it. As I left Maynooth in June 1963 I felt very disappointed. For years I had been thinking about my future as a priest. Now I seemed to be staring at a blank sheet; I had no plan B. I was soon preoccupied with family events at home. My father was dying and was well aware of that fact. Fortunately he was conscious and it was possible to have brief conversations with him. It was a wonderful experience to spend time with him during his final couple of days. He was pleased with what he had achieved during his lifetime and was proud of his family. Because of his great faith in god he was not afraid of dying. Watching him pass away peacefully and effortlessly changed my attitude to death and also underlined for me the importance of having sound religious beliefs in a god that is both forgiving and rewarding. Because he died so peacefully I did not feel sad and I did not cry. This surprised me somewhat considering that I always shed a few tears as I left home to go back to college. My father's death and Paddy's marriage three weeks later marked the beginning of the end of the Gaynor family as a unit in Clondaliever. Nancy was already in Dublin, and continued to live and work there. During the following few years Paddy moved to Toronto with his family, and Kathleen and Breeda trained as nurses in London. Kathleen went to Scotland to work. There she got married and set up home. Breeda stayed in London, where she also got married and set up home. Helen continued to live in Clondaliever with my mother for a few years, while she was working in Mullingar. When Helen got married and moved to Birr, my mother was left on her own in Clondaliever, where she continued to live for another few years. In her early 70s her health began to deteriorate and she moved to a nursing home in Tullamore. She died in Tullamore in 1988 at the age of 77. My father was also 77 when he died. A few years after my mother's death the house in Clondaliever was sold.


Irish Research Council for Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (IRCHSS)

Research Coordinator/P.I.

Dr Kathleen McTiernan (Trinity College Dublin)

Senior Research Associate

Dr Deirdre O'Donnell (Trinity College Dublin)


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