To that Cross my Sins have Nailed Him

by Kieran Healy on November 22, 2005

David Kopel “has a post”: about the origins of the Thanksgiving hymn “We Gather Together”: (Originally Dutch: a “Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck,” which is a phrase I could say all day.) It put me in mind of the stuff I learned when growing up in Ireland. Much of it was pretty thin gruel, like the execrable “Christ be beside me”: But there were a few standouts — mostly leftovers from the pre-Vactican II fire-and-brimstone era. Chief among these was “God of Mercy and Compassion”: Nothing like hearing a bunch of eight-year-olds cheerily singing lyrics like “See our saviour bleeding, dying / On the cross of Calvary / To that cross my sins have nailed him / Yet he bleeds and dies for me.” Clonk! Clonk! Clonk! Do you hear those nails going in? Do you?

To offset this, though, when I was in fifth class our teacher, Mr Buckley, read us Frank O’Connor’s small masterpiece, “First Confession,” which put a more humane face on the whole thing. My view of religion was never quite the same afterward.

Then, to crown my misfortunes, I had to make my first confession and communion. It was an old woman called Ryan who prepared us for these. She was about the one age with Gran; she was well-to-do, lived in a big house on Montenotte, wore a black cloak and bonnet, and came every day to school at three o’clock when we should have been going home, and talked to us of hell. She may have mentioned the other place as well, but that could only have been by accident, for hell had the first place in her heart.

She lit a candle, took out a new half-crown, and offered it to the first boy who would hold one finger — only one finger! — in the flame for five minutes by the school clock. Being always very ambitious I was tempted to volunteer, but I thought it might look greedy. Then she asked were we afraid of holding one finger — only one finger! — in a little candle flame for five minutes and not afraid of burning all over in roasting hot furnaces for all eternity. “All eternity! Just think of that! A whole lifetime goes by and it’s nothing, not even a drop in the ocean of your sufferings.” The woman was really interesting about hell, but my attention was all fixed on the half-crown. At the end of the lesson she put it back in her purse. It was a great disappointment; a religious woman like that, you wouldn’t think she’d bother about a thing like a half-crown.

You can “read the whole thing”: in the space of a few minutes. Vintage publish “a good edition”: of O’Connor’s short stories.



P O'Neill 11.22.05 at 10:16 pm

I think the line “Someone will go for her with a bread-knife one day, and he won’t miss her” was one of the standard pop culture quotes for our parents’ generation, through that story. Of course it also stands as the “contrast” in a compare & contrast of traditional and modern pop culture attitudes to the church.


mykej 11.22.05 at 11:20 pm

TV has ruined me. When I hear the first line of the Thanksgiving carol(?) above, all I think of is the MST3K crew doing a promo in which they sang, “We gather together to watch cheesy movies….”


John Quiggin 11.23.05 at 1:54 am

I really enjoyed that, Kieran!

The feature of the old woman going barefoot in the house is an interesting one. Growing up in southern Australia, this was unheard of, but in Queensland it’s impolite to come into a house without offering to take your shoes off (there are some exceptions, and I haven’t fully cracked the code yet).

The front porches of houses here have lots of pairs of shoes left on them – we bought a box for the purpose, labelled accordingly.


Tom Doyle 11.23.05 at 1:56 am

Hi Kieran,

I was an altar boy before we switched to the vernacular. I was dead set against it but I came around. They made a new diocese and my church got picked for the cathedral. I got to be on the bishops team. An acolyte I think it was. My cousin went to the seminary and was sent to Rome to study. The whole family went to Rome to see him get ordained. His sister, also my cousin, had joined the Sisters of Mercy, so she went in uniform. I kept teasing him about buying plenary indulgences, could he get a discount? We didn’t buy any indulgences but we did purchase a chunk of hashish on the steps of St. Peters. (My cousin wasn’t involved in that transaction.) But I digress. I do very much like Frank O’Connor’s writing.

I wonder if you could help me out. Someone sent me (what by all appearances is) an Irish joke(below). I don’t quite get it. I’m a third generation Irish American, but I think the joke requires local knowledge. I would greatly appreciate it if you could explain it.

All the best,

Tom Doyle

Three Irish priests were huddling under their umbrellas on a strand in County Mayo. All three of reported problems with bats in their belfries, that is flying rodents in their bell towers. Didn’t I shoot at them with me rifle to scare them off said one. It did no good at all at all and only damaged my belfry.

The second priest said I didn’t want to hurt the poor things so didn’t I give them a shot of gas, put em in box and bring them over to County Tip where they have lots of bats in their belfries? And weren’t they back in me tower the next day?

Ah, you don’t have the right of it at all, at all, said the third. Didn’t I give them a touch of the gas and then administer Confirmation to them. And I haven’t seen a one of them since!


John Quiggin 11.23.05 at 2:42 am

I have no local knowledge, but the joke doesn’t seem to require it. The point is, I think, that children attend church religiously (as it were) until they are old enough for confirmation, then stop going and are never seen there again.

Close enough to the truth (particularly for males) to make the joke work in lots of contexts,.


Simon 11.23.05 at 4:21 am

I remember Hot Press (venerable Irish Rock/Politics/Culture mag) ran a great article about 15 years ago on hymn lyrics misheard as children. The pick of the crop was the description of the writer’s confusion regarding constant mention of the strange but unforgettable creature “Gladlie the Cross-Eyed Bear”.


Isabel 11.23.05 at 4:41 am

My first personal position religion-wise was that hell could NOT exist: how could a finite being deserve an infinite punishment? I must have been around 10, 11, or maybe younger. I must say that hell had never been very present in my religious education. I have the impression that Portuguese don’t give it a lot of thought. But I do remember a picture of the Titanic in my catechism, illustrating the sin of pride: “God himself will not be able to sink this ship!”. Even as a small child I had doubts that God would sink a ship just to make a point.


honkyfive 11.23.05 at 6:01 am

O’Connor is a wonderful, humane writer — he brings to mind that generation of incredible Irish short-story writers — O’Faolain was possibly his equal among them.

One of the best things about O’Connor is that he’s wonderful to read out loud. The sly self-delusive humour of “The Genius” really requires being read out loud — try keeping the chagrin from your voice at the end. And the last paragraphs of “Guests of the Nation” is as powerful aloud as the end of Joyce’s “The Dead”


Sarah Carey 11.23.05 at 6:17 am

There’s a book called “A monk swimming” (from the Hail Mary – Blessed Art Thou A Monk Swimming). We didn’t get too much hell but I remember our teacher for confession assuring us that thinking about doing a sin was the same as doing the sin. This was the one that cursed me. If I even thought something bad, I was guilt ridden. Of course, confession was the first sacrament to go with me (as soon as I got to secondary school). I only made up sins anyway. My husband on the other hand took it very seriously. If he got to the church door and realised he’d forgotten a sin, he’d go back and do his confession again. God Help us.


nick s 11.23.05 at 8:36 am

I remember an old priest who’d served my dad’s parish coming back and, not realising which decade it was, issuing a hellfire sermon that scared the bejesus out of me. And that was before I read ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’.

Anyway, ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ is traditionally the send-out for Christmas services in my old part of the world. It’s a football song in carol form.


maurinsky 11.23.05 at 9:48 am

Sarah Carey, I always made up sins at Confession as well, primarily because I felt my actual sins were far too mundane and boring, and I wanted to be forgiven for more exciting sins than the ones I actually committed.


Henry 11.23.05 at 10:37 am

“Christ be beside me” was bad, but nothing to the banality of “He is Lord.” I always had (and still have)a great fondness for “Ag Chriost an siol.”


hilzoy 11.23.05 at 11:23 am

If you’re into curious hymns, consider ‘Once To Every Man and Nation’. It has some lovely bits, like:

“Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”

But the first line of the third verse is:

“By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track”

The first time I ran into it, I was unfortunately in the very first pew, with my sister, who has exactly the same sense of humor that I do, and we both got the giggles in the most awful way. (“I can’t quite make out that footprint — fire up another martyr!”)


SamChevre 11.23.05 at 11:48 am

Just curious–did you not like Saint Patrick’s Breastplate in any version, or just not that particular version?

Bizarrely, I’m Protestant, but we sing a version of St Patrick’s Breastplate (I Bind Unto Myself Today).


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 11.23.05 at 3:22 pm

Yeah, Ag Críost an síol has a bit of class to it. As regards the old-style ones, there’s always Soul of my Saviour, with lines like “Deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me”. That creeped me out more than a little in my young days.


Doug K 11.23.05 at 3:55 pm

a curious verse, one of the alternates for ‘O Come all Ye Faithful’:
“God from God, Light of Light begotten
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Only begotten Son of the Father. ”

Quite stopped me in my tracks the first time I sang it.

The Orthodox church has some good lines. Not a hymn, but sung in the Lent service:
“to fight the good fight, to walk the way of fasting, to crush the heads of the invisible dragons, to prove ourselves victorious, and without condemnation to reach our goal”

From Easter:
“let us be glorious, let us embrace one another and speak to those that hate us; let us forgive all things”


Henry 11.23.05 at 9:58 pm

On a different note, let’s not forget the lyrics of black American church music:

I know my robes are going to fit me well
Cause I tried them on at the gates of hell. . . .

What was it that Marx said? “The heart of a heartless world.”

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