The fourth Sunday in June in 1986 dawned clear and bright at Murlough, Co Down. The natural beauty of the place with the Mourne mountains across the bay would have made it not such a bad place to have stayed were it not for the fact that accommodation was in dormitories, which might be fine for people in their younger teens, but by the time you reach the age of 25, a bit of comfort is welcome. Little memory remains of the time spent there; a man had said something about Saint Augustine and the food must have been reasonable, for there is no recall whatsoever of eating there. The experience came with Monty Python moments; the bishop insisting those present wear cassocks, a sight that struck fear into anyone else who might have been walking on the beach during the time spent in residence.
There were a dozen or so present and disaffection amongst those of the other group who were not to be allowed to return home prior to proceeding to their evening event. Driving a red Austin Metro northwards, there was a sense of excitement combined with annoyance at the pettiness surrounding some of the details of the afternoon arrangements.
Family members had arrived from England and we drove to the small town of Dromore. The sun shone and the crowd gathered and the service proceeded. The sermon was unintelligible and the ceremony quickly completed. An arbitrary ruling had been made that only candidates and their family members might receive Holy Communion, which prompted a clergyman who went on to be Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin to stride from the back in defiance of the instructions. The 80s were a time of petty sectarianism and bigotry, and the wearing of red stoles by some of those present brought out the worst in some of the country Protestants.
The tea afterwards was the real source of grievance. This was rural Ireland and an occasion for which hundreds had assembled, but it had been decreed that there would be a meal where those present were to be seated and that each of the seven candidates could only have have ten guests. We were able to fill our quota only by including people from my new parish, but another person had to tell those who had travelled the length of the country to support him that they would have to go elsewhere.
To be honest, the day was not exciting or life changing. It seemed a necessary procedure before getting on with the real business of parish life and would probably have faded altogether were it not for one picture
Photographs of our family at the table were taken by Michael McCaughan, the churchwarden in Newtownards where I would serve as curate. A copy of one of those photographs was given to my paternal grandmother who had not been present and who lived in Yeovil in England. The photograph seemed a source of pride to her; for she placed it on top of the television, where I saw it when visiting after Christmas 1986 – a month before she died.
Thirty-five years on from being ordained on that June Sunday afternoon, that moment seeing the picture in her house had made the day worthwhile.