It started out as the Communion dress but when Confirmation time came, it was the Confirmation dress.
It was most adaptable, solely out of necessity, because it served the same purpose for all the first and second cousins.
Not one of us was the same size, but the dress went up, down, in, out and up and down again. It always ended up fitting the candidate like a glove!
It was a much-travelled garment, having been to places we’d never seen, some of the cousins living as far away as Dublin and Kildare. Again, it was a case of up and down the country with Donegal, Fermanagh, Sligo and Leitrim most in demand. It was usually sent by bus, sometimes by train and was collected at the destination on arrival. The bus driver knew it well.
“Where’s it off to this time?” he’d ask. “Can’t believe she’s making her Confirmation. Sure she only made her Communion yesterday!”
But no matter where the dress went it always came back to “roost” in our house and remained on the top shelf of the wardrobe, which we children could not reach. It was safe there. The box in which it was kept was a lovely golden colour and it was always carefully folded into its layers of white tissue paper.
The first time I heard the poem The Cloths of Heaven by WB Yeats I immediately thought of the Communion dress. Why? I don’t know, but it was a nice thought anyway!
The instructions sent by letter with the dress were always the same. “Have a lovely day! Hope the weather keeps up. The shilling in the envelope is for her to buy a few sweets. Be sure to take the dress off as soon as she comes home. We’ll be needing it here at the end of the month.”
We all longed for the day when we would wear the dress for the first time at our First Holy Communion. Being one of the youngest of the cousins, I had to wait for what seemed forever, but at last the day was near. Best of all was the trial run, when out came the pins and thread and needles and even the measuring tape so as to adjust the length and breadth. Mother started early, at least one week before the big day and several fittings were necessary as the changes were made. I just loved all the excitement around it. The first step was the laying out of the dress on the kitchen table to see if there were any marks or tiny stains that might have to be removed. There weren’t any, which immediately put my mother in a good mood.
“Well, at least they minded it,” she’d say.
As I looked at the dress laid out on the table I took in every detail. I could admire it much better than when it was on me, but the pleasure of knowing I was to be next to wear it filled me with joy. I looked and looked. It was a bit like looking at a cake before getting a slice!
As soon as the dress came out of the box the smell of moth balls was overpowering. They were permanently in residence in the layers of tissue and even topped up from time to time if the dress had not been in use. If three or four camphor balls were recommended my mother felt that the baker’s dozen would do the job twice as well!
Finally, the dress was put on and I was lifted onto the table. Then the serious business of renovating the garment began. I had to keep still for what seemed like hours but I didn’t mind. My mother held a host of straight pins in her mouth, between her teeth, and I watched as she released one, or two, as required. There was the occasional reprimand with: “I told you not to move”.
“I’m sorry but my leg was itchy.”
“Now I’ll have to start all over again.”
And so it went on and on until we were happy that the dress was the right length and the cuffs on the sleeves had the pins in the correct position to allow for thinner wrists than those of the last model!
Then came the big day. The zinc bath was carried upstairs to the sitting room and large quantities of hot and cold water added from an array of saucepans and the two kettles. I had to endure being scrubbed from top to bottom until my body glowed. It was worth it all.
The dress was hanging on the china cabinet and I knew I was almost there. Finally it was on! My mother hugged me and told me that I looked lovely and I could see that there were tears in her eyes. I quickly opened the Communion bag and handed her the brand new lacy white handkerchief that Aunt Katy had sent me. As Mammy wiped her tears our eyes met. I had never really seen hers before. They were blue, such a light blue and beautiful. They were full of love for me and I saw it. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us moved. We were spellbound.
It was a special moment never to be forgotten. CL
Abbi can be contacted at
Rena Gallogly is originally from Manorhamilton, where she made her Communion in 1944. She has lived with her husband Tom in Sligo for the last 44 years; they have four grown up children and nine grandchildren.
Abbi Gilbourne is a writer researching the subject of the Communion dress in Ireland (1900 to the present day) for a book. She is keen to discover familial stories, witty or poignant, and of how this particular item of clothing evokes memories and sentimentality between mother (or mother figure – be it an aunt or grandmother) and daughter.
“I would love to hear stories of sacrifice, sentimentality, of family traditions and colloquialisms that may be indigenous to your area of our Island. If you have a story (old or very recent) or a historical record you would be happy to share along with a photograph of the Communion dress in your story, I would be grateful to hear from you.”