Diagnosing Ireland #3 Hail Mary, Full of sin

From The Country Girls by Enda O’Brien

The first nun who came to the classroom was young and very pretty. Her skin was pinkwhite and almost moist. Like rose petals in the early morning. She taught us Latin and began by teaching us the Latin for table and its various cases. Nominative, vocative, and so on. The lesson lasted forty minutes and then another nun came, who taught us English. There were two new sticks of chalk and a clean suede duster on the table beside her hands. Her hands were very white and she wore a narrow silver ring on one finger. She was twisting the ring round her finger all the time. She was delicatelooking and she read us an essay by G. K. Chesterton. Then a third nun came to teach us algebra. She began to write on the blackboard and she talked through her nose.

‘Nawh, gals,’ she said. I wasn’t listening. The autumn sun came through the big window and I was looking to see if there were any cobwebs in the corners of the ceilings, as there had at the National School, when shethrew down the chalk and called for every girl’s attention. I trembled a little and looked at the x’s and y’s she had written on the blackboard. The morning dragged on until lunch time. Lunch was terrible.

First there was soup. Thin, grey-green soup. And sections of dry, grey bread on our side-plates.

‘It’s cabbage water,’ Baba said to me. She had changed places with the girl next to me and I was glad of her company. She wasn’t supposed to change, and we hoped that it would go unnoticed. After the soup came the plates of dinner. On each plate there was a boiled, peeled

potato, some stringy meat, and a mound of roughly chopped cabbage.

‘Didn’t I tell you it was cabbage water?’ Baba said, nudging me. I wasn’t interested. My meat was brutal-looking and it had a faint smell as if gone off. I sniffed it again and knew that I couldn’t eat it.

‘This meat is bad,’ I said to Baba. ‘We’ll dump it,’ she said, sensibly.

‘How?’ I asked.

‘Bring it out and toss it into that damn’ lake when we’re out walking.’ She rooted in her pocket and found an old envelope.

I had the meat on my fork and was just going to put it in the envelope when another girl said, ‘Don’t. She’ll ask you where it’s gone to so quickly,’ so I put just one slice in the envelope and Baba put a slice of hers.

‘Sister Margaret searches pockets,’ the girl said to us.

‘Talk of an angel,’ said Baba under her breath, because Sister Margaret had just come into the refectory and was standing at the head of the table surveying the plates. I was cutting my cabbage, and seeing something black

in it I lifted some out on to my bread-plate.

‘Cathleen Brady, why don’t you eat your cabbage?’ she asked.

‘There’s a fly in it, Sister,’ I said. It was a slug really but I didn’t like to hurt her feelings.

‘Eat your cabbage, please.’ She stood there while I put forkfuls into my mouth and swallowed it whole. I thought I might be sick. Afterwards she went away and I put

the remainder of my meat into Baba’s envelope, which she put inside her jumper.

‘Do I look sexy?’ she asked, because she bulged terribly at one side.

When our plates were empty we passed them up along to the head of the table.

The lay nun carried in a metal tray which she rested on the corner of the table. She handed round dessert dishes of tapioca.

‘Jesus, it’s like snot, Baba said in my ear.

‘Oh, Baba, don’t,’ I begged. I felt terrible after that cabbage.

‘Did I ever tell you the rhyme Declan knows?’


‘“Which would you rather: run a mile, suck a boil, or eat a bowl of snot?” Well which would you?’ she asked, impatiently. She was vexed when I hadn’t laughed.

‘I’d rather die, that’s all,’ I said. I drank two glasses of water and we came out. Classes continued until four o’clock, Then we all crowded into the cloakroom, got our coats, and prepared for our walk. It was nice to go out on the street. But we bypassed the main street and went out a side road, in the direction of the lake. As we passed the water’s edge, several parcels of meat were pitched in.

‘I have done the deed; didst thou not hear the noise?’ said one of the senior girls and the lake was full of little ripples as the small parcels sank underneath. The walk was short and we were hungry and lonely as we passed the shops. It was impossible to go into the shops because there was a prefect in charge of us. We walked in twos and once or twice the girl behind me walked on my heel.

‘Sorry,’ she kept saying. She was that mopey girl who kept passing me the bread the first evening. Her gym frock dipped down under her navy gaberdine coat and she had steel-rimmed spectacles.



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