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A Christmas Mass in Castlebar
By Standing at the Back
26, Dec 2003 - 11:53

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Christmas Day 2003 starts out very mild day for mid winter – damp but not raining. On the way to Mass some watery mid-winter sunshine illuminates the huge white windmills that have just started turning in the past week. Keeping the Christmas tree lights going and illuminating the thousands of little bulbs now hanging on houses all over Mayo. Approaching Chapel Street along New Line, the size of the crowd is immediately obvious as throngs of people head to the church and cars crawl along trying to find parking.

We usually go to Midnight Mass but this year for a change it was 12:30pm Mass in the Parish Church. The Church was packed to capacity – obviously not your typical Castlebar Mass. Even arriving early there were no seats left so we stood at the back as the music started – an orchestra was playing. Everyone dressed in their finest. "Happy Christmas" on everyone’s lips smiling greeting all round. Lots of strange faces in town – kids who grew up in Castlebar now unrecognisable as adults visiting town a few times a year back from working or studying away from home. Lots of "I haven’t seen you for a year" faces. Someone suggested an influx of at least 3000 people to Castlebar for Christmas. Returned family members coming back to the nest from Dublin and from all over the world. Their numbers compensate handsomely for those that leave Castlebar nowadays and take off to sunny climes for the Christmas. (Certainly the thronged Main Street on Christmas Eve made it seem like 30,000 had invaded not just 3000.)

The Youth Group recited some poems before Mass started – to get us into the Christmas mood. The Mayo Concert Orchestra players were ensconced at the top of the church belting out Christmas carols under George Lee. They are a very good band – very tight sound with good pitch and dynamics – something that was unheard of 20 years ago in Castlebar. Then a singer– and he was something else! A strong baritone with a voice that made me think ‘Wales’ for some reason. He had a beard like a younger, thinner Pavorotti but lower pitched in voice. He sang with a passion - oh come all ye faithful – the big sound he produced with the full orchestra behind him that got to me - and it obviously infected the congregation too if the spontaneous outburst of applause at the end was anything to go by. The applause actually cut Fr. Curran off in mid sentence just as he was about to start the Mass. Applause is commonplace in Churches nowadays but this was genuine spontaneous stuff on hearing something quite unexpected and marvellous. Wonderful stuff. (The only drawback was that the amplification system didn’t serve his powerful voice too well).

Standing up right through Mass gives you a different perspective – you see things going on that you don’t normally notice. And with a packed church there were lots of distractions: The two traveller children who amused themselves playing in the side-aisle. Dressed to the nines in white furs and red-Indian style boots the younger one turning her left foot at every step probably needs corrective footwear if she is not to walk with a limp in later life. Dad chased dutifully after the little one every time she disappeared from sight. Mum beside him had a babe in arms. Also in a striking white fur a tall woman wearing heavy makeup fingering glass rosary beads. The man who always sits in the exact same place every Sunday arrives at 12:30 to find not just his particular spot full but the whole row packed like sardines. So he stands under the stained glass window in the aisle just next to his seat which is always at the edge of the bench. The man fixing the collection baskets up along the seat ends to make sure that all were neat and tidy. All of humanity is here - lots of distractions.

Fr. Curran speaking on the Christmas message – eloquent as always – also reminded us that not everyone here today will be over the moon with happiness even though it is Christmas morning. He told the moving story of the young altar girl in Westport who during the week had insisted on serving at Mass at her mother’s funeral – her mother died at age of just 41. Some tears being wiped away surreptitiously as people contemplate the child’s grief.

I don’t think I’ve never seen so many in the queues for Holy Communion as they moved slowly up and slowly back down the church to their seats again. Lots of smiles and greetings as acquaintances nodded to each other en route. Conversations at the back, catching up on a year since the last time they met. It’s hard to be reverent with so much going on around you.

Then somebody pumps up the volume and a youngster literally cartwheels out on to the altar! Loud Gospel Music from a speaker and the ‘liturgical dance group’ hit the altar with a lively routine that gets all the kids going rushing out to get a better view of the excitement and colour. Some of the older people laugh with embarrassment at first, wondering what the world is coming to. But then even they get into the groove so to speak when the see the excitement of youngsters on their parents shoulders waving their hands in the air. Different indeed!

The Mass finishes with Fr. Curran thanking the many contributors to the Christmas celebrations. The band strikes up again and this great new baritone voice belts out a final Christmas Carol – which keeps a lot more people standing in their seats than would normally be the case. Great chatting and catching up as people leave their seats and then outside the Church and on the way to the car parks. Finally the crowd thins out and everyone heads for the Christmas turkey and ham with their families.

An hour later the streets of Castlebar are completely deserted.

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