The First Confession – An Irish Short Story By Frank O’Connor

My son made his First Confession this week.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the proper name now, but try as I might, I can’t seem to get my mind or my tongue around the new name.

Everything is far more relaxed nowadays, compared to when I was young. Multiple Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s are no longer doled out as penance.  Even the austere, wooden confessionals of years gone by have disappeared.

Church Confessional Image Credit

Back in my day, nuns put the fear of God in our hearts if we could not remember our Act of Contrition.  I remember thinking I would never make it to heaven if I messed up the lines of this all important prayer.

Every two weeks my father took us to confession when I was a kid.  As you can imagine, coming up with new sins was no easy task, so I just relied on my usual list. One time, after confessing my litany of mundane, harmless ten-year-old sins, like not sharing or an odd fight with my sister, the priest announced my penance.

“Five Our Father’s and Five Hail Mary’s, twice.”

I nearly fell out the door of the confessional in shock.  I wanted to tell the priest my usual sins should get my usual penance, one Our Father and One Hail Mary, but I was so nervous I just burst out laughing. I left the confessional with a severe case of the giggles.

I don’t know how many Our Fathers and Hail Marys I chuckled my way through that evening, but I am sure I fell well short of the ten of each ordered.  There is something about laughing in church.  Once started, it’s impossible to stop.  I don’t think anyone in my family completed their penance that evening.  I had to be herded home before I “disgraced the family.”

 Old Church Confessional Image Credit

As my son prepared for Reconciliation, I reminisced a little about confession.  A short story by Irish writer Frank O’Connor came to mind.   My greataunt, or grandaunt as we called her in Ireland, loved to read O’Connor’s short stories to us.  ‘The First Confession’ captures the pattern and rhythm of Irish life in the 1950’s.

The story is told by Jackie, a seven year old boy, who must make his First Confession before his First Holy Communion.  My favorite part is when he enters the confessional box.  Anxiety leads to confusion, causing him to mistake the elbow rest as the kneeler.  Here is a little excerpt:

“…… it was on the high side and not very deep, but I was always good at climbing and managed to get up all right. Staying up was the trouble. There was room only for my knees, and nothing you could get a grip on but a sort of wooden moulding a bit above it. I held on to the moulding and repeated the words a little louder, and this time something happened all right. A slide was slammed back; a little light entered the box, and a man’s voice said “Who’s there?”

“Tis me, father,” I said for fear he mightn’t see me and go away again…….  I took a good grip of the moulding and swung myself down till I saw the astonished face of a young priest looking up at me. He had to put his head on one side to see me, and I had to put mine on one side to see him, so we were more or less talking to one another upside-down. It struck me as a queer way of hearing confessions, but I didn’t feel it my place to criticise.

“Bless me, father, for I have sinned ; this is my first confession” I rattled off all in one breath, and swung myself down the least shade more to make it easier for him.

“What are you doing up there?” he shouted in an angry voice, and the strain the politeness was putting on my hold of the moulding, and the shock of being addressed in such an uncivil tone, were too much for me. I lost my grip, tumbled, and hit the door an unmerciful wallop before I found myself flat on my back in the middle of the aisle.”

This is just a short excerpt from The First Confession.  The complete story is included in Frank O’Connor’s Collected Stories.

The full text is also available on the Ireland-Information website.

 Confessional box in Church of Our Lady of GuadalupeImage Credit

Everything went smoothly for my son when he made his First Confession – no giggles, no falling out of confessionals.   Afterwards, he asked me a very important question.

“Mom, will God tell Santa that I am on the “good” list now that I’m forgiven?”

I couldn’t bring myself to give the all-clear with a resounding “yes”.  I assured him his slate was wiped clean with both Santa Claus and God, but reminded him there’s a whole month left before Christmas.

Lord knows I need help from Santa’s elves to enforce a little order on my trio of high-energy boys.



Slan agus beannacht leat!

(Goodbye and blessings)


Irish American Mom

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