The big media brouhaha that occurred recently about the garage owner in Limerick, who was ordered by an inspector from the Health and Safety Authority to take down Page 3 calendar–type photographs from his workshop wall, brought to mind a memorable religious ceremony that occurred in The Munster Express offices in the 1970s.
Factory and office Masses were popular in the late 1970s and ours was a grand occasion celebrated by the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Dr Michael Russell, in the presence of the Dean of Waterford, Dr John Ward Armstrong, who was later to become the Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland. The day was not without its bizarre moments.
The idea for the Mass was first mooted by Mrs Josephine Walsh, wife of our editor and chairman, JJ Walsh. Mrs Walsh was a religious minded woman who often worked long hours, especially on press days, when she checked out the entire delivery run to the vans and cars that carried the newspaper to newsagents in four counties. She may have been influenced by a staff member who regularly fetched holy water from the Franciscan Friary and sprinkled it copiously on a new and troublesome web-offset printing-press which, for a period of some months, forced many of us to work long, hard days of up to eighteen hours. The amazing thing was that the holy water seemed to work and the employee in question was absolutely convinced that prayers had been answered. Therefore, when the worst of the teething problems were over, the boss was convinced that a Mass should be celebrated on the premises, partly as a Thanksgiving for our deliverance and partly, we suspected, as an insurance policy that things would stay rosy.
All the staff, their spouses and regular contributors were invited and an altar was created on one of the composing stones in the pre-press department. Most employees were church going and even those who did not subscribe to `organised religion’ entered into the spirit of the occasion. But trouble lay ahead.
In the run up to the big day, Mr and Mrs Walsh ordered that all the topless pin-up calendars and posters, which adorned the walls of the big room and other parts of the building, be removed. That directive did not go down too well with some members of staff and, eventually, a compromise was reached whereby the boss reluctantly agreed that the scantily clad ladies could be covered up with large sheets of brown paper until our distinguished guests had departed.
On the morning of the Mass, Mr Walsh suddenly realised that there were no Church of Ireland members of staff and he was anxious that the ceremony be an ecumenical affair, especially as Dr Ward Armstrong would be present. I was dispatched to try and locate a few Church of Ireland friends but, unfortunately, those that were available thought I was pulling their legs and refused to budge. The result was that Dr Ward Armstrong found no familiar faces in our small congregation and looked decidedly uncomfortable throughout. In fairness, Dr Russell was the more gregarious of the two and seemed to adapt to the unusual surroundings more easily.
Mrs Kathleen Morrissey, the respected organist from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Ferrybank, was engaged to play but made the tactical error of arriving early. Mrs Morrissey was a rather elderly lady who, when younger, often played at social functions in the city and in South Kilkenny. A few wicked wags convinced her that Mr Walsh was a long time admirer of her playing and she would please him greatly if she would oblige with some sing-along numbers until the Mass began. A decent, trusting woman, Mrs Morrissey was only too happy to comply with his wishes and, as Dr Russell and Dr Ward Armstrong were being greeted in the front office by Mr and Mrs Walsh, the strains of ‘She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain When She Comes’ drifted down from upstairs accompanied by bursts of raucous laughter.
By the time the Mass commenced, the gathering was in a decidedly skittish mood and the situation was not helped by a group of Bus Eireann employees who, on looking up at the large windows as they passed through Hanover Street, saw the figures in clerical garb. Thinking it was a joke of some sort, they shouted up greetings and were quite put out when they received no reply.
My own attention was distracted by the sight of the brown paper peeling off the walls revealing tantalising glimpses of the censored Page Three models. I couldn’t be certain about Dr Russell but I am convinced Dr Ward Armstrong spotted the wilting camouflage even if he didn’t blink an eyelid. There were a few other minor hiccups but, all in all, the Mass was a resounding success and the subsequent party went on well into the night. The boss was not entirely happy about the lack of production but he knew when he was flogging a dead horse and, after a token protest, went home to Tramore and left everybody to it.
However, like many things in Waterford, the story of the Mass grew and grew until a totally garbled version entered local folklore. To this day, there are people who will swear blind that two Bishops were involved in a frightening exorcism in ‘The Munster Express’ during the late 70s.