The Smell of Lilac. Remembering the May Day Procession




This is a piece I wrote several years ago, about the May Day procession in Laurel Hill Convent in County Limerick.   I dusted it off yesterday, May Day, after a trove of bittersweet memories and sentiment was stirred amongst my friends, by my Facebook page posting of a link to Canon Sydney MacEwan singing the Marian hymn “Bring Flowers of the Fairest/Rarest”……


In the summer term the big events were the school sports, the picnic at the nuns’ summer house in County Clare, sometimes an “educational tour” to somewhere fascinating such as Shannon Airport, and the May Day Procession.


On the first of May, Marian altars throughout the school were adorned and bedecked with fresh spring flowers.  There was a carefully choreographed procession, purportedly venerating the Mother of God but with a decidedly pagan undertone of pattern dancing, ribbons, flowers and new beginnings.  Senior girls in long white dresses and white shoes, wearing small wreaths of flowers on their heads, walked in procession carrying between them, a statue of the Virgin on their shoulders and singing “I Sing a Hymn to Mary” and “……bring flowers of the fairest and blossoms the rarest/from garden and hillside and woodland and glen…….”  to crown the statue of Our Lady in the centre of the quadrangle lawn in front of the long school building.   Behind the white-robed girls walked the newly enrolled Children of Mary, proud that they had been deemed ‘good’ enough (the worst threat for misbehaviour was that one would not be accepted as an “Enfant de Marie”) with their silver medals on wide blue ribbons gleaming in the early sun.


The nuns of the Faithful Companions of Jesus were very good at ceremony, very good at creating a sense of occasion.   This extended from the clothes we wore to the songs we sang to the food we ate and the manner in which the study hall was decorated.  On feast days and holy days we wore a different uniform – green instead of school-day wine red, with and a white lace mantilla in lieu of the daily black – and there would be cakes for tea.


In the mid ‘Sixties when I was a boarder in Laurel Hill, many of the customs were exactly the same as those which were observed in the school sixty years earlier when the writer Kate O’Brien was a student, and about which she wrote in her novel “The Land of Spices”.  We no longer wore gloves, nor drank coffee with meals, nor spoke French in the refectory, but still took the Taj Mahal paperweight from the desk of the supervising nun at the top of the study if we wanted ‘to be excused’.  If the paperweight was not in its place on the high desk, then it meant some girl had already gone to use the lavatory, and no two girls could ‘be excused ‘ at the same time. In my day, it was still the Taj Mahal which decided the urgency of one’s calling.


Despite its whiff of snobbery and its rigidity in many matters, manners and mores matters (“Girls…..knees, legs, feet together……”)  I remember the occasions with the same affection for the institution  as did Kate O’Brien: the green shamrocks on the white iced cakes  for St Patrick’s Day, the singing of the “Immaculata” on the the 8th of December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, with the first candle lighting on the Advent wreath at the top of the study and the excitement of Christmas to come.


The “Immaculata” for me is more evocative than Christmas carols and the music of “Bring Flowers of the Fairest” is the smell of lilac. Always, when I hear that hymn, I smell lilac.


Isabel Healy

Isabel Healy

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