Saturday 14th May 2016 was my 37th birthday (yes, THIRTY-SEVEN), but this day was not about me.
It was all about my daughter, Aoife (8).
It was: “AOIFE DAY.”
The idea for ‘Aoife Day’ came about when Aoife and I spoke about her not partaking in the First Holy Communion event with her school, and she decided she wanted to have a special kind of day for herself, in her own way. (I write about the background to that decision below).
It turned out to be a beautifully special day for us all: we rather spontaneously made it a significant coming of age kind of day. As I look back on that day, now as she moves into third class in her school, she does seem to have grown up a lot and left what we called “early childhood” ways behind.
It was also very wonderful and fun and totally freeform.
This is what we did on Aoife Day:
We had no real plans until a few days before. Aoife came up with a list of ideas of what she wanted to do:
- Get Up Real Early (to make the most of the day)
- Go to the Heritage Park
- Get Presents
She wanted the theme of the day to be “Nature-ly” as she put it – that is, she wanted us to do lots of Outside Things.
She basically wore her wellies all day!
She also wore a perfect and adorable fairy dress made out of unspeakably soft fleece, which Colm spotted on Facebook just the week before. He bought it to support a fellow archaeologist and thought maybe it would be suitable for her to wear on Aoife Day. How unbelievably perfect it turned out to be! (The dress was made by Bee Free Kids Clothing).
SO, in photos, this is what Aoife did.
PART 1: A MORNING WALK
We got up Real Early (she was up and bustling about excitedly at 6AM), we had a quick breakfast and went for a walk to the nearby stream. One of those simple things we’d been promising to do for the last two years.
We brought some light snacks for a makeshift picnic, at the stream, and collected some freshwater in a flask. They spotted tiny invisible fish (I couldn’t see any! I never believe them when they say they can see fish) and they played Pooh Sticks over the bridge.
Colm showed them an old neighbouring mill ruin and explained how it would have worked, and pointed out tree species and plants and basically nerded about archaeology and nature to them in the way that they know and love.
Colm carried her back through the long grass to mind her dress – I love this photo so much, because they are wearing the same expression: both refusing to look at the camera, and waiting wearily for me to get out of their way😉
Here she and her brother Beineán (5) are holding buttercups under their chins (you know that old trick of checking whether the buttercup reflects a yellow glow under the chin? If it does, you like butter. They found out that they both, do, in fact, like butter.)
On the way back they looked for feathers. She found two, which she is holding here. (I am holding cow parsley for display in our home).
We came home from our walk and had our second breakfast – she requested chips. For breakfast. And it being Aoife Day, she got chips for breakfast. (I somehow did not photograph that.)
Before we would leave for the National Heritage Park, for Part 2 of her special day, we had to tend to some farm jobs of course. Aoife fed her three pet lambs, same as every other day.
PART 2: GO TO THE NATIONAL HERITAGE PARK
If you’ve never been to the Irish National Heritage Park, you should go. We are fortunate to live just 15 minutes away. It’s beautifully thought out and fabulously built – all of the buildings got painstakingly renovated or rebuilt recently, so for all its ancientness, it’s all wonderfully fresh and new. It really brings archaeology to life, and is set in a natural wonderland. Aoife and Beineán love so much just to run there.
First things, first, Aoife wanted ice-cream. So on Aoife Day, she got ice-cream.
Here she is eating her ice-cream in 8000BC, the Mesolithic:
Still eating her ice-cream 4000 years later at the Neolithic House:
Ice-cream was long-since consumed, along with a feed of more chips in the restaurant (it was Aoife Day, after all), by the time the Vikings came:
And then there was time for another picnic, inside the actual (not replica) Anglo-Norman promontory fort overlooking Slaney Harbour.
Here they are watching baby moorhens:
On the raised walkway through the wetlands, she found another feather.
The Heritage Park offers archery, and we usually scurry them along to the next thing away from it (thinking them too young) but on Aoife Day, she was not missing out. Getting to do archery was a dream come true for her (really, it was one of those things she tended to pester us about). The attendant there was so helpful and encouraging to them both. They loved it, and instead of skipping the Gift Shop like we usually do afterwards, because it was Aoife Day we let them both choose something and Aoife selected her own bow and arrow to take home.
Just look at this cool archer chick on her sunshiney “Aoife Day”.
PART 3 – GET PRESENTS
Well, part 3 was invoked already at the Heritage Park when they were allowed to choose something at the Gift Shop, but this was not to take the place of the thrill and rareness (actually, never-ness) of also going to Ken Black’s massive toy shop to pick out something “just cos”. (How much better can this day get?!) I decided not to be seen to impose any limits on them whilst they were choosing, instead waiting to see if they would focus on something expensive, and as it turned out they both selected toys that were within reason anyway.
She got lego, and he got a transformer.
And they were so happy! Can you tell?
(IMPROMPTU) PART 4: AOIFE GROWS UP A LITTLE
Back home that evening, Aoife wanted to have supper outside by a campfire. On the spur of the moment, I had the idea for Aoife to pick a special tree somewhere near the house, that would be “her” tree from that day on. She chose this Laurel tree in the back yard, and I hung the pink canopy I found in a charity shop from it, for her to relax in. Colm made the campfire nearby and we had another picnic (with wine for Colm and me) whilst the sun went down.
To close the day, we decided to make up a little “nature-ly” magic for our wild little fairy girl.
Colm had the spontaneous idea of marking the day as a kind of growing-up milestone where she leaves her first phase of childhood behind and grows into her new phase (from now until she is a teenager). Near the campfire, before it got dark, we brought together some things we’d gathered that day, in a circle: the water from the stream in the morning, the feathers they’d found, a rose quartz stone she’d picked up for her collection (she loves rose quartz and keeps a stash in a fence outside the back door) and we lit a candle in a new candle holder we picked up at the garden centre that week because it was so orange, her favourite colour.
She stood inside the circle and the rest of us held hands, also in circle around her. We walked around her three times, ring-a-ring-a-rosie style: one… two… three!
After three times round, we decided she could hop out of the circle and into her new phase of life. We gave her an idea of some new responsibilities this meant for her, and I swear her cheeks were beaming pink and rosy when she hopped back out of the circle and into her Daddy’s arms and mine. (Her little brother, who was starting to get a antsy about being left out of all this growing up stuff, was given an honourary title of FireBoy whereby he has responsibility to help gather firewood and, under supervision, he gets to throw the wood into the fire sometimes too. That made him very happy.)
We all beamed, and still bask in the glow of spending an entire day of totally honouring this child in our own simple, freeform way: celebrating her, in her own individuality.
Opting out of The Communion
Colm and I come from backgrounds steeped in Catholic culture, like most people we know, but as a family we don’t “practise:” we don’t go to Mass. I grew up loving the rituals of going every week, to light candles, to visit family graves, to see and be seen. We did baptise our children, without thinking too much about it. In no way did we have courage or energy to consider not doing it at the time, and the days were significant and memorable in certain ways. (The priest in a Dublin church where our daughter was Christened did – very sweetly and kindly – point out that we ought to be married, and gently encouraged me to prioritise making plans for that.) (We are still unmarried.)
But now in adulthood, I reject it as an organisation that is more interested in protecting itself than anything or anyone it is supposed to represent. The church’s nigh-on-hostile engagement with the Tuam Babies situation was the final straw for me.
My small daughter already knows in simple, broad terms about how the church treated women throughout the Mother and Baby Home years: she traipsed around the Tuam Babies burial site with us many times, she asked a hundred questions and I answered her as honestly and as simply as I could.
Whether or not I approve of the Catholic Church, my children certainly do live among its cultural framework. Like the majority of schools in the country, their schooling, by its very design, is flavoured with prayer and holy pictures. As archaeologists and as admirers of beautiful buildings with stories to tell, Colm and I actually happen to visit churches a lot with them. It amuses me that both my children know the story of the pictures “Stations of the Cross” that hang in every Catholic Church, better than I ever did, from the many times they’ve hung around waiting for me and Colm to take photographs. We spend even more time in graveyards, photographing old headstones and researching family history.
Catholic symbolism is everywhere. I grew up so deeply with it I can explain it and discuss it when my children when they ask. I teach them the archaeology of it, and that churches and priests and Mass and Communion bread are important to people.
One day when she was seven, Aoife and I discussed our church involvement, as I was hanging clothes on the washing line in the back yard.
I told her my simplest bottom line: “they don’t let women be priests or make any decisions about anything. I just don’t support that.”
I told her I couldn’t, therefore, support the Communion ceremony preparations. She nodded. “I’ll have my own kind of special day.” It would be ‘Aoife Day’. And that was all.
Together we all began to feel our way through our decision to opt out. I had no idea what to expect.
I felt nervous of offending other people, for whom the Communion seems to mean so much: as if our not doing might be perceived as was some kind of repudiation of their values. I mostly said nothing about any of it.
For her part she had to explain herself a lot throughout the year, and still does in the aftermath, as many people obviously assume that a little girl her age, in a typical country National School, would have little else on her mind other than “The Communion.”
She wasn’t fazed. She told anyone who asked, crystal clear, “I’m not doing that”.
She got some confused silences, and I would hold my breath whilst she simply waited for her response to sink in. Most people didn’t ask any further, not even of me, standing there quavering, in utter contrast to the confident little girl beside me.
I did get some quizzical looks, and was even asked (out of Aoife’s earshot) about my own morality, and about the impact on Aoife’s life as an adult, but was able to reassure that I had no concerns about either.
My daughter took it all completely in her stride. Her school was very accommodating and considerate towards us. Aoife studied an extra maths book whilst the others prepared for Communion, and is now fully opted out of religious education in third class; I prepare some work for her to do at religion time. I will speak with my son, who is now in Senior Infants, about opting out when he is a little older, though he is already familiar with the idea through his big sister.
Our little family trundled on in our own world as usual.
Until “Aoife Day” :)