Tourist in a church

Stars above on a light fitting don’t sparkle much in this great church of St. Malachy’s in Hillsborough. I wonder if it’s a Church of Ireland approach to light or stars or décor, because the place verges on the more drab side of the palette. There are no paintings of serene virgins adorning the walls, adding duck egg blue pantones among the hues of porcelain complexions.

That said, I am enamoured by the fastidious sanctity of the wooden pews that have held fast in devotion generations of the pious. The clasp on the door to the pew is well worn and has taken the shape of the century of fingers that have pressed it shut so that a congregation can remain locked in prayer. It’s not unlike a great wooden version of a sheep pen, although it’s considerably more private. Its boundaries raise on each side to about three and a half foot making it the perfect corral to conceal an accidental nodding off during any banal sermons.

The box pew is so high that I need to stretch my head in order that I see the alter. At five foot seven, I’m not in any way petite, and this reinforces my marvel at the sheer scale of these lockable booths. I can’t help but think, that for kids they must be daunting. For us adults, it’s just a test-run of  a time to come,  when we’ll be tucked into our own wooden boxes.

The church reminds me of Westminster Cathedral, though it’s on a smaller scale. Seems like a forest worth of timber has gone into making the seating running along each side. It oozes ceremony and formality. Looks courtly and official. I expect to see men in wigs with gavels come out and assemble themselves at the alter.

Outside, the bell calls out to Hillsborough, its joyous sound rebelling against the quiet of the morning. A kerfuffle at the back of the church alerts me to a group of people wearing NorthFace coats who have ventured in to prey on the place of pray. They do a length of the aisle before retreating to the sun of outdoors. I remain in the company of the son of the Blessed…? Do they consider her blessed? I remain saying a prayer to the son. And an extra silent one to his mother, who I was reared to be fond of.

A painting on the wall across from me is devoted to a Brian Maginess who was born on 10 July 1901 and was apparently a scholar of Trinity College Dublin, my alma mater. He is described as a Doctor of Laws and among other things a member of parliament for Iveagh 1938-1963. He was County Court Judge of Down and he left this world on 16 April 1967. A high achiever by all accounts. ‘Sola salus servire Deo’ is inscribed beneath, that being the coat of arms for the Maginess clan – ‘The only safe course is to serve God’.

I look at my watch and I’m dead late. I was released from a poetry workshop in the adjacent centre to go spend five minutes looking for inspiration around the place. Five. I’ve just spent twenty five minutes ensconced in the box pew. I run back thinking that the only safe course is to say I’d been locked in a pew.

box pew