Kinsale, Ireland. June 1872
With her fingers woven together in prayer and her eyes tight shut, five-year-old Philomena Dooley shifted from one knee to the other to ease the numbness caused by the cold flagstones of the Carmelite Friary Church, which served the good and faithful in the parish of Kinsale.
Although the bright summer sunlight streaming through the church’s stained-glass window dappled the stone floor with a kaleidoscope of colours, inside the whitewashed walls the air was cool. Philomena expected nothing else as, for sure, hadn’t it been the same each and every time she’d ever attended? Even the blessed saints perched on their pedestals between the pillars looked chilly.
Opening one eye, Philomena squinted at her mother kneeling beside her.
Kathleen Dooley, her head bowed low, her eyes closed and the pink rosary that had been blessed by the Pope himself clasped between her hands, had the same dark brown hair and eyes as Philomena herself.
On the other side of her were Philomena’s brothers and sisters, with faces scrubbed and curly hair anchored with ribbons and Brilliantine respectively, knelt in age order with her father Jeremiah Dooley at the end.
As was usual when they attended church, she and her family were dressed in their very best clothes. For her mother this was a high-necked cream blouse with her long black skirt pooling around her, and a paisley shawl draped over her head and shoulders, while her father wore his least-worn trousers, which had been laid under the mattress for three days to be rid of the creases, and a flowery waistcoat under his jacket.
Philomena’s best was a flowery blue cotton dress with long puffy sleeves and a frilly button-up collar. Although her mother had made it from a gown bought from a clothes dealer and it didn’t quite reach to the top of her boots, Philomena knew that any princess in the land would envy her for the wearing of it.
She and her family were sitting at the back. Her mother said it was because they hadn’t been in the parish long enough to have a regular pew, but Philomena knew better.
For hadn’t she seen the sideways looks and heard the word ‘tinkers’ whispered since she was old enough to walk beside the family’s vardo while Major, their piebald horse, pulled it along the dusty highways of Munster and beyond?
And on such a day as this, with God’s beauty dancing all over the meadows and streams, sure wouldn’t she rather be sitting on the running board swinging her legs than stuck in a bleak building such as this.
‘Ite, missa est,’ said Father Parr, cutting through Philomena’s musing.
Deo gratias,’ responded the congregation.
Shuffling themselves into the order of precedence, those in the sanctuary made their way out of the church.
Philomena and the rest of the congregation bowed their heads again for a final prayer then those at the front of the church rose to make their way out.
Philomena’s family, knowing it wasn’t their place to step out in front of their betters, stayed in their seats.
A well-fed farmer with his wife beside him and eight or so children following like ducklings behind started down the aisle towards the door.
They were clearly prosperous because the man’s tweed suit did not bag around the knees and he sported a bowler hat instead of the cap worn by hired men. His wife’s attire, too, showed they had status in the town: she wore a matching dress and jacket plus a black straw bonnet instead of the usual headscarf.
As they made their way down the aisle, the youngest of the three sons, who looked to be just a couple of years older than Philomena, caught her eye. He was dressed in short trousers and a tweed jacket very like his elder brothers. However, whereas their straight hair was neatly parted and anchored down by their father’s pomade, the younger boy’s springy black curls caressed his forehead.
Although her mother would have chided her for staring, Philomena couldn’t take her eyes from him.
As the family drew close, the boy’s blue-grey eyes met Philomena’s dark brown ones.
The odd sensation of distant whispering and murmuring that came upon her from time to time suddenly filled her head.
They stared at each other for a second, or perhaps for ever, then he winked.
Dumbfounded, Philomena felt rooted to the spot as the boy followed his parents.
Her family rose to their feet and automatically Philomena did the same and made her way out of the church into the bright summer sunlight.