The First Communion Dress: Fashion, Faith, and the Feminization of Catholic Ireland
In late 2012 the Irish Times and National Museum of Ireland selected the Roman Catholic First Communion dress as one of the most important 100 objects in Ireland’s history. A girl’s dress thus took its place alongside bronze age funerary pots and the Book of Kells as items essential to Ireland’s history and culture.
Articles at the time (2012), however, bemoaned the extravagant, garish, and even vulgar excesses of Communion dresses, or “Big Fat Communion Dresses,” since Ireland’s economic revival — the “Celtic Tiger” — of the 1990s and 2000s, while subtly praising the assumedly more simple and humble dresses of past decades. An article in the Irish Times was explicit: “You might say nothing illustrates the descent from a sense of the sacred to the profane as well as this annual extravaganza of crude expense with a child as its excuse.” TV shows like Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, enormously popular in Ireland and the UK, feature the elaborate dresses of the Irish Traveller community — not just wedding dresses but also Communion dresses. A spin-off series, “Thelma’s Big Irish Communions,” shot in Belfast, featured garments in excess of £10,000.
The importance of fashion and clothing to Irish Catholic girls, however, is not new. And an analysis of girls’ memories of their First Communion dresses from earlier in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveals that these garments signified much more than wealth or status and, indeed, provides us with insight into their understudied devotional and sensory lives.
There was no more important moment in a Catholic girl’s life than her First Holy Communion. In 1872, Rev. J. Furniss’s pamphlet Books for Children and Young Persons, Also, for First Communions, Missions, Retreats, Sunday Schools. Book I: Almighty God advised children on preparing themselves for first communion, “the greatest day of your life.”1 The remembrances of Irish Catholic girls affirm this claim but shift the focus away from the ceremony and onto the sensory — what girls wore and what that meant.
First Communion was an occasion during which Irish girls experienced the gender segregation that so dominated their religious lives; girls and boys, although they may have been given the sacrament on the same day, occupied separate parts of the chapel for the day. Communion thus was a feminized ritual for girls, involving their female family members and friends, and focusing on the body, clothing, and appearance. The Church instructed parents to ensure that their children were “suitably attired” for communion.2 For the Church, the goal was conformity and religious respectability. Mothers and sometimes grandmothers took such guidelines seriously, sparing no cost or effort to dress their daughters appropriately.
In fact, mothers often went far beyond what Church leaders may have wished when they adorned their children for Communion. Together with their daughters, they claimed the Communion ritual, and preparation for it, as their own, creating a uniquely feminized religious experience. In the 1920s Tilly Blanchfield of County Kildare emphasized what she wore and her pride in her “Spanish silk” Communion dress. She remembered the flowers in the church and that she “felt very special.”3 Roise Rua, who grew up on a small remote island off the Donegal coast around the same time, also recalled the “clothes she got for the big day” of her first Communion: “the skirt was blue, the coat was plaid and belted, and I had a bright ribbon.”4
Derry’s Christina McKenna recalled the “triumph” of her first Communion in the mid-twentieth century, focusing her reminiscences on clothing and accessories. “I was all got up in a lacy white dress and veil, white patent-leather shoes and matching handbag,” she wrote.5 First Communion heightened the connections between popular Catholicism, the body, and the senses for girls. As they prepared for Communion, Catholic girls pondered the meaning of ingesting the body of Christ. As they adorned their bodies, they linked themselves to the corporeality of the divine. And as they surveyed the results of their careful preparations, they made note of the senses: the feel of silk on their skin, the sight of other girls in white dresses, the smell of candles in the chapel.
Although she came of age in poor, outcast Dublin during the 1920s and 30s, Margaret Duffy too had a special First Communion when her mother, who cleaned the homes of middle-class Dubliners, procured a cast-off dress for her daughter: “It was white jap silk and it was very pretty with little flowers embroidered in silk thread,” Duffy later recalled. “It was a party dress that belonged to one of the little girls where Mammy worked.”6 Mary Foran, born in a tenement house in Dublin, was only able to make her First Communion when another local girl died and Foran’s grandmother secured the girl’s dress for Mary.7 First Communion was a rite of passage that had more than religious meaning; it also established and reinforced bonds between girls and their mothers or grandmothers.
We need to know much more about the roles that popular Catholicism played in forming girls’ identities and, significantly, the effects that girls had on religious life in the past. The First Communion dress is a good place to start. Studying it not only gives us access to the experiences and sometimes thoughts of girls in the past, but tells us also how, by focusing on fashion and faith, Irish girls and women made Catholicism their own.
The material culture of girls’ lives — particularly what they wore, and what that meant — can reveal much about their surprising agency in the patriarchal past. First Communion dresses, past and present, reflect status, wealth, and a commitment to faith, but they also tell us much more. They remind us not to dismiss as ridiculous or frivolous the material lives of girls and women. They also suggest that the relationship between girls, material culture, and religion — in Ireland and beyond — requires further study.
Cara Delay, “Ever So Holy: Girls, Mothers, and Catholicism in Irish Women’s Life-Writings, 1850-1950,” in The Country of the Young: Interpretations of Youth and Childhood in Irish Culture, eds. Kelly Matthews and John Countryman, 10-30. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013.
- Rev. J. Furniss, Books for Children and Young Persons, Also, for First Communions, Missions, Retreats, Sunday Schools. Book I: Almighty God (Dublin: James Duffy Sons and Co., 1872), 4. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Tilly Blanchfield, oral history, Athy, County Kildare, 1920s, in No Shoes in Summer: Days To Remember, ed. Mary Ryan, Seán Browne and Kevin Gilmour (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1995), 81. Return to text.
- Pádraig Ua Cnáimhsí, Róise Rua: An Island Memoir, trans. J.J. Keaveny (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009), 46. Return to text.
- Christina McKenna, My Mother Wore a Yellow Dress (Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publishing, 2004), 19. Return to text.
- Margaret Duffy, oral history, Dublin City, 1920s-30s, in No Shoes in Summer, 39. Return to text.
- Ben Savage and Terry Fagan, Memories from Corporation Buildings and Foley Street (Dublin: The North Inner City Folklore Project, 1992), 20. Return to text.
Cara Delay, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston, holds degrees from Boston College and Brandeis University. Her research analyzes women, gender, and culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, Britain, and the British Empire, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth. She has published in The Journal of British Studies, Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, Feminist Studies, Études Irlandaises, New Hibernia Review, and Éire-Ireland and written blogs for Nursing Clio and broadsheet.ie. Her co-edited volume Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950, was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015, and her monograph on Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. At the College of Charleston, she teaches courses on women’s history and the history of birth and bodies.