This week, a timely piece from the archives. Oh, and best wishes to all of you sitting the
dreaded state exams. Believe me, this too will pass and hopefully you’ll all pass – with
I could not count the number of exams I have sat in my lifetime. Yet I never sat ONE of those
exams ALONE as one should. Never sat in those scarred, timber desks with brass-topped,
idle inkwells, on my own. To my fellow students I seemed to be alone. To the supervisor, I
most certainly appeared to be on my own but the truth is – I always had company. I was
always surrounded by saints, saints of the Catholic Church, established saints, latter-day
saints and favourite family saints. Or rather, my mother’s favoured saints. It is a recognised
fact in our household that not one of our family got through an examination on his, or her,
own merit alone. We each of us - my three sisters, my brother and myself had assistance.
Divine assistance. Divine assistance that was brokered for us by my mother’s prayers and
My mother’s preparations started weeks, sometimes months in advance of the upcoming
exams – rosaries were said, masses were offered up and novenas made. Shrines were visited,
candles were lit and in the dim light of hushed churches all around Kilkenny, not least the
Dominican Black Abbey, a host of saints was petitioned and implored for their intercession in
the academic trials that lay ahead of her children. Indeed I did a fair bit of imploring and
pleading myself. Many’s the prayer I whispered in the side aisle of the Friary to St. Joseph of
Cupertino, the patron saint of exams. St. Joseph wasn’t the brightest boy in the class but was
lucky enough to be asked the only questions he knew come exam day.
The real ritual, however, commenced the morning of the exam itself and would be repeated
daily until the last test paper was handed up. Calmly, and reverently, my mother would take
down her precious horde of relics from a discreet corner high up on the kitchen press and
commence the ceremony. Carefully unwrapping the soft tissue covering those relics, she’d
make the sign of the cross on our eyes, our lips, our hands and finally our temples with each
relic all the while whispering aspiration after aspiration to the particular saint in question. The
relics most favoured by her were those of Saint Gerard Majella (after whom I was
christened), Saint Anthony (who never let her down) and Blessed Martin De Porres (now St.
Martin) whose relic was given to her by a saintly Dominican, a close friend of the family.
When my mother’s ritual concluded we were handed the relics, blessed ourselves with them,
kissed them and carefully placed them in a shallow, tin box next to our pens and pencils and
mathematical instruments. We dutifully repeated the ritual in the examination hall before the
start of each test. What the supervisor or our fellow students thought of our antics I have no
idea. However, so intense was our belief, so strong was our faith that we never cared to ask or
enquire. To paraphrase a recurring theme from Dale Carnegie’s: How to Win Friends and
Influence People – if the saints are for us, who could possibly be against us.
Not one of our family I am happy to report, ever failed an exam. Whether this was due to
natural intelligence, hard work, a rub of the relic, or a combination of all three I shall never
know. This much, however, I do know – if I dared produce those same relics and re-enacted
my mother’s ritual the morning of my children’s exams, they would look at me in
bewilderment and wonder what class of witchcraft I was practising.
A young man, hired by a supermarket, reported for his first day of work. The manager
greeted him with a warm handshake and a smile, handed him a sweeping brush and said:
‘Your first job will be to sweep out the store.’ ‘But I’m a college graduate’, the young man
protested. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that’, said the manager ‘Here, hand me the brush and
I’ll show you how it’s done.’