The poet Louis McNiece was the son of a clergyman. His father was rector of the Church of Ireland parish of Carrickfergus in Co Antrim. The death of McNiece’s mother when he was young instilled a deep fearfulness in a five year old boy. He found found fear and terror in situations where other people might have found peace and reassurance.
Louis McNiece’s description of the anxiety caused by going to church each Sunday finds resonance in memories of fears from childhood days. In his autobiography The Strings are False, he writes:
There were also the terrors of Church. The church was cruciform, and the rectory pew, being the front pew of the nave, Iooked out on to the space where the chancel and the nave and the two transepts met. The transept on our left was on a higher level and was reached by a short flight of steps; the end wall of it was occupied by a huge Elizabethan monument to the Chichester family who had then been the power in the land. The father and mother, who each very large, knelt each under an arch, opposite each other, praying; below them, much smaller, was a Chichester brother who had been beheaded by the rebels, and between them, like a roll of suet pudding, on a little marble cushion was a little marble baby. None of these marble people worried me at all; what I disliked were the things that hung high up on the wall on either side of the monument’s narrower top. A decayed coat of mail, a couple of old weapons, a helmet. I could not see the coat of mail when I was sitting, thanks to the solid front of the first pew in the transept, but, whenever I had to get up, there it would be, older and older and deader and deader yet somehow not quite dead enough.
On the other hand if I looked down the chancel there was a rich old widow who always wore black and whom therefore I took to blind. And blindness was not a misfortune, blindness was evil magic. When I was sitting down I could not see her either as she was hidden by the reading-desk, so the morning service became an alternation of agony and relief, but the relief itself shadowed with the knowledge that soon we should have to stand up again and there I should be, exposed to the blind old lady on the one hand and the coat-of-mail man on the other.
As irrational as are the fears he describes, there must be many who would have experienced similar moments.