I have always been particularly interested in atmosphere, the way the accumulated history of a place interacts with the perceptions of individuals experiencing it at any particular moment.
I had a great aunt who entered a convent when she was very young. I was once told that she originally got involved with the convent because she wanted to train as a teacher. The only teacher training college in that part of Ireland was a residential one run by nuns, so that was where she went. But at the end of three years she failed her exams and rather than face returning to her family, she stayed on at the convent for good.
I’m not sure whether this is true or whether it is family mythology. Perhaps she was merely drawn into the life of the place, day by day, impressed by the example of her teachers, attracted by the order and security. No one had the chance to ask about her reasons because this was an enclosed order, which meant the sisters were only rarely allowed beyond the convent walls. My great aunt was not even permitted to attend her mother’s funeral.
Then came the nineteen sixties. Change arrived everywhere, even percolating through the formidable barrier of the convent walls. Suddenly the rules were relaxed and we could visit her. The convent had extensive grounds and they built a guest house where visiting relatives could stay. As a child I went there a number of times with my parents.
The part of the convent I remember most clearly was the chapel. It was divided in two by a metal grille. Visitors were encouraged to attend services but they could only occupy the pews nearest the door; the area beyond the grille was reserved for the sisterhood.
I will never forget the way the nuns entered the chapel on a Sunday morning. First we would hear their disembodied voices singing, seeming quite unearthly to a small child. Then they would begin to file noiselessly in, dressed in ghostly white robes, each taking her appointed place as they steadily filled up the pews on the other side of that grille.
As a child I used to be afraid of them. Their world seemed so far removed from mine, the things that occupied their time so completely unfathomable, as if they were another race of beings altogether. I was terrified that somehow I might find myself left behind at the end of our stay and I would never be able to go home again.
Years later as a young man I returned to the convent in the company of an elderly female relative whom I will call her Eileen. Though very religious in her own way, Eileen prided herself on being a down-to-earth, no-nonsense sort of person.
When we entered the chapel I was shocked to find that the grille had been taken away. Eileen informed me that it had happened many years earlier. However, we could still see the holes in the stone work where it had once been and we took our places on this side of that imaginary barrier.
Some time earlier my poor great aunt, in a state of confusion, had walked out of a set of French Windows on the first floor of the convent. They had found her body in the early hours of the morning. Some of the family talked angrily about neglect, but the truth was that the only nuns left in the convent were too old to look after themselves, let alone their colleagues. Soon the chapel, the convent and all its grounds would be sold for housing.
I lowered myself onto the hard wooden kneeler, closed my eyes and prepared to say a prayer. But before I could begin to frame the words, an almost unbearable feeling of loss and unhappiness broke upon me like a wave. I was convinced I heard women’s voices singing an aching lament for years wasted in loneliness, sacrifice and renunciation.
Beginning to to feel quite dizzy, I sat on the pew and put my head between my legs. Eileen turned and asked if I was feeling all right. I considered trying to explain what I had just experienced. But she was such a sensible person.
‘It’s just…’ I began. ‘…just the atmosphere in the place. I suddenly felt so strange.’
‘Oh that,’ Eileen said with a nod. ‘I feel like that every time I come here.’
I looked at her in amazement. Could she really understand what I was talking about?
‘Wasn’t it a terrible waste of all those lives?’ she said. 'Come on. Let's go outside. You look like you could do with some air.'