The Night Aunt Mary Shannon Choked on the Coddle
I first began to question my relationship with the Church on the night Aunt Mary Shannon choked on the coddle. I was eight years old. The protagonists of the Nativity story were summoned immediately by my grandmother: “Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Then that mysterious, unidentified, and diminutive fellow whose name was always invoked by my grandfather in a state of alarm: “In the name of the wee man!” I turned to Father O’Connell expectantly, anticipating something glorious and Divine from my grandparents’ parish priest, a friend from the ‘old country’. He did nothing. I shall return to this crisis of Faith, and Aunt Mary Shannon’s asphyxiation, soon. First, let’s talk about the coddle.
Coddle, or ‘Irish coddle’, or ‘Dublin coddle’, is a stew made from leftovers that typically include fragments of hacked-to-pieces sausages, bacon, potatoes, and onions which are all lumped into a pot together and boiled with a seasoning of salt and pepper — and perhaps a little parsley, if you’re feeling adventurous… and a measure of alcohol (that’s a Scots-Irish measure). Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Earthy and wholesome. A meal unfettered by preparation, presentation, and expectation… especially expectation. Only it isn’t. Nothing about the coddle was ever simple. At my grandparents the coddle was served up with the weight of Irish history and the political and social plight of the Irish diaspora in a subjugating and bigoted world. For every savaged and tortured sausage that was lobbed into the bowl there was a heroic tale about a Connolly or a Collins. The names of the literary behemoths (Joyce, Swift, O’Casey, Wilde) who “loved the coddle” were sprinkled more liberally than the seasoning. And I still wonder if a single potato was ever peeled in that house that wasn’t accompanied by a lament about the Irish Famine.
So, when Aunt Mary Shannon, a delicate, petite, bespectacled, and tweed-clad septuagenarian, interrupted another torturous table rendition of ‘The Fields (of Athenrye)’ with a diabolical hacking sound and two flailing arms I am ashamed to admit I almost cheered. Catholic priests wielded considerably more influence in the seventies than they do now, so everyone turned to Father O’Connell. Everyone, that is, except my father who was already on his feet and racing around the table. He yanked Aunt Mary Shannon’s tiny, contorting body out of her chair and began to perform a suspiciously vigorous and overenthusiastic Heimlich manoeuvre; my father, never the most tolerant and even-tempered of men, found the indecipherable, lilting, and whispered Cork brogue that Aunt Mary Shannon spoke with utterly exasperating — particularly because my grandfather, out of devilment, always sat them together at meals.
“Father, help us!” Cried my grandmother. Father O’Connell surveyed the chaos, smiled beatifically, closed his eyes, and began to pray.
“That’s it?!” I yelped.
My father reached across the table and managed to clip me on the side of the head with his right hand while still holding a convulsing Aunt Mary Shannon with his left. I once saw him swing one foot around the back of the other and kick a football fifty yards. This was more impressive.
“Someone call for an ambulance!” Shrieked my grandmother.
“Why can’t you make the call?” Asked my grandfather.
“Saints preserve us.” Whispered Father O’Connell.
“Come on, ya bugger.” Grunted my father.
But still Aunt Mary Shannon hacked and clawed the air until, eventually, a masticated fragment of sausage exploded out of her mouth, ricocheted off the sideboard, then rolled peacefully along the table before settling beside Father O’Connell’s rosary beads. As Aunt Mary Shannon slumped down onto her chair to gasp and gurgle her way back I turned again to Father O’Connell.
“Glory be to God.” He said.
“Oh, Amen, Father.” Said everyone else. Even my father, who was trying valiantly to conceal his rancor at allowing credit for his Herculean feat of rescue to be pilfered by a celestial usurper. And who knows? Maybe it was.
Three things happened after that evening: my grandparents never invited another priest for dinner; nobody ever made the coddle again; and, although I didn’t realise it then, my relationship with God would never again be determined by my faith in the church.