Growing up Catholic: the teenage years

The era of the miniskirt: Claire Hill (2nd from right) and her friends, aged 16, 1969. Photo: author’s own.

Growing up as a Catholic on the outskirts of Manchester in the 1960s, there were lots of different crowds of teenagers that peacefully co-existed. In those days, we used to be able to buy alcohol at our local pub at the age of 15 (the girls always looked older with their make up on). The licensing laws didn’t appear to be so strict in those days – or perhaps the pub we all went to was ‘more accommodating’. Of course, we told our parents we were drinking ‘coke’, but I expect they knew otherwise. They were probably just picking their battles (as we do as parents).

My adolescence was certainly veering far beyond the narrow perimeters defined by ‘The Catholic Truth Society’. Nowhere in these instructions did it say that you could lie to your parents and tell them that you were staying at a friend’s house, when really you were going to a party in someone’s cellar, dressed in long flowing skirts and kaftans like something from Forrest Gump (before Forrest Gump was even a twinkle in someone’s eye). But that was what was happening. Over time, as parents do, they began to wise up.

This wising up was certainly playing havoc with my social life. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my father trained to be a priest for ten years, before he left to study drama, and later marry my mother.

The pretend Mr Carnegie

My then boyfriend was called David. His best friend (let’s call him Michael Carnegie) was having a party and the parents weren’t going to be in: the ‘height of outrage’ in the parents’ handbook. There was absolutely no chance (I’d like to emphasise: NO CHANCE) that my parents would agree, so David suggested that Michael would phone my father and pretend to be his (Michael’s) father and reassure him that he and his wife would be in the house when the party was taking place. (Confused? Me too). Anyway, Michael warned me before the phone call took place – so that I could listen on the upstairs extension (of course).

The phone rang and I called my father to tell him that Mr Carnegie was on the phone and wanted to speak to him.

“He’s very nice and he’s Michael’s father,” I explained to my father. This is how the conversation went:

Michael (aka Mr Carnegie – his dad): “Could I speak to Mr H…?”

“Speaking!” replied my father.

“I would just like to reassure you that my wife and I will be in the house tomorrow when Michael has his party. We hope that you will allow Claire to come tomorrow,” said Michael.

“Can I just congratulate you, Mr Carnegie on how young you sound? You sound so youthful to have a son of 17,” replied my father.

“Thank you very much, Mr H, yes, I’m very lucky to sound so youthful. Do you think you can see yourself allowing Claire to attend tomorrow?”

“No, Mr Carnegie, I don’t think so. Good evening!” and my father put the phone down.

Once we knew my father had hung up, Michael and I commiserated with each other, acknowledging that my father hadn’t been fooled for an instant. I decided not to mention to Michael that my father was a lecturer in drama at the local university and so knew rather a lot about voices. I didn’t think that information would go down well.

Not fooled for a minute: Claire’s father, Mr H. Photo: author’s own.

Trying to gatecrash a party

On another occasion, my parents, who were certainly becoming more informed about my social life by this stage, heard that my very shy innocuous boyfriend Anthony (who wouldn’t say boo to a goose), and I were going to gatecrash a party that some people we knew were having. When I say ‘party’, please substitute the word ‘orgy’ in your mind, because that’s what my parents thought went on at gatecrashed parties. They were nothing like this whatsoever: the word party was really a euphemism for ‘get together’.

So, on this particular Saturday night, I was walking hand in hand with Anthony through the town centre towards the designated semi-detached house where the party (sorry, I mean ‘orgy’) was being held.

As we walked, I could see a tall familiar figure in the distance marching purposefully towards me. It was my father.

 “Hello,” I said, nervously.

I tried to introduce him to Anthony, but he cut in and said, “Right Claire, it’s time for bed!” (It was only 9 o’clock).

I had to leave Anthony unceremoniously in the middle of the town centre. 

Unfortunately, the word had got out about my father and his intimidating manner towards these teenage boys who came to take me out. They were all really nice boys from good homes; but it’s as if my father wanted them to pass a test or fight a duel before they were allowed to take me to the local youth club. It certainly seems like an alternative reality to today. 

The destiny of women according to The Catholic Truth Society booklet, 1960s. Photo: Maria Cox.

How things have changed

Thinking back, I realise how out of touch my Catholicism, my school and my parents were to the totally innocuous teenage activities of my friends and myself. I certainly welcome the increased openness that most of us have with our children these days. 

Years later, when my husband and I were living in Kent, our Irish neighbours would tell us similar stories about their upbringing. Of course, by that time, we could laugh about it all. It was quite comforting to talk to people who’d been brought up within the same rules. In those days, because Catholicism was so strict, we did feel different from the mainstream – very ‘othered’, to use modern terminology.

By the same author:

I’m aware that this difference is barely present now; however, my strict religious background has, I hope, made me more consciously empathetic towards those from different backgrounds in multicultural Britain. I know from experience how hurtful it can be when older generations (my grandmother and great aunts in my case) refuse to come to your wedding because you’re not marrying a person from the same religion, or not marrying in the ‘right church’ for whatever reason. 

There’s so much division in society, which is why I find non-inclusive values such an anathema. We need to try and cross our ideological divides and become more harmonious; we will all benefit if we do. 

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