The Sisters

Synopsis of The Sisters

The story is narrated by a young boy who lives with his uncle and aunt.  He has become friendly with an elderly priest, Father Flynn, who is known to be dying.  When the priest dies the boy and his aunt go to visit the priest’s bereaved sisters.  They believe that, since he broke a chalice some years earlier, his life had been disturbed.  Throughout the story, the boy recalls incidents from his friendship with the priest and is both fearful of and fascinated by the rituals and beliefs surrounding death.

Commentary on The Sisters

gnomon In this context the narrator is referring to a geometrical term, meaning what remains of a parallelogram when a similar parallelogram is removed from one of its angles.  The word is also used for the pin of a sundial, the part that casts the shadow to tell the time.

Euclid A Greek mathematician who lived c. 300 BCE, author of the Elements of Geometry, which would have been familiar to schoolboys at that time.

simony The buying or selling something spiritual, such as a blessing or forgiveness; considered a sin in the Roman Catholic Church.

Catechism A series of questions and answers used to teach children Christian doctrine

stirabout A kind of porridge made of oatmeal boiled in milk or water and stirred while it is cooking.

faints and worms A reference to the making of whisky.  Faints is the impure spirit produced at the beginning and end of the process of distillation.  A worm is a spiral shaped glass condensing tube that forms part of the still.

a great wish for him An Irish expression meaning that the priest admired the narrator, with perhaps a hint that he might have hoped that the boy would also become a priest.

Rosicrucian The Rosicrucians were a brotherhood of religious mystics who traced their origins back to ancient Egypt.  They take their name from a German monk, probably mythical, supposed to have lived in the fifteenth century.  The joking suggestion is that if the narrator is interested in theology and the priesthood it would be in what is regarded by some Catholics as a mysterious and probably heretical cult

absolve the simoniac Priests can release from guilt or punishment a penitent sinner; a simoniac is one who practises simony (see above).

July 1st, 1895 The 205th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, when the Protestant William of Orange (later King William III of England) defeated the Catholic Ireland and thus established English rule in Ireland.

R.I.P. Abbreviation of ‘Requiescat in Pace’ (Latin) or ‘Rest in Peace’, a short prayer for the dead.

High Toast A brand of snuff, powdered tobacco, taken up the nose.

Irish College in Rome A seminary or college for training priests, established in Rome in 1628.  Only the most outstanding Irish ordinands were sent there.

pronounce Latin properly A reference to the debate about the proper pronunciation of Latin, on which there were a number of divergent opinions.

catacombs Underground burial places, often consisting of quite extensive systems of galleries, in which the bodies were usually placed in niches or recesses.  Perhaps Father Flynn told the narrator stories about the catacombs in Rome where early Christians hid to escape persecution.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769) A French republican general who enjoyed great military success throughout Europe and eventually declared himself Emperor of France.  He closed the Irish College in Rome (see above) in 1798.

Mass … different vestments The most important ceremony in the Roman Catholic Church, the Mass is the act of Holy Communion, a sacrament at which worshippers take bread and wine, as did Jesus at the Last Supper.  The sacrament symbolises Jesus’ self-sacrifice to save humanity. There are Masses for many different occasions and the priest’s clothing vAires according to what is required at any given point in the liturgical year.

sins were mortal or venial According to the Catholic Church, a mortal sin, carried out by the conscious exercise of the will, would result in eternal punishment in Hell, unless the sinner is truly penitent and granted absolution by a priest.  Venial sins are less serious and are not committed wilfully, thus leaving the way open for the sinner to go to heaven.

Eucharist Another name for the Mass; taking bread and wine to symbolise Jesus’ body and blood.  It is a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and Catholics believe that the real presence of Christ is experienced through ingesting the bread and wine (a doctrine known as transubstantiation).

Image of a confessional in St Mary of the Angels Church, Dublin, available through Creative Commonsthe secrecy of the confessional The regular confession to a Catholic priest of sins committed is an important element of Roman Catholicism.  This confession takes place in a kind of cubicle in which the priest and the penitent sit on either side of a screen.  In order to receive absolution, the penitent may be required to undertake certain penances (often the recitation of prescribed prayers).  The priest is under oath to keep secret anything he hears in the confessional, however serious the sin committed.

the fathers of the Church A collective name for Christian theologian commentators in the first centuries of the Church’s history.

responses Words spoken or sung by the choir or the congregation, repeating or replying to the priest during services.

Persia The country now known as Iran and, like most other eastern countries, associated in the nineteenth century with wealth, exoticism and sensuality.

altar  The table-like structure at the eastern end of the church from which the priest celebrates Mass. 

Image of a chalicechalice A chalice is the cup or goblet (frequently made from a valuable metal) in which communion wine is distributed to the congregation

blessed ourselves Made the sign of the cross on their bodies. 

The Freeman’s General A mistake in language.  The newspaper referred to was The Freeman’s Journal and National Press, a daily newspaper published in Dublin. This represented middle-class pro-Nationalist views and had a special interest in matters concerning the Church, such as the deaths and funerals of priests.

papers for the cemetery and poor James’s insurance  these probably refer to the priest’s claim to a grave in the cemetery and to the insurance he has taken out to cover funeral expenses.

beef-tea A drink made from beef stewed in water and thought to be good for invalids. The brand Bovril is a beef tea extract.

Breviary  The prayer book for the Roman Catholic Church which Father Flynn would have used daily.

rheumatic wheels  The speaker makes a linguistic error and means ‘pneumatic’ wheels.

it contained nothing This is an important detail, for to have dropped the chalice while it contained wine for the sacrament would have seemed to ordinary believers to have shown a lack of respect for the blood of Jesus.  Roman Catholic doctrine would not take this view, regarding such an event as an accident.

the boy’s fault The boy referred to would have been an acolyte, a server helping the priest at Mass.

Investigating The Sisters...

  • Why do you think the story is called The Sisters?
  • In what ways does The Sisters prepare the reader for the tone of the volume as a whole?
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