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The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty

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1 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Plot Father Lynch is late again for morning Mass and Colum feels sorry for him. Colum goes door to door in evening selling ballot tickets and doesn’t understand when a woman tells him Father Lynch won’t want to win the first prize. After tea at home, Colum goes to Parochial House to hand in money he has collected. Housekeeper is strangely unfriendly and tries to hurry him away. Father Lynch appears, very drunk; knocks off and breaks Colum’s glasses by mistiming a pat on Colum’s head, before toppling over and cracking his head on radiator. (Climax of plot.) Colum, finally understanding that Father Lynch is an alcoholic, runs home, upset. Colum lies to his mother that he slipped on ice when she asks how glasses got broken. (Turning point.) Next morning, although Colum angrily tries to avoid him, Father Lynch apologises but checks whether Colum has told anyone what happened before pushing money into his hand. Colum runs away but still holds on to the money.

2 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Setting Probably 1950s/60s: Colum wearing shorts and “pulled his socks up as high as he could to try and keep his legs warm.” St Kieran’s Catholic Church: author describes priest dressing in vestry and how Colum serves him as altar boy. Colum’s home: Catholic family, saying Family Rosary and praying for soul of dead father. Not rich – widowed mother; only one son grown up and working to support family. Parochial House: divided into separate quarters for Father Lynch and for housekeeper.

3 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Characters: Colum Altar boy: “jangled the cluster of bells”. Conscientious: goes out selling ballot tickets even in snow; “had sold forty-two books around the doors”. Innocent: doesn’t understand until glasses get broken that priest is alcoholic – mistakes his “trembling fingers” for being “holier” than other priests, more in “awe of the Blessed Sacrament”.

4 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Characters: Father Lynch Catholic priest: “prepared to say Mass”; “kissed the embroidered cross on his emerald stole”; “responsibility to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus”. Not popular: “None of the other altar boys liked Father Lynch”; “would nip them”; “was too quiet and you could never trust anybody like that”.

5 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Alcoholic. Main clues are: Late or doesn’t ”turn up at all” for church services. Face is “sleep-crumpled…floppiness…deeply-wrinkled…sagged and sloped into lines of sadness” because he is hungover. Woman on doorstep makes sly remark that he won’t want “to win it outright then” when Colum says second prize in raffle is whisky and sherry while first prize is food hamper. Fingers “trembling” during Mass due to delirium tremens, withdrawal symptoms from alcohol night before. Asks housekeeper if juice is “strongest you can find for the boy to drink”. Breath smells to Colum “like altar wine”. Stands up “unsteadily” and when he goes to pat Colum’s head “he missed and instead his hand struck the side of the boy’s face” which knocks Colum’s glasses off so they break on tiled floor. Bending down “lurched forwards onto his knees” and “weight of his head seemed to topple him” so “cracked his skull” on radiator. Weeps: “Father Lynch began to cry with his mouth half-open”.

6 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Theme: truth and lies In this story, lies are not white lies to protect someone’s feelings, as in The Exercise, but to keep secrets, to cover up unsavoury truth. Housekeeper lies, saying Father Lynch is ill: truth is he is too drunk or hung over to come to Mass. Colum lies to mother about how glasses got broken; says he was “running and they just fell off. I slipped on the ice”: truth is Father Lynch knocked them off onto floor. Colum’s lie becomes just the beginning of a sin, because when Father Lynch gives him money for new glasses, implication is that Colum’s sin will be compounded: he will be forced to tell mother another lie to explain how he has acquired money for new glasses. Colum is now complicit in covering up secret of Father Lynch’s alcoholism.

7 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Theme: naivety and loss of innocence At start, Colum unaware of Father Lynch’s alcoholism. Thinks Father Lynch “so nervous” and fingers “trembling” during Mass due to “holiness” and “awe” of the sacrament of communion: “what a frightening thing it must be to hold Christ’s actual flesh”. Fails to understand woman on doorstep saying Father Lynch “won’t be wanting to win it outright” when first prize is food hamper but second is whisky and sherry. Even when he sees Father Lynch drunk, doesn’t understand why “eyes looked very heavy and he was blinking a lot” and “Colum smelt a smell like altar wine”. Once glasses are broken, Colum finally understands that priest is habitually drunk – housekeeper exhorts him to “say a wee prayer for him…he’s in bad need of it.” Colum is shocked at this revelation: “knees were like water and his stomach full of wind”. Mother says he is “as white as a sheet” when he gets home.

8 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Theme: sin Lying is a sin, according to principles of Catholic faith. Story suggests that sin becomes compounded. Colum sins by telling a lie to his mother to conceal fact that priest broke his expensive glasses. Colum sins by accepting money that can be construed as bribe from Father Lynch who checks that Colum has not divulged secret: “Did you mention it to your mother?” and “Are you sure? To anyone?” Drinking alcohol is not considered a sin in Catholicism but Father Lynch’s covering it up is tantamount to lying, which is a sin. Father Lynch sins by bribing Colum with money for new glasses in exchange for Colum’s silence. Father Lynch sins further by trying to blackmail Colum into silence as well, playing on boy’s feelings about deceased father, by saying: “I knew your father well…You remind me of him a lot.”

9 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Symbolism and Irony: narrative techniques to convey theme Colum’s glasses when unbroken symbolise his naivety and innocence. He can see physically but can’t see in sense of understanding what is wrong with Father Lynch. Irony used in conjunction with symbolism to emphasise Colum’s ignorance of priest’s alcoholism: Father Lynch uses simile: “You look like a wee owl.” Glasses magnify Colum’s eyes, making them appear big, like owl, renowned for excellent eyesight. Seems he should see what problem is but ironically doesn’t. Colum’s glasses when broken symbolise his loss of innocence: “He could only half see” through broken lens but sees clearly now, in sense of understanding, that Father Lynch is a drunkard. Ironic that Colum can ‘see’ all too clearly what priest’s problem is only at point when he can’t physically see properly through glasses.

10 The Beginnings of a Sin by Bernard MacLaverty
Father Lynch’s priestly vestments symbolise concealment of his alcoholism. Author describes five different items of clothing he puts on before Mass: “amice…white alb…cincture…stole…chasuble”. Priest then tells Colum, “Normally when people wear beautiful things it is to make their personality stand out. With a priest it is the opposite. He wears so much to hide himself.” Layers of clothing symbolise concealment, secrets, covering up the truth. When Father Lynch’s secret is revealed to Colum, author describes him as “wearing an ordinary man’s collarless shirt, open at the neck”. This symbolises that priest is a mere mortal despite outward trappings of priestly role, with ordinary man’s flaws, failings. Shirt is “collarless” in contrast to priest’s distinctive ‘dog’ collar. Open neck symbolises secret coming out into the open, revealed to Colum at last. So ordinary clothes symbolise revelation of secret.

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