Rite of passage that commands a high price: Parents in Ireland are concerned about a ceremony that has become a children's fashion show - the First Communion. Alan Murdoch reports

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SQUEEZING between stalls of tinned food, light bulbs, and plugs in Dublin's Meath Street Liberty Market, weekend shoppers pay little heed as a skinny, fair-haired girl of eight, clad only in vest and knickers, is lifted on to a bare wooden table. Under the gaze of a gaggle of mothers, aunts and grandmother, the saleswoman stretches her inch-tape this way and that, fitting the child for an outfit that will transform her into a princess for a day. The annual First Communion season is under way.

From January, working-class families (and lower middle-class ones) scrimp and save hundreds of pounds to present seven- or eight-year-old sons and daughters in a vision of finery that will be worn only once. 'Communion Outfits' signs and miniature mannequin displays appear in the windows of drapers and specialist outfitters. Some run 'First Communion Clubs' to help mothers with the cost - basic outfits start at pounds 150.

This initiation into faith rivals Christmas as the major family occasion in the Irish Catholic calendar. It is even more lucrative for the children. In the May rush of First Communions they can pocket hundreds of pounds in family gifts. Even in the penurious 1950s, working-class youngsters amassed pounds 4 to pounds 5 (then two weeks' wages for many) by delighting relatives with a cameo appearance.

After the Communion on Saturday afternoon, Dublin's Moore Street market with its lines of fruit and vegetable stalls witnesses theatrical scenes. Little girls resplendent in white silk dresses and petticoats with matching veils, gloves, shoes and parasols, are guided between the mess of empty banana boxes, fallen oranges and rotten tomatoes. Here they tour admiring aunts, in-laws, distant relatives and neighbours who, from behind their stalls, will add royally to the treasure from their takings.

Pressure from youngsters to match neighbours' extravagance fuels the expense. Young boys appear in garb almost as ostentatious as the girls - for them there are white suits, even jackets in lime green and shoes edged with a gold line. In O'Connell Street one appeared in an admiral's suit, complete with braided jacket and gold-striped trousers.

The event's modern origins date back to a 1910 edict (Quam Singulari) by Pope Pius X that led to bishops promoting Communion for the under-10s as 'food for virtuous living'. Before that it was given at about 14, on the basis that it had to be earned first.

Irish independence injected new confidence into Irish Catholicism, now the unchallenged dominant creed. A new 1937 Constitution adopting Vatican policy on divorce, and the huge 1932 Dublin Eucharistic Congress glorifying white-robed Church ceremony, also encouraged what one commentator describes as 'a religious binge' - displays of public piety, with rosaries, novenas, saints' statues and the Communion itself, with its symbolic absorption of the blood and body of Christ through wine and host.

Amid recession and escalating costs, church figures have recently joined disillusioned parents in supporting more modest First Communions. Some schools now insist on a French-style alb or robe costing pounds 15. This will be a relief for parents facing more outlay when children reach 12 or 13 and their Confirmation.

(Photographs omitted)