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Column Cardinal Rules Part 18. Diary of a priest stuck in a confessional.

This week, the (not) Primate of All Ireland brings us exclusive extracts from Fr Brendan Phelan’s short but intense journal, Without Hope, about his five days locked in a confession box.

YOU ARE PROBABLY all familiar with the literary genre which focuses on an isolated individual under extreme psychological pressure, stuck in a situation which seems desperate.

Famous examples include Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, Brian Keenan’s “An Evil Cradling”, and Richard A. Quinn’s “A chat by the fireside with Jackie Healy Rae.”

In each text there is a sense of utter hopelessness, and in the case of Quinn’s tome, a feeling of ever increasing despair.

Now many of these texts are secular, but there are many forgotten examples written by members of the Catholic Church. One’s mind turns to “Five Days in Mullingar” written by Monsignor Billy Timmons, in which our protagonist must spend five excruciating days in Mullingar because of a flat tyre.

Or indeed sacristan Niall Walsh’s account of a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Three days of which were spent in a Ryanair plane on the runway at Heathrow.

But perhaps the finest example of the genre is Father Brendan Phelan’s short but intense journal from 1968 “Without Hope.” Today I want to share some excerpts from this seminal work with you.

Day One:


I have just given Mrs Farrell absolution when she comments on the new confession box. “Isn’t it a great thing altogether?” she says, and I say yes it is. “What are these things?” she asks.

“Airholes,” I say, “they’re the latest thing.”

I can tell she is only angling for an extra Hail Mary, so I shoosh her out of the confessional as quick as I can. Then I wait the standard ten minutes knowing that she will be waiting when I get out. Once I hear the doors swing shut I know the coast is clear.

I lean my hand against the confessional door. It won’t budge. I lean a little harder. Still no movement. I have a moment of panic, then chuckle and admonish myself for being such a “scaredy cat.” I try the door again, assuring myself that this time that it will simply fly open with the slightest touch.


I have kicked the door, and I have shouldered it, but nothing is happening. Once again I compose myself. It may take a little more time, but I realise I will eventually be able to get out.



Day Two


A fitful, fretful night of sleep has passed and I am still inside the confessional. At one point I held out hope for my deliverance, but then I remembered the church is shut for a week, and Father Donlon has gone away to Bundoran.

My situation seems desperate, but I resolve to put my trust in the Lord.


Trusting the Lord. Thinking about tea and toast.


Wake up after dozing, and find I have a crick in my neck. Also have a raging thirst. Despair gives way to elation when I realise I have a Virgin Mary statuette filled with water. Conscience is thrown aside, animal instinct takes over, and I drink. I remind myself not to drink too much just in case.

Day Three


A terrible night has passed. No one has come. I feel discouraged but a quick pray sorts me out.


A glimmer of hope. If I can prise the grille open….Yes. Yes, it just might work!




Starving. Thinking about apple tart. With cream.

Day Four

3 o’ clockish

My fingers are stuck in the grille, I still have a crick in my neck, I am hoarse from shouting, and now there is a mouse in the confessional. I am not going mad. I am not going mad.


I have started talking to the mouse.

4pm. Maybe.

Hungry. So very hungry. I catch sight of some old stale communion wafer stuck in a crack. I manage to reach it with my free hand and wolf it down. Two seconds later I vomit it back up. Now I am hungry and ashamed.

5-6pm? Who knows?

The mouse has started talking back to me. He likes apple tart and cream too! We are going to be the best of friends.

7 o’ clock. Probably.

The mouse is great craic altogether. He and I have some great chats and whenever I start crying he tells me a funny joke. He has lots of jokes. I just wish he would come a little bit closer so that I could pet him.

9pm. Most likely.

The mouse is gone. I don’t want to talk about it.

Day Five

Eureka! I am saved! Through some quirk of fate Mrs Farrell had left her woolly hat in the confessional. She finally remembered days later and came back to find me weak and delirious. Promising to get help she went to collect her pension and do her shopping and returned three hours later with two of her burly sons. I am free! Free at last!

I have resolved to write of my adventure as a warning to people about the dangers of badly fitted confession box doors. This must never be allowed to happen again.


Stuck in the toilet cubicle in the sacristy. No one can hear me. I wish I had never become a priest.

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(Not) Cardinal Sean Brady
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