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September 2011


Exactly 50 years ago this month I started secondary school. The timetable for  Monday afternoons featured Stair, French, Commerce and Tίos. Some of us wondered what on earth ‘Tίos’ could be but we would not have dreamt of  asking. Eventually all was revealed. Tίos, it transpired, was Domestic Science, now known as Home Economics. One always feels a little uneasy when things keep changing  names. Constant rebranding smacks of something not being quite right. Tίos was not quite right.

We all studied the same subjects. There was no Science or Latin. Not for us the periodic table of the elements or Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Parent /teacher communication scarcely existed. Parents were utterly unaware of the nature of the curriculum or that some  subjects were to be studied as Gaeilge. The boys in the CBS around the corner had Latin and Science but no French. For small mercies we must be grateful.

There were two sessions of Tίos per week, a double session devoted to Sewing and Cookery on alternate weeks and that last class of theory on Monday. This consisted of learning recipes by rote from a book called Ealaί na Cócaireachta. One became totally fearful of not being rigidly accurate as Sr. X. was known to use the stick if the recital was not word perfect . At no time was it suggested that one could write the recipe in one’s own words. It would have been quite simple to compose sentences such as ‘Gearr na glasrai i bpίosaί beaga’.  No. One became fixated on an accurate rendering of  Ealaί na Cócaireachta. The result was that Bellitum scored all of five percent in the Christmas test. Tears were shed. Mother conspired with me to hide the shameful fact from the friend who came to visit in the New Year and who was a shining prodigy in her own school. I have been told by a relative that I was never more than a good average. Perhaps that five percent was the living  proof of this. I never knew whether any classmate scored as low. Christmas test results were not discussed.  Only recently have I been able to mention this particular ignominy.

The double cookery class every two weeks was another cause of anxiety. Ingredients had to be transported  by bicycle over five miles of country road. Stuff had to be kept from the rain before the age of Tupperware. Sourcing these ingredients was another problem. More stress for mother. Cabbage was the only veg in constant supply in those days. Frantic drying and stiff  starching of the regulation white apron and  headband took  place the night before. Washing machines, driers and  radiators were then rare . Chopping boards, knives, pots and pans had to be laid out in a  prescribed order on the cookery room table. If, on inspection, all these things were not correct  Sr. X. produced the stick again. The actual cooking became a side issue to the whole ritual. I remember Strύisίn Gaeilge sloshing through the wickerwork of the bike basket.There were Rollaί Bainne hard as bullets and the dreaded Carrigeen mould, now enjoying a revival. Brown bread and soda bread also featured strongly. On days when buns were cooked it was rare to arrive home with anything at all since we were ambushed by boys from the Tech with an unfailing nose for delicacies.

We had already learned everything there was to know about stitchery in the National School, tacking, hemming, blanket stitch, French and running fell seams, mending, patching and knitting. The prescribed course now involved the making of garments, a slip in first year, a knickers in second year and a gύna in third year. It had not dawned on the cigire in the Roinn Oideachais that no self- respecting female had worn home made underwear since  World War II. The slip and knickers were made of pink or blue seersucker sold to us by Sr. X. The knickers had long wide legs with lace around the hem, scarcely at the cutting edge of style in 1961. Seams had to be dead straight. Two years were spent ripping out and resewing in a desperate effort to achieve perfect straightness. Failure to do so involved punishment. Needless to say neither garment was ever worn, I suspect by anybody. Sr. X. vanished at the end of first year and was replaced by Sr. Y. who also taught us Maths. Go figure.

Fabric choice for the third year gύna was limited. Mine was a hideous lime green cotton with large white polka dots. The syllabus prescribed that a bodice be attached to a skirt which had to be pleated or gathered. In 1964 the straight shift dress was in fashion. How we longed for them. The Beatles were then in full voice. No with-it teen would wear a gather or a pleat. Our creations were modelled at year’s end in what passed for a fashion show in what passed for a school hall. No parents or public of course, just ourselves, mercifully.

Should one now feel bemusement or rage at these three years of wasted time and money? We could have been learning Science, having an extra bit of  Maths or tasting the joys of  Latin. German would have been beyond delightful. We could even have been reading some nice books from a nice library.

Most of our generation learned what domestic skills we needed in other ways in later years. We made clothes from paper patterns when we were poor but a few hours of a weekend course could have taught most of us that. I enjoyed patchwork in the seventies and became a member of the Irish Patchwork Society, not from any love of sewing acquired in school but from an enthusiasm for the artistry of old quilts. Mother taught me how to crochet. She, in turn, had learned this at a night class in the thirties. We learned to cook  from talented flatmates. Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran’s  Poor Cook  was a godsend in the economically straitened seventies. Since then we have had Darina, Delia, Jamie and so many others to enlighten us. Skills were acquired from motivation rather than fear. The only thing that remains in the memory from Ealaί na Cócaireachta is the exhortation not to boil the stew – ‘Strύisίn beirithe, strύisίn millte’ and the incantation ‘ύnsa ime, ύnsa plύr’ for an anlann bán now elevated to béchamel.

I am not suggesting that Home Ec. Should be abolished in school. Happily it is no longer a gender specific subject. My own daughters were taught all subjects in first year after which they were allowed to choose which ones they would take for Junior Cert. In fact I recall that a high point in la fille ainée’s first year was bringing home  scones she had successfully made. No Sr. X. No stick. No starched white apron. In the school where I taught for 33 years pupils in colourful aprons cheerfully made pizza and delicious stir fries. Best of all there was a healthy level of error tolerance.There are those who recall school in terms of what was endured in Maths or Irish class. For me the horror was Tίos. I am a survivor of Tίos. Perhaps the only real thing learned was stoicism.