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                        Tiernascragh/Ballycrissane N.S., Co. Galway. Early 1950s

Aoibhinn beatha an scoláire
Bhíos ag déanamh leighinn
Is follas dibh, a dhaoine,
Gur do is aoibhne i nÉirinn

It’s the end of the silly season and journalists are still stuck for a bit of copy. The first day of school for four year olds is turned into a drama as newspapers and TV programmes treat it as a traumatic event. Parents duly oblige with histrionics as little Jack or Sophie disappear through the school gates for a few hours. One wonders what kind of negative message is conveyed to children by this nonsense.

I was very excited when my eldest started school. The big adventure of education was about to begin. Standing in the queue to register her I looked around me with delight. Colourful classrooms, toys, shelves full of little books, cheerful posters on the walls, the sweetest little tables and chairs and, best of all, radiators and rows of cute little toilets adjoining each classroom. What was there to cry about?  I restrained myself from cackling with sarcastic laughter when I overheard two ‘mums’ in the queue behind me loudly criticising the school. ‘It’s a disgrace!’ said one. ‘It’s like a third world school!’ agreed her friend. These women were a good decade younger than me. They were clearly unfamiliar with conditions in third world schools. Neither had they seen the inside of Tulladerry* National School circa 1953.

I turned four in October 1952, the usual age for starting school. My mother was anxious about conditions in the school. She had heard that the babies’ class often had to sit on the floor. She worried about colds and decided she would hang on to me until Spring. Ere long, however, the Canon came footing over from the parochial house to enquire why I had not been signed up. So I started school sometime after Christmas. No parent ever went next or near the school in those days. Country children walked long distances in the charge of older siblings or neighbours’ kids. We village kids only had to be accompanied on the first day. After that we fended for ourselves. The parents saw me off as I was collected by Mary and Teresa, the blacksmith’s daughters from up the street, two stalwart minders who proudly installed me in the classroom.

Our school had been built in 1912. My father always told me that as one of the big boys he had been the first to march into the building on opening day. There were four classrooms, two main doors and two halls for hanging coats dating back to the days when the school was divided into boys’ and girls’ sides. The fourth classroom was only occasionally used  when a fourth teacher was employed. This depended on the average attendance which fluctuated wildly as emigration took its toll on the population of the parish. Children also went missing for protracted periods to thin beet and ‘catch’ turf on the bog.The Canon and the Master worried incessantly about the average. A blackboard in the corner of the Master’s classroom recorded the figures. Every child counted which explained the Canon’s anxiety to recruit.

The classrooms had high ceilings. The windows were tall and were positioned so high on the walls that not even the older children could see out. The Master had to crane his neck to see the Canon’s biretta bobbing down the chapel lane. Everyone was on the qui vive for these visitations and for that of the curate. I have been reading Village School by the recently deceased Miss Read. She described exactly the same window arrangement in her English school and suggested that this was to prevent children from being distracted by the outside world. Nature was to be kept at a distance. There was no view. All classrooms had timber wainscot. In all but the infants’ room this was painted dark bottle green. The floors were wooden. Some of the boys swept these floors in the mornings and sprinkled them with water to keep the dust from rising. They  also helped the teacher to light the turf fire in the massive fireplace in each classroom. The turf was drawn in lorryloads by our parents and stored in a shed outside. Since the fire was only lit just before class it took ages to heat up. A heavy black iron fireguard stood in front of the fire. Only the teacher got to be really near the heat. It was the second half of the day before the room became anything approaching snug. On cold winter days I ran home at lunchtime to thaw my feet out at the Stanley range. Country kids had to make do with running around the yard to keep warm. A yard strewn with discarded slices of bread and jam, the usual lunch of the scholars.

A bucket of water was brought from the pump at the top of the village for each classroom. There were what were known as ‘dry toilets’ out the back of the school. They were unapproachable due to the stench. Again, it was the country kids who had to have recourse to them. Village kids were warned not to go near them. They were emptied once a year. I sometimes wonder how the young female teachers managed between 9.30 and 3pm what with all the little discomforts that flesh is heir to. Infections were rife. Everyone without exception got measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough and flus. Boils, eye styes, ringworm, chilblains and head lice were rampant. This fed in to the attendance problems which affected the average. The Canon was known to visit homes to monitor convalescence.

Miss H’s infants’ class was the brightest room. There were alphabet cards around the walls, B for ball, D for dog. Our Lady of Fatima was perched atop the press with, inexplicably, an oversized advertising model of a Gillette blade. In the month of May we brought flowers for the May altar. Primroses and cowslips from the nearby fields. We each had a small wood framed slate which we wrote on with chalk. The only concession to art was ‘marla‘. While Miss H. looked after High Infants Low Infants were told to ‘Téigh a chodhladh’. All heads went down on desks. The situation was reversed for the next lesson. All teachers had a stick to keep order but I can honestly say I have no memory of ever being slapped. I did see Miss H. slap people frequently. Her thick ‘bata’ had bright pink pencil marks on it. Adults routinely asked scholars two questions – ‘What book are you in now?’ and  ‘How many slaps did you get today?’ This was considered right and proper. In my early days teaching I remember a mother exhorting a colleague to give her daughter ‘a good wallop’.

In first or second class we graduated to the next teacher. Older girls returned to the female teachers twice a week for sewing and knitting. During this time the boys learned the Latin to serve mass. This infuriated me. I wanted to say ‘Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam’, wear a lace surplice and extinguish tall candles with that long snuffer.The last three years, fourth, fifth and sixth class, were spent with the Master. He was a gentleman and a gentle man. His stick was a mere twig. He would send a boy out to pluck a new one from the ditch from time to time. It did little damage. All human life in the parish was in his classroom. All except one more affluent family who were ferried by car to the school in the nearby town. I remember my mother saying she would not do that as it would offend the Master. For that I am eternally grateful. Time enough would one encounter the Sisters of Mercy. The playground could be a hellish place. Some parents discussed their neighbours’ business openly in front of their children and this was clear from the constant taunting of individuals and groups. ‘Gwan th’oul farmers’. ‘Ye think ye’re great’. ‘Your oul’ father/mother/sister is..’ this or that. Schadenfreude was rampant. Language could be foul. Colourful metaphors from Tulladerry N.S. often spring to my mind which I have to stifle in more polite city company. One learned avoidance strategies in the yard. The violent fight I witnessed between two girls one particular day has perhaps influenced my loathing of female boxing in spite of recent Olympic success. I can still see the scratch marks down the length of one girl’s face. The girls’ playground was never supervised.

Each wooden desk accomodated two people. There were inkwells with brass lids bearing the inscription ‘Hearne’s, The Quay, Waterford’. The boys made the ink, a mixture of water and blue powder. Pens were the old wooden handled nibbed variety which we dipped into the inkwells. There were half the number of desks in the classroom as there were pupils. We stood an hour and then sat an hour alternately. We did the sums leaning up against the dark green wainscot and the English and Irish compositions sitting at the desks.The only ornaments were two maps on the wall, one of Ireland and one of the world. I think we also had a globe. Homework scarcely existed, apart from the catechism. The Master knew that it probably would not be done. All written work was done during the school day.  One was aware that there were tranquil one-teacher schools in even more rural areas where children were coached for scholarship exams. Ours was no such establishment. ‘There is no thirst for learning in Tulladerry’ said the Canon.

Concerts, plays and sports did not exist. The boys played hurling at lunchtime in the field opposite and the girls played Red Rover and Ring a’ Rosies in the yard. The only distraction in the school year was the annual trip to Dublin. What joy. It cost all of one pound. We saw the horses out on the Curragh early in the morning from the bus. We went to the zoo, the Dáil, the museum, the airport to see the planes and on one memorable occasion the Hugh Lane Gallery. I suggested the latter and the Master duly obliged. Loud were the complaints of male classmates, complaints which I ignored – ‘Nothin’but oul naked wimmin’.

The Master came into his own at History time. He would wax lyrical on Daniel O’Connell and stretch his arm out in the direction of the churchyard next door to where an eminent victorian statesman lay buried and whom he described as ‘O’Connell’s right hand man’. He would extend another arm to a nearby crossroads to point out that O’Neill and O’Donnell had pitched camp there on their march to Kinsale. I fancied I could hear the jingle of their harness. The story of Galloping Hogan and the siege train was rendered with appropriate theatricality –‘Sarsfield is the word and Sarsfield is the man’. He was also very keen on the catechism. His sense of morality was quite definite. ‘The duty of one’s state in life’ and ‘an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay’ were exhortations that lingered. Perhaps it was because of this that I never threw a sickie in my life. His faith was tangible and sincere. He never emphasised hellfire excessively and I emerged from school with the sense of a loving Jesus who understood our failings. He was very much opposed to the chewing of gum which he maintained was manufactured ‘from the sweepings of the factory floors of England’. England was that place where unfortunates might end up if  they did not behave. One’s faith had to be strong if it were to withstand England. There was one valuable subject from that old curriculum which was of lasting value. English grammar was essential if one were to pass the Primary Cert. It smoothed the path for other languages later. I recalled the Master with his principal and subordinate clauses years later when I heard a young teacher bemoaning the fact that she could not help pupils with their grammar as she had never learned it herself.

Not everyone took the master’s strictures to heart. Discipline in that classroom was tough to maintain. Boys from two particular families gave him hell. Each morning without fail these characters occupied the corners. They did their bit to prevent the rest of us from learning. Some years ago I met one of these culprits at a social function. We discussed the Master. ‘I think of him every day’, said I. ‘I curse him every day’, said he. Truly, if one lacks empathy and self knowledge in youth one seldom acquires them in age. During my life as a teacher I had cause to remember the Master’s tormentors, his fortitude and his faith. When he praised, as he frequently did, he had the tact to whisper it, to save people from the sneerleaders. He died far too soon after his retirement. It is my grief that I never got to thank him. The new curriculum of the early seventies was introduced before his retirement which probably gave some relief to both teachers and pupils.

Some of the classmates are dead. Some disappeared to England never to be heard of again. I remember one girl who had never spoken in the eight years of our schooling. I think once I might have heard her say ‘Go away’ to a bully. The concept of special needs did not exist. I was the only girl from sixth class to progress to secondary school. About two boys did so. This included John, the best in the class, who had told the diocesan examiner that his ambition was to be a pope. Sadly he is amongst the dead. His family had held the monopoly on brains in the parish for several generations. A few other pupils went to the Tech. I have to smile when I listen to the advocates of ‘home schooling’. What does school do if not socialise us, teach us about others and the differences that exist between people and groups of people? It teaches us to cope with the world. The Tulladerry N.S. I knew no longer exists. It has been demolished and the site used for social housing. A shiny new school stands nearby.

So, to all tinies starting school this year and their parents I would say – enjoy. The world is a better place.There are concerts and parties and radiators and toilets ! And, we hope, they’ve had the MMR.

*Tulladerry –not its real name.