My School Days

My School Days

My School Days by Maura McKenna (Hoban)

“Walking back to happiness” could very well be the theme song for my school days in the thirties because we walked everywhere, and I mean everywhere, to school, to Mass, to our nearest town, Castlebar, to visit friends and neighbours and to get around our 50 acres of land. The roads were a walkers paradise, the only rule of the road we had to remember was “keep to the left and you are sure to be right”! Some grown-ups had bicycles and a few families had a horse and trap and, in the parish of Islandeady, there were three cars. My parents, Pat and Marie, lived in Corha. My mother came from Derrycoosh, the next townland, just a mile away, and they both went to the same school, Cornanool, a little over two miles from home.

In our house the Rosary was said every night with all the trimmings! So at an early age we knew all our prayers verbatim. Dad got a Catechism, first and second readers and a table book from Brian who lived nearby and was a couple of years older than we were, and he gave us a daily lesson while Mam concentrated on the prayers, so you could say we were off to a good start.

For some unaccountable reason I remember my first day at school better than any other. It was the first Monday in February. Norah, who was a year older, and myself started off for school at 8.45 a.m., accompanied by dad. As we walked along he recited poems and nursery rhymes and we joined in. He said it would help to shorten the journey and the habit grew and stayed with us all our school days. We arrived in Cornanool school at 9.30 a.m. and hung our coats in the hall. We went into the “Master’s” room first and met Bernard Egan for the first time. He talked to dad; I don’t remember any of the conversation as I was too interested in my new surroundings. The room was big with long heavy desks and six or seven pupils in each desk, boys and girls, thirty-five in all, and a table and chair. Big maps covered most of the walls and there was a nice turf fire. The “Master”, as he was known by parents and pupils alike, brought us into the next room to meet Miss Henry, our new teacher. Her room was smaller with four long heavy seats fitted to the floor, a table and chair, some presses and again a turf fire, and twenty-eight pupils.

Miss Henry turned around when we went in and said: “Where do you think you are going with two children and the Catechism examination tomorrow?” Dad said, oh so calmly: “They know their Catechism. She said to Norah: “Say the ‘Memorare’,” and Norah rhymed it off to perfection. Then she said to me: “Say the ‘Apostles Creed’,” and I duly recited it. We must have passed the test for she told us to sit down. All that morning she concentrated on Religious knowledge and we thought it was great because we knew the answers to all the questions, even though we didn’t understand their meaning or depth.

Then it was lunch break at one o’clock for thirty minutes. We all went out to the girls’ playground to the left of the school and after our lunch we started to dance, and here I have to pause to pay tribute to Eileen, a good singer and dancer, who could lilt any tune to suit the dances. Over the years she taught us “The Siege of Ennis”, “The Walls of Limerick”, “The Stack of Barley” and “The Waltz”. Everyone was included and she gave the newcomers individual attention. After lunch it was Catechism again. Brian brought us home from school and from that day he had the “pleasure” of our company morning and evening. The boys had a playground to the right of the school and they played football and handball. We gave a detailed account to our parents of our first day at school and then we rehearsed prayers and questions for our first Catechism examination. We arrived at school full of knowledge next morning. The Inspector arrived at 10.30 a.m. and questioned us for over an hour on everything. He just threw out the questions and whoever put up their hand first was asked. So far we were asked nothing. Then he said: “Does anybody know the Commandments. This was my chance and up shot my hand and I stood up and rhymed them off. First, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth … “Thou shalt not cover thy neighbour’s wife …” He stopped me and said “Covet thy neighbour’s wife”. “Dad says it’s ‘cover’,” so he got the Catechism and showed me the word and spelled it out. . .COVET. So I said “You are right, I must tell dad when I get home,” which I did.

The rest of the week went smoothly. We did a little Irish, Irish spelling, English, English spelling and tables (two plus one are three, or the two times’ taas they were called). On Monday Sadie, from over the road, joined us to start school so were able to fill her in on the programme. Our friendship with Brian and Sadie lasted all through school days and down the years since. When we meet we can have a laugh re our school days.

We had our first holiday at Easter and we spent the first week in the bog. Dad cut the turf and we spread it. He cut enough in one week to supply us with fuel for the year. If the weather was fine we had only to leave it and let it dry. If it was wet it had to be footed, after that it was made into stacks convenient to the road and taken home at leisure. One cart was taken to the school by each family so that took care of the heating costs. It makes you wonder are we progressing or going backwards nowadays. Some days we took our brother John with us who, though only four, was taller than we were. We worked as a team taking the turf out of the bank. We took food with us and lit a fire. Everything tasted lovely out in the bog. There is something in the air that makes you ravenous and mam always sent plenty of supplies. We were lucky, I suppose, to have our own milk, butter, eggs, bacon, potatoes, vegetaand fuel, but there was a lot of work caring for horses, cows, calves, pigs and hens. As we grew older we helped inside and outside. Mam looked after Ann who was a baby so she didn’t come to the bog with us.

We went back to school after Easter and from then until July we added a little more to our repertoire and by now we were intqjrish poems on our road to and from school. The Summer holidays were a longer break so we helped with the hay and bringing home the turf. We also found time for games. We had a swing that was never idle, running, skipping, danchandball and shop. Norah organised the shop and she sold all kinds of fruit, vegetables, sultanas, milk, buttermilk, biscuits, cakes and sandwiches. We had coins made from cardboard, all values, half-crowns, florins, shillings, pence, half-pence and pound notes made from greaseproof paper. Norah could spring surprises on us, too, like the day she had some lovely flower arrangements and flower sprays all taken from mam’s garden, and when she had bowls of custard and jelly she really had a ready market. It was to be her life’s work and she is still happily selling her groceries to her many customers. We put on concerts on Sunday evenings and everyone did his or her party-piece. Dad taught us how to play cards, twenty-five, forty-five, snap and many others. Twenty-five was our favourite and still is.

We went back to school in September and were moved into the next class for the new arrivals. I asked Miss Henry why they were coming to school now. She told me this was the beginning of the school year and the best time to start school. No wonder she was taken aback when we landed in on her in February. She went up in my estimation after that for she had no easy task teaching infants, high-infirst and second classes, about thirty children in all, and the classes just moved on a seat each year so our progression from infant class to second class was almost imperceptible.

John joined us in September, with my newfound knowledge on the correct time to start I made sure of that and he was well prepared. He got a football from Santa Claus that year and we got three dolls.

One day in January when we came from school there was a baby in the cradle. This was out of the blue as far as we were concerned. My grandmother was on duty and mam was in bed. I wanted to know where the baby came from. Mam said: “God sent it” and I answered: “How did He know we wanted one?” She said: “We prayed”. Well, that was easy to understand because we prayed a lot. That was my first lesson on the facts of life. The christening was the next item on the programme. We read all we could on Baptism. The baby was going to be called Catherine Agnes and mam really surprised us when she produced a hand-made croched shawl and dress, snow white with satin ribbons. She had already taught us how to knit and sew on a Singer sewing machine, but the crochet outift was superb. Later she taught us the rudiments of crochet. None of us was ever as good at it as she was.

After the christening party we had a big job to do. We christened every animal at home and at my grandmother’s place, and every new arrival on the farms was christened from that day on. Before grandma left she made out a list of all the chores we could do to help about the house and make it easier for mam. She was a great strong-willed lady and had a solution for every difficulty. She was my grandalso and there was a great rapport between us which was to last all her life. I still have fond memories of her wit and wisdom and love for me.

We visited her often and she always had time for us. She was a great storyteller and she knew everyone in the parish and all about them.

You must know that in the thirties there was not television, very few radios, no electricity as we know it now, and very few had running water. We had a great spring well and we filled a barrel every day for household use. Saturday was different because we got two weekly papers, the Connaught Telegraph and the Western People. We read every line of them out loud. There was a “Kiddies Corner” in the WestPeople to which I sent a story. This is how I won my first fountain pen. It was black and you just set it into a bottle of ink, pressed a lever and it took enough ink to last a few days. A great leap forward from the nib pens we were using. They had to be dipped in the ink well after every word!

So, as the years rolled on, the traffic on the roads grew, especially in the summertime, all going to Achill Island. It must have been the “in” place for tourists at that time and many of the cars had carain tow.

Back to school in September! We moved into the “Master’s room” to third class. John was still with Miss Henry in second class and then Ann started school. She settled in quite easily as Norah and I helped her to get used to her new surroundings and brought her to the dry closet in the playground. This was cleaned several times during the school year by one of the “travelling people” and paid for by the Master. Needlework, history and geography were added to our list of subjects and on our way to and from school we did the counties, towns, rivers, lakes and mountains of Ireland. We even composed our essays en route, so we had only to write them when we got home after our dinner.

The Master taught third, fourth, fifth and sixth classes. Three classes were seated and the class that was doing geography or English reading stood at the edge of a semicircular chalk line so we used to “toe the line” as most of us went barefoot in the summer.

Quite a few people called to the Master’s room during school hours: the postman, Fr. Loftus, our curate, the librarian, parents with fuel for our turf fires, and the inspector who examined us on Religious knowledge, especially the classes for First Communion and Confirmation. For these special occasions the girls were all dressed in white and the boys in suits. He also did a Latin class with the boys and by listening in I soon had it off by heart. When I went to Mass in Islandeady on Sunday I used the Latin version in my missal. After Mass we met and talked to school pals, neighbours and relations. Our circle of friends was growing all the time.

My school days were happy days and the years passed all too quickly. By the time I was in sixth class, three more babies had arrived on the scene, Paula, Margaret and Helen, followed some years later by Sarah and Josie. Looking back, I am filled with wonder at the patience and dedication of my parents and teachers who helped to make and shape us for life.

We are all looking forward to a reunion in August this year. All ten of us, nine sisters and one brother, and no doubt we will reminisce on our school days when we meet — “ins an gleann inar togadh me”.