Recollections of school days

by Brendan Murray

“It is the Supreme Art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Albert Einstein (1875-1955.)

On the 19th July, 2007, my wife and I paid a flying visit to Co. Cavan. We called on an old friend, Phillip Fidgeon who has a business on the main street. After catching up on old times I enquired if he knew anyone with some knowledge of the Killann Pipers Band that existed in the 1930’s and 40’s. “Michael O’ Reilly, Annahern is your man” replied Phillip adding, “He was a member of the band and he’s still hale and hearty- just go up to the school and ask for Marion Dempsey - she’s one of the teachers; she’ll arrange for you to meet him and give you directions to his house.” Thanking Phillip, I said as we parted, “this will be my first visit to the school since I left it in 1948.” “Its not the same school you attended” he shouted after me, “the old one was knocked down and replaced on the same site by a new one some years ago,” Well”, I shouted back, “the old one wasn’t that old; my first day there was the day it opened in 1939.” “I don’t know why they knocked it” he called out as I sat into the car and headed towards the school on the Kingscourt road.

It was 2.00pm when we passed through the school gates; the main door was ajar. In the hallway a young girl was playing a violin, her tutor, a tall thin man standing near her, occasionally advising her in a low voice. I asked a passing pupil if Ms. Marion Dempsey could see me for a few moments. Marion came to the door and following introductions I asked for directions to the home of Michael Smith. On learning I was an old dim and distant past pupil we were immediately invited to meet her pupils and watch their dress rehearsal of a play about bygone years.

We were introduced to the pupils including some immigrant children, one little girl from as faraway as the Philippines. I gladly agreed to answer any questions concerning my schooldays. I enjoyed chatting with them and answering their many questions about the old school from opening day in 1939, my first day of attendance when I took my seat in infants’ class. I was amazed at their knowledge of local history. One lad asked why a new school was built in 1939. “Because” I replied, “one day during class lumps of plaster started falling from the ceiling and the Master told the pupils to run for it, to vacate the building as fast as they could run. So, there was no school, temporary or otherwise, for a period of six months while the new school was being built, the only exception was Confirmation classes which were held in the church vestry.” Another lad asked where our family home was situated in the 1930’s and 40’s. I replied, “not far from the school- just up the road – you could see it from here; the house with the railings in front.”,” That,” he replied, was originally Granny Fidgeon’s; and down from there was Vera Cassidy’s; there were piggeries in the fields behind those houses,” He certainly had done his homework as the pig houses were “unoccupied” in my time, and as a small boy I had speculated as to their usage. So, sixty years later, I got the facts! I said my older sister Gertie had also attended on the opening day in 1939 and in 1944 she had won the Master’s prize of a half a crown (2 old shillings and sixpence) for the following verse about the school fuel—

“At the back of the school
There’s a big heap of fuel
Which McGruddy drew home in his cart
When the winter comes on
And the rogues come along
You will then see how long it will last.
The children showed great interest about the fuel burnt in the school’s fireplaces. I explained it was mostly turf and sometimes timber given by an obliging farmer. I said the big boys were happy to cut the timber into small logs during school time; also, a few lads with appropriate experience cut and saved turf sods in the bog adjoining the school. The sods were great for “keeping in” (prolonging) the fire. I explained that many pupils had to walk miles to and from school in all weathers and only the townies were allowed to go home for lunch. Also, concerning the adjoining bog, I said that lads with appropriate skill and knowledge had planted tree cuttings near the school wall, and the Master at that time said that if the trees grew, they would, in years to come, remind us of our school days. Master Peadar Moran informed us that the trees are there, now well matured and part of the scenery.

School play
The dress rehearsal of the play then commenced. It was based on an old poem about a Shercock market day of bygone years. It was written by a Mr. McGruddy who presumably was a forefather of the lad mentioned in my sister’s prize winning verse. The poem, entitled Fair Day of Shercock 1890, was contemporaneously recited by a girl from Kosovo who was only six months at Shercock School and had no English when she first attended. Her English with Cavan overtones was excellent. It was marvellous to witness the school drama tradition being maintained.
It was refreshing to see young pupils so confident and self assured with enquiring minds, including immigrant children who were very much at home. No doubt, the interaction of different cultures benefited all.
For the first time in recent years, I realised there was great hope for our country with pupils of such calibre. Obviously their character and talents were being developed; they could think for themselves. They were a great credit to the school principal Peadar Moran, Marion, and the rest of his staff. Obviously, there was a big difference from the teaching methods of my day.

Recollections of School days in the
1930’s and 40’s
The country I grew up in the 1930s, 40s had still remnants of the manners and habits an enslaved country. Maybe, in relative terms, the “Well Offs” and “reasonably Well Offs” such as, the big farmer, the big shopkeeper, doctors, guards and teachers, not to mention the catholic clergy just replaced the departed ascendancy classes and their cohorts. They expected and received the same respect. The takeover was easy, the poor and the “not too well offs” had to continue to show respect for their “betters” if they wanted a job, retain their credit pass book, and keep on the inside fringes of society as it was at that time. Indoctrination into the system started from the first day a child attended school.
Children were taught to keep quiet, not to question and to speak only when spoken to.

Theories of learning:
B. F. Skinner, Psychologist 1904-1990 had some very interesting observations about theories of learning, none of which were adopted in the schools of our liberated country at that time.
In regard to theories of learning, in most cases, there was just one theory – Fear: - fear of the cane, not to mention verbal assaults. If you didn’t know the answer you got slapped; it was assumed you didn’t do your homework. It didn’t matter that you didn’t know what was going on- just learn the answer or suffer the consequences. We had to be real Irishmen and women; this meant not telling parents about punishments; “tell-talers” would be called “informers and traitors” like some dastards in Irish history. “Irish Freedom” seemed to be construed as licence for the teacher to use the rod on girls as well as boys. Religion was taught; kids spent much time learning their prayers and more often than not hadn’t a clue what they meant; In the Hail Mary -“Blessed art thou a monk swimming”- was what most seven year olds thought they were saying and of course it made no sense. Behaviour outside the classroom was observed and reported. That was the norm in the country at that time. This was one means of ensuring the retention of the old class system for the benefit of “upper crusts”
However, people of that era with positions of authority such as, teachers, clergy,

Guards, big farmers, shopkeepers and politicians maybe a much maligned lot; many of them were the salt of the earth, who, if they could not do you a good turn, definitely, would not do you a bad one—it’s just the few who stick in the CRAW.