He’s gone to school, Wee Hughie, an’ him not four, sure I saw the fright was in him when he left the door. But he took a hand o’ Denny an’ a hand o’ Dan, wi’ Joe’s owld coat upon him – och, the poor wee man!” – (Wee Hughie by Elizabeth Shane)
I have a wee critter hitting off to her first day in secondary school this week, God love her! It is a traumatic time that could scar the wee’uns for years to come.
I well remember my introduction to St Patrick’s Academy at the tender age of 11. Many hours I have spent on the psychiatrist’s couch as an adult healing that child within who was battered into submission by the crazies. There are tears in my eyes dear reader just thinking about it.
During the summer the big boys around the town warned of the ‘ducking’ induction ceremony and the ‘yellow bed’. More on the yellow bed anon.
Like cowboys on the prairie second year boys rounded up newcomers before holding their heads under a cold running water tap. I’m told it was later outlawed but back then teachers stood at the windows in the old decrepit building pointing out our hidey holes as we shook with terror.
It was horrible being waterboarded while wearing those heavy grey sackcloth jackets with grey woollen jumpers over grey shirts the knot of the tie tight to our Adam’s Apple. Grey grey days. Worse was to come… much worse.
Latin?! “Conjugate the verb ‘To Love’ McSherry”
“Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatas, amunt” …up went the roar… “amunt! amunt!! I love, you love, he she loves, amamus, amatas, aaa…?” “..munt sir” Crash! the old saggart would pull out the strap, “Put out yer hand McSherry, you were told to learn… whack! whack! whack!”
Ah! the verb to love. “Latin is a language as dead as dead can be, first it killed the Romans and now it’s killing me.” In subsequent years, through many hanlins, I’ve been locked up, locked down, locked in, locked out and air locked but not even once have those Latin classes been of use (until this Rant!).
There were statues of St Patrick watching us on every corner and sinister sullen clergymen who didn’t read the parables in the bible that spoke of joy and the little children.
Pastoral care was not yet in vogue and the only arm around the shoulder was a wrestling headlock inspired by Giant Haystacks, when a mad teacher who doubled up as the local GAA club’s full back, with arms like tree trunks, would drive a little scholar head first into the plasterboard of the mobile hut.
Memories were seared into the conscious. In first year I was in Class 1B. Tuesday’s timetable was English, Irish, Geography, Latin, Maths, Art, Art, Science, French.
In the first few weeks nicknames were also thrown by fellow pupils like confetti. The fat guys were christened ‘Bubbles’ while others included comic characters such as ‘Shiner’
‘Spoofer’ and ‘Plug’.
Many were uncomplimentary and inspired by a range of farmyard animals. The most memorable handle was ‘Woodpecker’ McGrath (not his real name, McGrath that is).
In our first Geography class, Mr Nelis who went on to be a big shaker in the GAA, played the word association game. It’s known as an ice-breaker nowadays. It worked! Quick! or you’re out as it went around the 28 more relaxed and almost happy gasuns.
‘Car – wheel – rim – mmm… tyre!” “out! too slow!” until it was whittled down to four lads including young McGrath. “Duster – chalk! – blackboard! – woodpecker!!”
There were boys lying on the floor the tears rolling down their cheeks as Mr Nelis looked at our hero in disbelief.
Henceforth, to this very day, he was known as ‘Woodpecker McGrath’ or ‘Woody’ for short. Woody also went on to big things in the local community but that was his finest hour.
Not even PE was respite from the terror. A PE teacher in those days graduated after a half day course in which he trained to pick two teams, throw in a ball and blow a whistle.
There was no place for potential Olympic gymnasts, rowers, golfers or pole vaulters. It was all about getting the leather over the bar.
The reverend stood at the door, his black clock flapping as we exited the changing room. One by one he pulled out the back of our shorts for a peek; to make sure we weren’t wearing underwear while playing, he said …indeed.
After the Friday afternoon game we all stood embarrassed in the shower, wondering were these really to be the best days of our lives, as his big pink eyes like a myxomatosis rabbit looked at us through the steam.
The yellow bed (an leaba buí) was in his living quarters with a yellow sheet thrown across it. Swish, swish went the cane on your backside lest you forget your towel or for any other perceived misdemeanour. Our only luxury was an Embassy Regal sold in singles those days.
The Rant is part of my recovery process though some of my comrades are now in homes for the bewildered.
Those days are gone and quite rightly it is my responsibility to duck my daughter, give her a nickname and dispense a few whelps of a of a camogie stick. As it should be.