Monday, November 16, 2020

School Days III: Scoil Caitríona, Glasnevin

After writing two posts about my primary school days, I'm impatient to move onto my secondary school experiences. Reminiscing is quite addictive.

My secondary school was called Scoil Caitríona (St. Catherine's School), and it was in Glasnevin rather than Ballymun. I took the bus in every day, but walked home. It was a school run by Dominican nuns, although they were already few in number by the time I came along, and most of our teachers were lay people. It had been a girl's school up until only a few years before, so that the senior years were still all-female in my first years there.

I went to Scoil Caitríona because most of my primary school class went there. I'm surprised I was so conformist, especially since I wasn't happy in primary school. My two eldest brothers had gone to a Christian Brothers school which was fairly savage, going by their stories. My two elder sisters went to Scoil Caitríona. So perhaps it was not so strange I went there.

I have a very vivid memory of my two sisters in their Scoil Caitríona uniforms, eating French toast for breakfast before heading to school. They seemed the picture of elegance and refinement, and French toast has ever since carried this association for me.

The uniform was a wine-coloured sweater, wine-coloured skirts for the girls, grey trousers for the boys (when they came along), and a light-blue shirt. I was very fond of these colours, but halfway through my time in Scoil Caitríona they were changed to navy and light-blue-- depressingly similar to my primary school uniform, and depressingly common as well. It was the students themselves who chose this. This uniform remains to this day, as I know from seeing kids commute to Scoil Caitríona now.

Scoil Caitríona had (and has) a long, long driveway into the school grounds. Walking this every day, twice a day, left quite an impression, and I still dream about it.

The school itself pleased my aesthetic senses hugely, and was a great improvement on my primary school. There were holy pictures and holy statues all around, and the classrooms were named after saints. The Dominican crest was worked into the linoleum in certain places, which seemed deliciously medieval to me. There was actually an upstairs, which there hadn't been in my primary school. To me this was very exotic, as I'd lived all my life in a three-bedroom flat, and stairs had not been a feature of my life at school or at home. (Setting aside the fact that I had to climb fourteen flights of stairs to reach my front door if the lift was broken, but that was different somehow.)

My primary school had been little more than an assembly hall, a set of class-rooms, a recreation yard, and a small kitchen. Scoil Caitríona seemed like a world unto itself in comparison. It had its own library, cafeteria, music room, art studio, carpentry room, and so forth-- much like the boarding schools I'd read about in books. It satisfied my life-long hankering for environments that are both self-contained and internally diverse-- environments such as the Starship Enterprise, or Hogwarts in Harry Potter, or Tar Valon in the Wheel of Time series.

A feature that gave me special pleasure were the wrought-iron, ornamental railings which ran along a long balcony-corridor above the assembly hall. I often found myself gazing up at these during study periods, since study periods were spent sitting at desks in the assembly hall. They took on an elusive symbolism for me. They seemed to symbolize, or to evoke, the rhythms of history, the underlying structure of culture and knowledge-- deep patterns which could only be beheld through study and through contemplation. When I looked up from my book, these railings seemed like an illustration of what I had been reading about, in this sense. Of course, this was only a vague impression, albeit a potent one-- indeed, it's an impression I've only managed to put into words right now.

I didn't do much study in my first year or so. Secondary school was a big culture shock, and I found myself flailing. In my first year, I was failing most of my examinations. I feared that I was stupid, that I'd managed to get by in the shallow end of the pool but that now I was going to drown in the deep end.

One of the things that pulled me out of this was a truly inspirational English teacher, the best teacher I ever had. Her name was Bríd, a variant of Brigid. She encouraged me to make an effort-- quite sternly, at times, but also through encouragement. I blossomed at English under her tutelage, and before too long she was reading out my assignments to the whole class as models.

Indeed, at one point she typed out an assignment I wrote on J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea as an example for the entire year. I remember, the day she handed this out, walking out to the assembly hall at morning break, literally shivering with emotion. I had never had such a success in school and never believed it possible.

Bríd was not only an inspirational teacher in terms of encouraging my own writing, but also in terms of the window she opened onto literature. I had been a committed reader all my life, and I was reading well past my age-group before I came to secondary school. But it was in this teacher's class that I realized literature could be analysed-- that there was more going on under the surface than I'd ever guessed. I found this wildly exciting. Far from killing my spontaneous pleasure in reading (as analysis is sometimes accused of doing), it opened up new horizons, new vistas. I can remember English classes from this time in extraordinary detail, all these years later. I can remember the sense of excitement and discovery, like stepping onto a new continent.

But here I should mention something that has come into my mind often, as I write these posts-- something, indeed that has often occurred to me as I've looked back on my life. This sense of earliness, happily enough, is one that seems capable of constant renewal in a single lifetime. My first days in Scoil Caitríona seem strangely earlier than my last days in primary school; my first days working in the library seem earlier, or even "younger", than my last days in Scoil Caitríona. A good analogy is the last days of the Roman Empire compared to the early Middle Ages. Over the first there is an aura of decadence and weariness; the second is filled with a kind of child-like energy and naivety. I'm very grateful to have experienced such psychological and spiritual rebirths in my lifetime, and hope they never end.

I was always so grateful to Bríd that I'd long planned to send her a copy of my first book, if I ever got one published. When this indeed happened, I got her address from the school and sent it off to her, with a letter telling her how much she had helped me. I got a very nice reply, and I was very glad I'd did it.

It wasn't only English I improved at, though. In second and third year, I made more of an effort, and lifted myself out of my abysmal performance in first year. I was now a middling student at everything except English-- generally a C student, sometimes a B student, and just about hanging on by my fingernails when it come to my old adversary, Maths.

My upbringing was very fortunate in many ways, but it did not promote much self-discipline. It took a great effort to apply myself at school. Self-discipline is still something I struggle with today.

Our compulsory subjects were Irish, English, Maths, French, History, Religion, Physical Education, and Civics-- the last one taught by a particularly sour and cranky nun. The optional subjects I chose were German, Art, and Technology. 

I could no longer pretend to be the star pupil in Art class, as I had considered myself in primary school, due to the presence of at least two genuine prodigies. So I became less motivated to put my heart into it. In the last couple of years, however, I became more and more interested in art history, and even scored a perfect hundred per cent on one exam paper-- and not in a simple question and answer format, but in a discursive essay format.

When it came to Technology, I was a disaster. I could get by well enough as far as the academic part went, but actually making anything with my hands seemed impossible to me. The practical aspect was mostly carpentry, with a bit of soldering and circuit-making. Everything I made disintegrated, no matter how hard I tried. I eventually handed in my project for my Junior Certificate-- a state examination taken half-way through secondary school-- in a plastic bag, following the advice of the school principal. I don't even remember what it was supposed to be. Somehow I scraped a pass.

When it came to the Leaving Cert cycle-- the second three years-- Technology was no longer an option. I chose History instead, which had become an optional subject. I worked hard at History and always did fairly well. Our teacher was an eccentric lady who wore cowboy jackets and walked around and around the classroom. I always liked her as she took a laissez-faire approach, which suited me in that class.

I have one particularly vivid memory from History class. We were learning about Bismarck and the Franco-Prussian War. I looked out the window, at the school playing-field, and somehow it struck me powerfully that history was made of such material-- that the territories for which states and alliances went to war were, after all, made up of playing-fields and classrooms and such ordinary places. Suddenly, history no longer seemed remote, but immediate. I had a sense of the currents and streams of history being present in that very room, that very moment. This excited me greatly.

I enjoyed physical education as well, despite being poor at all games. We played badminton, volleyball, basketball, and a kind of hockey called Unihoc. We rarely played outdoors. Very occasionally we would play indoor soccer with a foam ball. I enjoyed PE so much I still dream about it. Strangely enough, the closest thing I've had to a mystical experience occurred during a volleyball game in school. It actually occurred twice, both during volleyball games. I seemed to pass into a kind of trance and suddenly came to myself moments later, but with a strange sense of bliss, bliss in the mere existence of the actual. And this despite the fact that volleyball was my least favourite game.

I did quite well in my Junior Cert, which was a state examination taken in third year (when I was fifteen), with external invigilators and other trappings of formality. In fourth year, we did something called the Transition Year. It was a new concept, and we were one of the first schools in the country to try it. The idea was that, for one year between the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate cycles, students would have an opportunity to pursue a more rounded education, less focused on exams and the syllabus.

Instead of studying the same subjects all year, we had "modules" of several weeks duration in a number of different subjects-- Spanish, home economics, music, and so on. We even started our own limited company, which sold homemade jewellery and some kind of fancy rope. I designed the logo for it.

We put on a drama that year, with the help of a professional actress. It was a Sean O'Casey play called the Halls of Healing. I took a minimal part in it, and humiliated myself by getting lost when trying to return from a class trip to the Abbey theatre. I got a lecture from both the principal and the actress for that. The funny thing is that, although at the time I hated the drama module, my memories from it are quite magical. Indeed, school dramas have always stirred my imagination more than visits to professional theatres. One production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in Scoil Caitríona, which was put on by another class, stands out especially in my memory.

Religious education in Scoil Caitríona was very poor. The only exception to this was first year, when an ancient and endearingly dotty nun taught us lots of solid Catholic stuff-- how to pray the rosary, the story of Maximilian Kolbe, Fatima, and stuff like that. After first year, there was very little Christian content in religion class. If was mostly pop psychology, touchy-feely stuff. We also watched a lot of movies which were supposed to be improving in some way or other. We saw Shadowlands, Love Story, Ironweed, Not Without My Daughter, The Killing Fields, On Golden Pond, Regarding Henry, and many others. Some of them did stick in my mind in the desired manner, but I wish we had learned more Catholic doctrine. The Catholic doctrine we did learn was muddled and confusing. I remember getting the message that homosexuality was OK so long as it stopped short of sex. On the other hand, the principal (a rather stern nun) did urge those who had a vote, in fifth class, to vote No in the referendum on divorce, making an argument on purely secular grounds. I was just too young to vote, though.

I was just as shy in secondary school as I was in primary school-- shyer, perhaps, as I had developed a complex about it. I had no friends, but from some point in my fourth year I did join in the informal soccer games which were played (for some reason) on the tarmac section of the playing fields.

Fourth and fifth year were the Leaving Cert cycle. I worked quite hard, although I found it harder to settle down to work the closer I came to the exams themselves. (In Ireland, Leaving Cert points determine college entry.) This almost became disastrous, and by the time the exams were upon me, I felt fatalistic about them. But I managed to pull it together at the end, and did creditably enough. I got a B in honours level Irish, German, French, History, and English. I was disappointed not go get an A in English, especially as I felt I'd done well in the exam. I got a C in honours Art. But the result in which I took most pride was the D that I scraped, with great effort, in pass level Maths.

The Leaving Cert is an incredibly stressful experience. I still very regularly have dreams that I'm about to sit it very soon, that I haven't prepared for it at all, and that I have months of work to catch up on.

I was sad to leave school. I hate endings of any kind. There was, to me, an unbearable melancholy hovering over the last weeks. The summery weather made it seem even more poignant, since it was by nature an Indian summer.

In one of my last English classes, the teacher-- a gorgeous young substitute who all the boys fell in love with-- wrote the keyword "transience" on the blackboard. I remember looking at it, seeing how the summer sun glowed on the chalk words, and having the strange sense that I was looking at the beautifully shimmering scales of some deadly snake. Transience has always seemed mysterious and haunting to me, and never more so than at that moment. It was hard to believe that this world, which had been mine for six years-- indeed, the whole world of school, which had been mine for more than twice as long-- would soon be gone forever, gone beyond all recall, as much a part of the past as ancient Egypt or ancient Greece.

Transience has disturbed me all my life, and much of my conservatism-- much of everything I do, including writing-- is a quest to overcome it, a quest for permanence.

Well, it is all gone now-- long gone, decades gone.

I went to college in the Dublin Institute of Technology, Aungier Street, studying journalism. By the time I was halfway through I realized I was not extroverted enough to be a journalist. Failing at this has weighed on me greatly ever since, so I don't feel like writing about my years there. Maybe in the future, if I have come to terms with it, I will.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

School Days (II)

I was rather critical, in my previous post, of the teacher who sent me home in my socks. Aside from him, however, I have nothing to complain about in any of my primary school teachers, as little as I liked school.

Pondering my first two years in school, "low babies" and "high babies", the most vivid memory that remains from them is the bright primary colours of the crayons and the educational toys we would play with between lessons. There were plastic shapes we had to slot into their places in a tray, plastic straws from which we built structures using round joints which looked like a ship's steering wheel, and so forth. When I remember these I am struck with a piercing nostalgia for early childhood, for all that was bright and simple about it.

A similar memory strikes me now; one of my classmates, in those first years, had a tartan thermos flask which impressed me very much. Tartan has ever since evoked, in my mind, all that is elegant, classy, refined, and traditional. (This despite the fact that I am more prejudiced against Scottish culture than drawn to it.) However, when I say "elegant", I mean a very particular sort of elegance; poor man's elegance, everyday elegance. I have always been drawn to things which are (in my opinion) somewhat refined and tasteful, but not in any way exclusive or expensive. For instance, the use of Victorian-style silhouettes on a shop sign; or a very ornamental pub mirror; or a cut-glass decanter which might be found in anybody's home. Or (to pass from the realm of the physical to the cultural) a phrase from Shakespeare or Yeats that is quoted by a housewife or a bus driver. 

My own upbringing can best be described as "cultured working class", and I feel very protective of this environment, this worldview. It's not a second-best to me; the combination of the humble and the elegant is actually my ideal, the atmosphere that pleases me the most. 

Sometimes I take a Christmas tree as the symbol of this. Every Christmas tree is elegant, even the gaudy ones; and the thing that pleases me most about every Christmas tree is knowing that it is as common as the air, knowing that every home in every street in every town has its own Christmas tree. I'm not much of a Walt Whitman fan, but one line from Leaves of Grass has always spoken to me: "By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms".

All that from a tartan thermos flask...

I was always a mediocre student, in both primary and secondary school, despite making a reasonable effort. In both cases, however, I had a particular subject in which I shone. In secondary school it was English. In primary school it was art. I was precocious when it came to drawing, especially the human face and figure. In my own mind, I was top of my class at art. I would anxiously monitor the drawings and paintings of my classmates, for evidence that anyone was catching up on me. Once, when a new girl (upon I had an enormous crush, which lasted several years) was put sitting next to me, she said: "I get to sit beside the artist and see how he draws"-- I'm rather surprised I didn't pass out at this point, such was my euphoria.

(Although I was good at drawing faces, I always struggled to draw the faces of girls and women, since my lines tended towards angularity. This vexed me greatly and I spent a long time looking at the female faces in my comics, wondering why the comic-book artists could draw women, but I couldn't. It seemed mysterious to me.)

Roald Dahl was virtually the writer-in-residence at my school. I remember teachers reading us James and the Giant Peach, the Twits, the Witches, and several of his poems. I can't remember if they read us any others. I enjoyed them as much as the rest of my class seemed to, judging by their reactions-- very often delighted squeals at the passages of black humour.

I was a complete loss at sports. I would habitually come last in races. I remember the headmaster (yes, the same chap who sent me home in my socks) urging me, in an exasperated tone, to "run faster" at one practice session for our school sports day. This seemed very unreasonable to me, since I was obviously running as fast as I could. I did, however, come in second in a wheelbarrow race in my last sports day.

I dutifully went along to hurling training, and to matches, but never got more than a few minutes' action as a substitute towards the end of games. I seem to remember hitting the sliotar (ball) once, and only once, during competitive play. On one occasion the teacher praised me to the rest of the team because I never stopped moving. I felt ambivalent about the praise, since I knew it was an A for effort, not any sort of achievement.

All the same, my experience of school sports has made me disagree with conservatives who mock the "participation ribbon" culture. I don't actually demand that "all must have prizes", which seems a step too far. But surely the meaningful participation of the weaker children-- in whatever activity-- is more important than the school's prestige, or any victory on the day? Surely even a poor athlete such as myself could have been given more than five minutes on the playing field every now and again, without fatally injuring the quest for excellence? Children take these things to heart.

(When I saw the 2005 remake of the Bad News Bears, and it came to a scene where the school baseball coach-- who has been relentlessly competitive up to this moment, but who has a sudden change of heart-- orders one of his weakest players onto the field towards the climax of the final game, deciding that this is more important than winning, I couldn't hold back tears.)

Despite being so bad at sports, I never turned against them, or took refuge in anti-sports snobbery, as many bookish children are wont to do. I'm grateful for that. In fact, physical education was one of my favourite subjects in secondary school, although I had become no more athletic by then. (I did develop into a rather formidable defender in kickabout soccer, in the recreation yard, but we rarely played soccer in PE. And that still lay ahead of me in primary school, at any rate.)

The only exception to my pitiful performance at sports was one indoors game we played on only a few occasions. I think the teacher called it "Chinese football", but I'm guessing it was a game she invented. In any case, it didn't involve feet. We played it in the assembly hall, with a very light soccer-sized ball, and a goal at either end. Everyone was on their knees, and could only move in short bursts. The ball was thrown. For some reason, I excelled at this, and scored a ridiculous amount of goals.

Although we were supposed to speak Irish all the time, we inevitably spoke English as soon as we were out of the teacher's hearing. Indeed, anyone who tried to speak Irish except when there was a teacher listening would, I'm sure, have been regarded as an intolerable goody-two-shoes. Not that I ever tried myself. I didn't talk much at all, in any language. I would usually spend break-times wandering around the yard, thinking or reading or making up my own stories. I never had friends all through my school years. I was horrendously shy. There was a continuous handball game amongst the boys, in the later years, but I only joined in once or twice.

The end of every week was marked by a school assembly where we had bingo and the Comórtas Gaeilge-- the Irish competition. For this, we were divided into different teams, which had a range of different ages, and we had to self-report how much Irish we spoke at different times during the week, including walking home from school, and at home. If we didn't speak to anyone while walking home, we were told to report which language we were thinking in. The prizes for bingo were a small Mars bar and a big Mars bar; the prize for the Comórtas Gaeilge was a Toffifee sweet each for the winning team. (Wikipedia describes these as a German brand of caramel candy, in case you don't know.) I think kids took the Comórtas Gaeilge seriously at first but, over time, the older ones grew increasingly ironic about it. In any case, I liked these school assemblies as they gave some ceremony to the end of the school week. I also wanted a Toffifee.

I can remember our first history lesson, when I was in third class-- I would have been eight or nine-- was about the process (and sequence) of human decomposition, which seemed macabre to me even then. When we made a class trip to the National Museum, I was frightened by the exhibits-- frightened at how old they were. The solemnity of the place had a long lasting effect on my imagination, though. (This was before museums became glowing, dancing, interactive places.)

We had religious education from an early stage. In second class, I remember drawing a picture of the Last Supper in which Jesus and the apostles were all old and wrinkled. We had been hearing the Gospel story for so long, by then, that I assumed they must all be elderly by that stage. Generally speaking, my primary school religious education was better than my secondary school religious education-- even though the latter was a Dominican school.

On the whole, the things I remember most fondly about school-- both primary and secondary-- were the "grace notes", the extracurricular aspects. 

One day, in fifth class, our teacher told us all to be absolutely quiet for a little while and to listen out for all the sounds we normally missed-- traffic in the distance, the ticking of a clock, the tapping of pipes, and so on. This really stirred my imagination. I think the frame of mind she induced in that one lesson is, essentially, the frame of mind in which we experience poetry-- a spirit of attentiveness, of perceiving what is always there,  but what we generally miss.

I also enjoyed Irish set dancing lessons. We had them very regularly in the assembly hall, and I had not yet reached the age when boys become self-conscious about dancing. I found them quite exhilarating. One famous set dance is called The Walls of Limerick, and it pleased me that something as kinetic as a dance should be named after something stationary (although I obviously would not have been able to articulate this pleasure at the time).

We put on a performance of A Christmas Carol in fourth class, when I would have been ten. I had a single line-- "You're a rich man, aren't you, Scrooge?"-- and I somehow managed to forget it. Nevertheless, the whole process is a happy memory for me. Although we had no scenery or costumes-- it was very informal-- I was beguiled by the magic of drama, of story.

Class discussions always appealed to me, too. If I was ever inclined to speak up during class, it would be during these, and I was always disappointed when they ended

The Dublin Millennium year was celebrated in 1988-- fifth class, when I was ten or eleven. We painted a mural of Viking Dublin on a large canvas board in the assembly hall, with help from a professional artist, and made a cardboard model of medieval Dublin that took on a life of its own and grew to monstrous proportions. It had to be discarded eventually. 

Aside from the headmaster in first class, my only other male teacher was in my final year. He was universally regarded as the cool teacher. He had a beard, wore jeans, and played the guitar. He got us to sing along on songs like "Whiskey in the Jar" and "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell. (The latter, a melancholy song about ageing and the passage of time, depressed me greatly. I don't think children should be taught such songs and regret that I encountered this one so young.)

It was in this teacher's class that I first learned about Russian communism-- just before the Soviet Union collapsed. When he used the term "roubles", I imagined little red glass spheres (by association with rubies, of course). Somehow, this idea stayed in my head for years, and I was disappointed when I learned that roubles were ordinary banknotes.

When this teacher came to teach us about the Ten Commandments, I remember my classmates pestering him to explain what adultery was-- a commandment he wanted to skip over. They were, of course, simply trying to embarrass him, but he did eventually give a discreet explanation. He was the one, a little later, who taught us sex education. The boys and girls were separated for this. I can't remember many specifics about it, or how explicit it was. I do remember him reassuring us that most of what we heard about sex from our peers was "just talk"-- comments such as "I wouldn't mind a bit of that", for instance. As soon as he walked out of the room, there was much hilarity over this example, which (I learned) was what one of the boys had said about some female visitor to the school-- obviously within earshot of a teacher.

My brothers also had this teacher, during their time in the school, and we all remember his propensity for cautionary tales. As one of my brothers once put it, it was a dangerous business to be his friend-- so many of them featured in his horror stories. At Halloween he told us about a friend of his who had blown off several fingers while trying to make fireworks. There were many such tales. I can remember his very last words before the Christmas holidays were: "Be careful. Christmas can be a very dangerous time". Even as a child I found this amusing.

He had a flair for teaching history, especially Irish history. I remember one lesson ending with a kind of trailer or cliff-hanger: "Next time we'll be talking about one of the greatest scandals in Irish history" (the fall of Parnell). I relished the drama of that.

Towards the end of our final year, he took us on a trip into the city centre-- "into town", as the Irish say. (My American wife says "downtown".) While we were there, he stopped to have a conversation with somebody who looked like he was on the verge of homelessness. "That man is one of the most brilliant minds in the country", he told us when he had moved on.

Every year, sixth class would enter a drama and music competition called the Slogadh (Slo-ga), and this teacher would write the play. In my year, it was a musical play about the destruction of the ozone layer. I was one of the extras-- or, perhaps it's better to say, a member of the Greek chorus. We played zombie-like people of the future, wearing rags and sporting burnt skin. (Did we wear rags? We wore strips of some kind of red gauzey fabric. Perhaps it was all we could wear in the unbearable post-ozone layer heat.)

We rehearsed that play so often I can still remember a few of the lyrics. One song took the melody from "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina". We won the competition, which was held in Ennis, Co. Clare. We stayed overnight in the dormitory of a girl's school, which was beside a graveyard. The headmaster jokingly threatened to make anyone who was "bold" (the usual Irish term for naughty-- "dána", in Irish) sleep in an empty dormitory immediately overlooking the cemetery. My night and morning in this dormitory had a powerful effect on me, but I know I have written about it on this blog before.

I've said I was a mediocre student. When it came to maths, however, I was a very poor student. Maths was the bane of my schooling, all fourteen years of it. The multiplication tables were a particular ordeal. I simply couldn't understand the abstract realm of numbers. I dreaded maths every day and felt enormous relief when it was over.

Only once did I do well at maths. This was in our final year, when the teacher let us dip our toes into Venn diagrams, and set us a problem on the blackboard, offering twenty pence to the winner. The problem seemed trivially simple to me, but I kept my mouth shut, since answer after answer from my classmates turned out to be wrong. How could I be right when all the kids who were good at maths were wrong? And yet, when I eventually mustered the courage to speak up, I won the twenty pence. I still don't understand this episode.

I realize that I've barely mentioned my female teachers, despite the fact that I only had male teachers for two of my eight years in primary school. I remember my female teachers as patient and gentle, but I suppose they were more self-effacing than the men, since I have fewer memories attached to them. I did fall in love with one of them, a younger woman called Eileen. She had dark hair and played the uileann pipes-- a bit like bagpipes but played with one's elbows. I remember feeling horribly embarrassed, on the last day of school, when my mother gave me a rose to bring her. I expected her to laugh at me. Of course, she was delighted, so it wasn't so bad after all.

One day, when we had a cake sale, I had no money to buy a cake. Eileen took me outside of the class, gave me two pounds, and told me to repay her when I was thirty. Although I realized she was joking, I always intended to do so-- but, of course, I forgot all about it when I was thirty, and only remembered long afterwards.

School memories could be prolonged indefinitely. I feel like I am leaving too much out, but I fear tiring the reader. I will move onto secondary school in my next post-- knowing, of course, that we never really "move on" from any phase of our lives, and that a shadow of me still haunts Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch.

Friday, November 13, 2020

School Days

I have been reading biographies of various writers recently, and I've noticed something interesting. At least three well-known writers-- C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and George Orwell-- wrote scathing accounts of their schools, which other former pupils insisted were very unfair and distorted.

It made me wonder why I've never written an account of my schooldays, since I've written everything else. Here goes. I'm not going to do a Lewis, Dahl or Orwell as my schools were all fairly good, even if I was mostly unhappy at them.

All of my schooling was in Irish language schools, a fact I appreciate now, but didn't back then.

My earliest schooling was in a school called St. Ciaran's in Glasnevin. Actually this was the school temporarily playing host to my own school, Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch, while our own school was being built. I'm not sure how the arrangement worked exactly, or whether the school had pupils of its own.

Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch means "School of the Seven Heroes", referring to the seven signatories of the 1916 Rising. (The seven towers in Ballymun were also named after them.) It was set up by parents in Ballymun and was unusual, at that time, for not being run by the Catholic Church, although all the religious instruction was Catholic, and Sunday Mass (through Irish) was held in its assembly hall at one point.

But I am jumping ahead. What I remember of Scoil Ciaran's was the darkness of the classrooms and the ferocity of the recreation yard. I doubt it was at all ferocious, but it seemed so to me, as I was a very timid and shy child. I found it hard to walk from one end to another without being knocked over by some racing child or other. I can remember succeeding in this one day and feeling a huge sense of accomplishment.

One day I had a pair of "spectacles" made from an egg-box that someone from my family had made me. A boy in my class begged me to let him wear them. I was reluctant as I thought he'd break them. He did, though not on purpose.

Another time I can remember several of us watching two birds on a wall and chanting the rhyme: "Two little dickie birds". The birds obliged us by following the actions of the chant exactly, to my amazement.

This was the time of Benny Hill's popularity-- a TV comedian noted for slapstick and sexual innuendo. The latter was completely over my head, but I had perfected one of his funny walks, or some approximation of it. I remember two boys in my class, brothers, were so amused by this they harassed me to do it over and over again.

There were two pictures in the classroom which stick in my mind. One was a large framed photograph of John Paul II. He looked benevolent and rugged to my eyes. Another, which had a much greater effect on me, was a picture of a field of corn. This to me has ever after been a symbol of wholesomeness, spiritual health, rootedness, and the joy of the ordinary. Although I am a city boy who can barely tell one tree or bird from the other, I've always had a sense that the rural is spiritually and culturally superior.

We moved to our new school before I had spent a year in Scoil Ciaran. (We must have, as I was still in "low babies". In Ireland, junior infants is "low babies" and senior infants is "high babies".) I remember us sitting in the assembly hall listening to a talk on fire safety in the new building. The speaker warned us of the danger of death in such-and-such a situation and I can remember feeling appalled that children could actually die.

The first Star Wars film was released the year I was born and the trilogy was still riding its first wave of popularity. I remember it was so omnipresent-- in terms of toys, books, etc.-- that our teacher had to correct us on Darth Vader's name. We all called him Dark Vader, naturally enough. I also remember one of my classmates staring obsessively at a picture of Princess Leia in Jabba the Hutt's cage.

We were allowed to speak English in low babies and high babies, but from first class onwards we were expected to speak only Irish. I remember feeling so intimidated by this that I decided I wouldn't speak at all. In fact I spoke very little all through school as I was extremely shy and withdrawn.

In first class we had our first male teacher. I always preferred women teachers. He was the headmaster and was loud and somewhat brash-- from a Cork Gaeltacht. Here I am in danger of falling into the same trap as Orwell and the others. I know this fellow is not a bad chap, he rallied to help my family when my mother died many years later, giving us a loan of a water boiler to make tea for the wake, among other things. I've had a few friendly adult interactions with him. And yet, he sent me to walk home in my socks one day and that still rankles with me.

This is how it happened. We were obliged to wear slippers in class in order to protect the carpets; we would remove our shoes and put them in wooden slots, purpose-built for this, at the front of the class. One day I had forgotten some book or other and this teacher sent me home to get it. I was trying to change into my shoes but he was so irritated and impatient with me that he hurried me out the door while I was still in my socks. He must not have noticed I was still in my socks, as strange as it seems, or perhaps I was too timid to point it out. (Why didn't my classmates, who were watching? I don't know.) I made my way home until two women, passing by, asked me why I was wearing no shoes. I explained the matter, upon which they marched me back into my classroom and berated the teacher in front of the whole class. It was striking to see how, after having been such a terrifying presence moments before, he completely collapsed before them. I've never been able to warm to him since, water boiler or no water boiler. He's retired now. God bless him. It must be hard to be a teacher.

On another occasion, he drew a kind of grid on the blackboard, in marker, and was subsequently surprised that he couldn't wipe it off. He made strenuous efforts to do so. Impractical as I am, I was surprised he would make such a mistake, even at that age.

We had free lunches at this school. We were given a small carton of milk, a choice of a corned beef or cheese sandwich, and a bun. There must be some innate prejudice against institutional food in the human spirit, because I remembered realising with surprise, many years later, that the buns were actually quite nice-- after years of eating them reluctantly. Not so the sandwiches-- the butter tasted funny and there was too much gelatinous stuff in the corned beef.

One of the parts of school I enjoyed the most was the "teilgóir", or overhead projector. We always seemed to use this first thing in the morning, and it was particularly atmospheric on dark winter mornings. The curtains would be pulled and the slides would be projected on the screen. The only slides I can remember were scenes from Irish mythology, but I'm sure there were others. The glowing, frozen image on the screen, coupled with the darkness in the room, always gave me a deep sense of solemnity, wonder, and being somehow outside of ordinary time.

It has become obvious to me that one blog post is not going to be adequate to this subject. I'll have to come back to it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Fifteen-Year Old Poems

Some poems from my 2005 folder, which I haven't blogged before. (If you think these are bad, you should see the ones I haven't put up.)

Yes, I was pretty down in 2005. My life was not going anywhere and I had no spiritual faith to buoy me up. I felt that history and culture was stagnating, as the second poem expresses, and that all we had to look forward to was more of the same, forever. I was also reading a lot of Philip Larkin, which I think is pretty evident.

Thrombosis

They call it the rush-hour, the time when nothing moves.
He tries out a brand-new curse as the traffic creeps
Down roads that knew long ago the beat of hooves.
In the city of fevered dreams that never sleeps
Life strains to look like the world on magazine shelves
And only the bed-sit crowd clock out at five
While the men in the crumpled shirts convince themselves
That the heart that beats the most is the most alive.
 
Right now, out there, someone is walking a road
That goes from nowhere to nowhere. To exchange
Just isn't on. You don't take off this load
Till the doctor and undertaker come in range
And you've coughed up every curse the world is owed.
What made him think despair was something strange?
 
Apathy

Now all the seas of the world are at low tide
And all the various forms of the verb "to be"
Seem unpronounceable. The dawn is old.

Strange to think anyone ever laughed or cried
Or started a war. To live is just to see
A roll of plain beige wallpaper unrolled.

What hasn't been said by now? What hasn't been tried?
How keen they were this time last century!
But the fire is gone by now and the room is cold.

Unhappy Birthdays

We learn to hesitate at twenty-two--
To wonder what most people would call young.
You look down more in climbing, rung by rung--
So much clear air between you and the ground.
But most people are further up than you--
The small hand moves. You just make out the sound.

Before too long it echoes in your years--
Now a statistic is a cause for shame.
Changing, and trying hard to stay the same--
They're both ridiculous. What have you got?
Ken's a professor and Yvonne's engaged.
You scan your mirror face, and wonder what
Most people would consider middle-aged.

What do you fear more-- death or twenty years?

On an Old Man Who Didn't

When you begin to reminisce
About the good old days
I squirm at your invented bliss
And advertiser's praise.
But still I listen just to please
And why should I condemn?
I know the doors, I have the keys,
But I will not open them.

I will not turn the lock to show
Your treasury's a hoax--
Extinguishing your eye's soft glow
With cruelly called-for jokes.
But finger with fake ecstasies
The glass you call a gem.
I know the doors, I have the keys,
But I will not open them.

Cookery p.138

These pictures of food eaten long ago--
Voluptuous as models, framed like art.
The light makes tender love to a jam tart.
Pasta and sauce embrace in a tableau.
As elegant as if we did not know
The whole unpleasant, mean, digestive part.

Here is our contradiction rendered pat--
The brute and beauty, moulded into one.
Mere fodder, something made worth looking at--
Our spirit lavished on a hot cross bun.
A healthy beast would bolt it and be done;
Having a soul is not to stop at that.

The Curtains

He thought, when he was just a boy,
And mother drew the curtains closed
(Hiding the darkness from his eye)
It slew the ghosts that he'd supposed.

His mother knew the secret way
To shrink the world into a room.
When evening tea could keep at bay
The shadows in the growing gloom.

The magic didn't pass to him.
He draws the curtains, but outside
The world remains, grows cold and dim,
And would not notice if he died.

The Baptists

The nameless baby sleeps, and does not hear
The women practice different syllables.
Somebody snorts on hearing "Guinevere",
But deep inside, each woman of them thrills
At visions of those unspent years unfolding:
A ghost parade of faces, school-yards, rites.
She sleeps, oblivious to their delights
The future like a secret she is holding.
 
Janet and Miriam, Rachel and Louise;
They haggle on a sound that will mean her.
A name that will outlive their fantasies
And one day, many years from now, will stir
Devotion or antipathy or pride
Or all of them at once, in other hearts.
The baptists sigh, and know, for all their arts
Another world will own what they decide.
 
The Unstopped Watch
 
I was cleaning out old boxes when I found it;
A long discarded watch that hadn't stopped,
Right to the very minute. Quite astounded
(Though God knows why), I thought of old men dropped
In lonely nursing homes, sadly repeating
The stories that had meant something before
Or mental cases, something monstrous eating
Their minds, behind a monstrously shut door.
Monstrous, somehow, those hands should go on beating
In this small world where time would move no more.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Well, it's one of my blog traditions to mark neglected traditions like Guy Fawkes Day, so here goes.

As you know, Guy Fawkes was a (Catholic) conspirator who tried to blow up the British parliament in 1605.

For many years the foiling of the plot was commemorated in Britain. Wikipedia says it was "the predominant English state commemoration" in the early 1620s. But even when I was a kid, I remember the English comics used to print Guy Fawkes masks which you were supposed to cut out and attach to a cardboard base.

Now, of course, although commemoration of the day (or even the night) seems to have almost disappeared, Guy Fawkes is an icon of the radical left, a fact which occasioned this rather funny meme:

 Looking for "Guy Fawkes" poems, I came across this piece of folk doggerel which is not exactly polished, but rather charming:

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot
.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match

Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip Hoorah !
Hip hip Hoorah !

A penny loaf to feed ol'Pope,
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar,'
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say: ol'Pope is dead
.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Backdrop in Holy Pictures

Apologies for another long hiatus in blogging. I haven't been in the library for a long while, so I haven't had access to a desktop. I'm trying to tap this one out on a phone, though it's irksome.

Today I'm writing about a rather strange topic, and wondering if I'll manage to so much as convey the reason it interests me. I'm writing about the backdrops of holy pictures, and my lifelong fascination with them.

They often come into my mind when I'm praying the mysteries of the rosary. I usually imagine painted depictions of the rosary mysteries, whether actual paintings or imaginary ones. Somehow I seem unable to picture the sacred scenes in a "photo-realist" manner.

And the backdrops, strangely, speak to me almost as powerfully as the action in the foreground.

The non-human world around us can seem so starkly indifferent. (I was going to say "the inanimate world", but when I think about it, it includes plants and animals as well.) We might project our own moods into the natural world around us but, ultimately, we know they are without feeling, without personality, without a soul. They are a brute fact-- just there.

Sometimes, this has appeared to me as a kind of nightmare, especially whenever I've inclined towards philosophical materialism. The world doesn't care. If the human race were to disappear tomorrow, it would carry on as normal.

Thomas Hardy says in some poem, I think, that it would be a relief if the universe were actually hostile. Its indifference is far worse than its malice. The thousands of people who die in an earthquake or a tsunami suffer meaningless, motiveless deaths.

And, even apart from natural disasters, the sheer weight and solidity of the physical world can be overwhelming. To me, at least. Looking up into the night sky or into the tracts of the ocean makes me shudder rather than swoon. It seems so alien. Consciousness seems like an orphan in the cosmos.

What kind of reactions are these in a Christian? But then, I was an atheist for so many years of my life, I have retained many atheist "instincts". Or perhaps it is pessimism rather than atheism. Faith, for me, is not the obvious thing, the given. Faith is the second thought. Futility is the first thought. My natural way of perceiving the world around me is not as God's creation, but as a brute fact.

When I look at the backdrop of holy pictures, that weight lifts for a moment, and the relief is glorious.

It's more than relief. It's suddenly seeing everything fall into place, into the correct order. Those mountains, those clouds, those trees, those buildings... now they are not merely clumps of matter, but the stage scenery for a sacred story. And that sacred story is not only the Annunciation, or the Baptism of our Lord, but all of history.

The Incarnation changes everything, but by raising it onto a a new level. The beauty and the innocence of the physical world is saved. The rivers flow on, the clouds drift, the trees send forth leaves. But now, it has a meaning. Now, it witnesses to the Eternal.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Disappearing Comments

 Many thanks to everybody who has ever commented on this blog. I really appreciate comments.

In recent times, comments have been disappearing in my filter. I really have to moderate them to avoid spam, but it's vexing that real comments enter into a black hole. Apologies to those whose (much appreciated) comments have disappeared.