Over the years, I've written several posts in which I've tried to memorialize various things I've experienced. For instance, I wrote a post about the Allen Library, a research library where I pursued a training course for eleven months. I also wrote a post about Ballymun Shopping Centre, and another about the Philip Larkin Society Forum. The first two were surprisingly popular, the third one hasn't had any responses yet.
What's funny about this sort of post is that just putting down the facts has a value of its own. It's history, of a modest sort. People are surprisingly interested in even the most mundane facts about the past. An old timetable or menu or floor plan can be of absorbing interest, after a sufficient number of years have elapsed. I write these posts for my own sake, for the sake of my regular readers, but also for the sake of others who had the same experiences and might come upon the post in their internet travels.
So now I'm going to write about my primary school, Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch. It's the school I attended for eight years, up until 1990 when I was twelve years old. It still exists. It's located in Ballymun, and was founded in 1973. (I've just discovered that it had its fortieth anniversary celebration on my wedding day!) It's an Irish language school and the name means School of the Seven Heroes-- a reference to the seven signatories of the 1916 Rising. (The towers of Ballymun, now demolished, were named after the same seven signatories.)
In Ireland, the first two years of primary school-- junior infants and senior infants-- are familiarly known as "low babies" and "high babies", which is rather funny.
When I entered Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch, it was temporarily located in Glasnevin, in a school called Scoil Ciarán, which is now a "special school". I think tSeachtar Laoch itself was being rebuilt, or something like that.
I have only very fragmentary memories of Scoil Ciarán. It always seemed very dark in the classrooms. The recreation yard always seemed chaotic to me, and I remember congratulating myself once when I managed to walk from the classroom to a door on the other side of the yard, without being knocked over by running pupils.
There were diagonal beams apparently propping up the walls outside. I remember one day, pupils lying on these beams and pretending to be injected or tortured or something.
There was a high wall along the yard, and I remember my class-mates being chastised for throwing stones over it, and being told there was a baby in a garden on the other side.
I wasn't in Scoil Ciarán for long. While I was still in low babies, we were transferred to the new schoolhouse in Ballymun, which still stands.
My first memory of the new school building is an assembly where a fire safety officer (I suppose) boasted about the fire safety of the new building, and told usabout the fire alarms, whose glass we could break with our elbows or a chair leg. The speaker raised the possibility that we could actually die in a fire and this shocked me a little. I'm not sure why, as I was under no illusion that I was immortal. Perhaps it was the matter-of-fact way he mentioned it.
As I've said, Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch is an Irish language school. The Irish language was taught immersively, meaning that all communication was through Irish, from first class onwards. Low babies and high babies were allowed to speak in English, being gradually phased into Irish. When I heard that we'd only be allowed to speak in Irish in first class, I remember resolving that I wouldn't say anything at all, since I was worried my Irish wouldn't be good enough.
We wore a navy uniform-- navy sweater, navy trousers (navy skirt for the girls), and a sky-blue shirt or blouse. The school's rather attractive crest was sewn onto the sweater. (Incidentally, I'm glad I attended mixed schools all through my education, since all-boys' schools sound awful.)
Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch was a Catholic school, and I see it's still under the patronage of the Archbishop of Dublin, but it was entirely run by lay people. There were no prayers before class, no holy statues or pictures that I can remember, no particularly devotional ambience. We had religious education, which was sound enough, as far as I can remember-- mostly learning about the life of Jesus. The school prepared us for, and organized, our First Communion (first class) and Confirmation (sixth class). I took the first very seriously, but not the second.
The school was supposed to be all-Irish speaking, after low babies and high babies, but this requirement was pretty much ignored outside the hearing of teachers. In fact, to speak Irish when you didn't have to would have been seen as seriously weird. In my earlier years, kids speaking English were made to wear a blue badge with the letter B for Bearla (meaning English).
What effect did attending an Irish language school have on me? Well, my Irish is certainly much better than it would have been otherwise. I'm fluent in the sense that I can hold a conversation, although it's a broken and stammering fluency.
Sometimes, when I hear an Irish word or phrase, I'm struck by a balmy wave of nostalgia. I wasn't very happy at the school, but nostalgia doesn't only attach to happy memories.
There was a strong strain of cultural nationalism in the school, and this certainly had a strong effect on me. Hurling and camogie were the school sports-- I don't think we even played Gaelic football. (I did join in hurling training and very occasionally played in games, but I was mostly a benchwarmer. I think I could have been given more than a few minutes on the field, no matter how bad I was.) We learned about Irish myths and legends, we practiced Irish dancing (which I hugely enjoyed, since I had not yet reached the age when boys get self-conscious about dancing), and we were taught how to play the tin whistle.
We were given lunch in school. It was always the same thing: cheese or corned beef sandwich, cut diagonally, and currant buns. For a drink, we had cartons of milk, which we seeped through a plastic straw in those ecologically irresponsible days. In my later years in the school, they began to introduce flavoured milks-- strawberry, banana, and toffee. As my mother worked as a cleaner in the school in those same later years, I ended up getting a lot of these leftover flavoured milks, much to my pleasure.
The memory which prompted me to write this blog post was the "Comórtas Gaeilge", or Irish Competition, which occurred every Friday afternoon in my last few years. I don't remember exactly what year it was introduced. It was a kind of school assembly at the end of the week. First we had bingo of some kind, then we broke into teams for the Irish Competition. Each team was composed of pupils from different grades.
The idea behind the Comórtas Gaeilge was that each pupil kept a record of how much Irish they spoke during the week. The team with the biggest aggregate won. The self-assessment was broken into different stages of the day. I forget what the stages were exactly, but going home from school was one of them. When kids protested that they hadn't spoken to anyone on their way home, they were told to record what language they were thinking in. It was all on the honour system and I think only the older pupils lied, and then only for the hell of it.
The prizes were rubbish-- for the bingo, they were Mars bars, standard sized and mini-sized. I can still hear the headmaster booming "Mars bar mór" and "Mars bar beag" as though they were Rolls Royces. The prize for the Comórtas Gaeilge was a Toffifee sweet each, for the winning team. I always envied the winners of these. I think my team only won very occasionally. Did we ever win? I don't remember it, but it would be extraordinary if we didn't. There were only about two hundred kids in the school, all told.
I remember the Comórtas Gaeilge fondly because it was the last event of the week and it had an air of imminent holiday. Along with the Late Late Show it marked the beginning of the weekend, two whole days of freedom stretching in front of me. I didn't like school, though I don't blame the school I attended. I'm not even sure I learned anything much in school other than Irish.
The schoolhouse was built around a central assembly hall, with a stage at the back of the hall. We did our physical education, dancing, Comórtas Gaeilge, and activities of that sort in the assembly area. The classrooms ran from youngest to oldest in a kind of horse-shoe formation around the school, so that sixth class looked down a corridor to low babies. First to fourth class were in a corridor of their own, and fifth year and high babies were on opposite sides of the assembly hall. The corridor with sixth class and low babies' at either end also contained the kitchen, the headmaster's office, the teacher's staff room, and the teacher's bathrooms. There was a sliding door which led from the kitchen to the stage, which fascinated me. A hatch from the kitchen opened onto the assembly hall, which also fascinated me. The front door was beside the headmaster's office, and there was (in later years) a fish-tank with goldfish on the right as you walked in.
Paintings were mounted on the walls around the school, mostly paintings by the children. I had quite a reputation as an artist in school. One picture that showed myself, my brother and my mother walking from behind won a lot of acclaim, much to my bafflement. It hung on the wall for years, until I left and was given it to keep. I still have it. It's by far the oldest creative work of my own that I still own.
There were two recreation yards, on either side of the school, one for the younger children and one for the older children. We had hopscotch courts (which I never used), and the older boys played handball against a wall constantly. It seems mildly odd to me in retrospect that the teachers never objected to this, given the danger of breaking a window. But, as I recall, the windows were not made of conventical glass but of some more durable and flexible material, perhaps plexiglass.
My teachers were mostly women. All through low babies and high babies, I was taught by a woman called Áine, who I remember as pleasant and friendly. In first year, we had the headmaster, Domhnall, a native Irish speaker from Cork. From second to fifth year, I'm less sure of who my teachers were. I definitely had a teacher called Enid, another called Roisin, and another called Eileen (my favourite-- I had quite a crush on her, and she once gave me two pounds for a cake sale, enjoining me to pay it back to her when I was thirty years old).
In our sixth and final class, we had a teacher called Deaglán, who was regarded as the cool teacher since he played the guitar, had a beard, and wore jeans. He had a particular gift for bringing Irish history to life.
I'm amazed how little I can remember about my teachers. A few years ago, I found myself at a talk which was incredibly boring. I was sitting right in the front row, so I couldn't really distract myself with my phone or anything else. But actually listening to the talk was unbearable. So I found myself playing a mental game, going from class to class in Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch and trying to summon up memories attached to each one. I was amazed that I drew a complete blank in some cases. Of course, memories come to me unbidden at other times.
We had to change into slippers when we entered the classrooms, to protect the carpets. The classroom floors were partly carpet and (nearer the door) partly linoleum. When we ate lunch, we brought out chairs to the linoleum. Every classroom had its own bathrooms.
We had a line-up for every break time and for going home, during which we would form a line according to pre-assigned places and file out in an orderly fashion when told to do so.
Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch was an overachieving school, considering that its location and many of its pupils were working class. It punched above its weight academically, athletically, and artistically. This was undoubtedly because of the active involvement of the parents, and the tendency of Irish language schools to draw more committed and idealistic teachers. My father, in fact, was one of the people who were involved in setting up the school in the first place, though he had next to no Irish himself.
I wasn't particularly happy at the school. I didn't like school. Maths especially made me miserable, and I hated it with a passion. But I enjoyed art classes, and was proud of my reputation as an artist. I enjoyed class discussions, though I rarely joined in.
One particularly happy memory is the "telegóir", or projector. This would be used to project slides onto the wall. The blinds would be drawn (there were French blinds in every class), the room would be darkened, and we would look at various glowing slides. As I write this, I'm wondering what its actual benefits were. I think it was probably a bit of a gimmick. I remember a lot of cartoon pictures. One set of slides illustrated the story of Setanta, the boy who became Cúchaillin in Irish mythology. Anyway, I enjoyed the telegóir as an aesthetic experience. It impressed me so much that, in my late teens, I was putting together a collection of poetry entitled Slideshow.
There were no computers in my primary school. Actually, there was a computer, but I don't ever remember it being used for anything other than simple computer games, such as anagrams. There was one mobile telephone, a huge thing which never seemed to work.
One particularly unhappy memory is geography class. The teacher would pull down a huge laminated map of Ireland which was usually rolled up above the blackboard. I felt completely at sea during geography class and could never remember any of it. I think I had very little sense of place.
In my last year, my class performed a musical play in an Irish language arts competition called the Slógadh, which was held in Ennis, County Clare. The play was on an ecological theme, and concerned the imminent destruction of the ozone layer by aerosol sprays. Some scenes were set in an apocalyptic future, and starred a chorus of extras dressed in red gauzy rags and wearing make-up supposed to suggest burnt skin. Naturally, I was one of these extras. (I was always an extra in this school, which-- looking back-- strikes me as a rough deal, even if I didn't put myself forward.) I'm pretty sure the musical was written by Deaglán, and I can still recall a few lines from it. One of the songs used the tune from "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina". We practiced and we practiced and we practiced, and we won first place. I still have my medal.
We stayed overnight in Ennis, and slept in a dormitory in a girls' convent school, overlooking a graveyard. This is one of the most vivid memories of my school years, and I've written about it here.
I can remember, during the trip, standing in a computer games arcade with some of the other boys in my class. I wasn't playing the computer games (the only computer games I played in my childhood were hand held), I was reading a comic book of Nemesis the Warlock, a story taken from the 2000 AD comic. I can remember a piece of graffiti on the wall that read "FREE NELSON MANDELA". Underneath, someone had written: "HE IS FREE, YOU IDIOT." This was towards the summer of 1990.
I suppose I could go on adding memories indefinitely, so I may as well stop.
As I've said, I wasn't happy in school. But I think I was pretty fortunate in the school I attended. It was definitely a lot less rough than the other schools in Ballymun. There was some bullying in Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch, and I was on the receiving end of some of it, particularly from one boy. I imagine that happens everywhere, though. It was nothing the teachers would have witnessed.
The school was more idealistic than most schools, from what I can tell, because of its commitment to the Irish language and Irish culture. This definitely gave it a particular atmosphere, a rather elevated one.
I never felt at home there, and I always felt very much an outsider. But then, I was very withdrawn and shy. Perhaps the school could have done more to include me and encourage me. On the whole, though, it was a good school.