(By Fr. John Murphy O.M.I.)
(First published in our Review 2004 journal)
I had no awareness, as a child, that the first school I attended was actually built in 1912 by my father’s family. In fact a small relic was found by Declan Murphy at the time of its refurbishment as a playschool. Just a piece of timber with initials J.M. and M.F. printed in pencil; the initials of my parents James Murphy and Mary Flanagan. They were married in 1913. The school my parents attended was the old hall at the far end of Big Street and Miss Anglin was one of her teachers. Neither have I any recollection of what is alleged to have happened the first day I attended, what was then called the new school. Perhaps it was Ita, my sister, who escorted Frank and I on our admission day. It is said Frank was fascinated by the pictures and maps on the wall while I took flight and was eventually caught up at the bridge by our then teacher, Nellie Feran. At a guess I would say my journey through primary school began in 1930.
One of my earliest memories is walking in the Blessed Sacrament procession during the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. It was from the church to the hall and all the school children had their special place in that great event in the parish.
At that time there were four teachers; Ned Feran and Nellie his wife, Dolly Murphy and Miss Flood. Later Miss Corry and Joe Corcoran would replace them. There was real segregation in the classroom and playground. The discipline was certainly rigorously maintained in the boys school where Mr. Feran was expert in the use of the cane. Some few years later, under Joe Corcoran, it was the strap, a less fearsome weapon of punishment. Inevitably recollections become blurred so any recall will become subject to correction.
Each classroom had its own fire which, during the winter months, was stoked by fuel supplied by the pupils. No doubt there must have been other contributors also. The structure of the day was basic. Starting at 9 a.m. we had religion or catechism at mid-day, lunch break at 12.30 p.m. and the final session from 1 to 3 p.m. with a ten minute recreation break in the morning and afternoon. The curriculum consisted of Irish, English, Maths (sums), Geography and a bit of History. Homework was mostly on maths and at weekends an essay was the order of the day. What remains in my memory is the collecting of folklore, which meant gathering a variety of stories from the older generation and writing up our research work in copies, later dispatched to Dublin. Homework also involved learning by heart poems and maths tables. Altar boys were indoctrinated in the Latin responses if they were to serve at mass. Visits from inspectors were infrequent and always inspired trepidation, none more so than when Fr. Murray came to examine Confirmation candidates.
A feature of school life to which a few were addicted was ‘mitching’. The guilty ones would claim to be ill, helping at home or doing a bit of caddying. Fr. Doris knew the score very well and would occasionally capture the truants and warn them of possible reprisals. In the summer time spinning tops were popular and it was not uncommon for a queue to form at Byrne’s forge, to get a shuttlecock made to fit the top. This would then be used in a playground competition inspired by Mr. Feran. He would toss pennies to the ground and the top spinners would attempt to strike the coin and claim the cash. Occasionally, if not annually, there was the sports day at Newtown sponsored by Mrs. Lentaigne. Generally our sporting activity was confined to kicking a ball about in the schoolyard.
The average number of pupils, which was posted up each day after roll call, was usually around 105 boys and girls. It was pre war when the classes became mixed but the play areas remained segregated. It was June 1939 when I left and on Monday 4th September I arrived in St. Patrick’s College, Armagh.
Most pupils had a snack at break time after catechism, and in the winter time hot cocoa would be provided in a tin mug. Those who lived near the school could run home for what was on the menu there.
I fear very few of my generation looked upon our local school as a centre of education. It was an accepted part of life where we were subject to discipline and authority. Corporal punishment was meted out by Mr. Feran, who had few inhibitions when it came to administering it, either to his own pupils or those sent to him from the classroom next door. One would never complain or report to the family of any punishment received. The authority of the teacher, the priest and the doctor was never questioned. In my experience school days were not enjoyable – only holidays were.
My warmest memories centre around fellow pupils, some of whom have now gone to their eternal reward. Associated with many of the memories are incidents like Dermot Harmon’s talented artwork, which was displayed on the classroom wall. Visits from Fr. Alec Connolly, Fr. Jim Doris and Fr. Peter Treacy in their period of residence as curates in the parish, was always a welcome interruption. While treasuring the memories of deceased former classmates I think of Paddy Bowden, Peter Sheridan, interned in Australia, John McDougal in Manchester, Declan Comiskey, Stewart Lawson as well as Bridgie O’Brien, Joan Mullen and others. Of the living there is Anthony Synnott, Andy Fanning, Ultan Brannigan, Pack Mooney, Maggie Grimes, Maeve Reynolds-Kirwan, Phil Garvey, May McGrillen and others.
Undoubtedly great progress has been made in the field of primary education and we owe so much to the teachers of today as well as the past. One must keep in mind that the young receive their basic sense of values in the home and it is not the duty of the teacher, despite their best intentions, to take the burden of responsibility which belongs exclusively to parents. The needs of our time will be addressed when home and school enjoy full and mutual support and co-operation.