s far back as I remember I can still see the cottage where I was raised along with four brothers and four sisters. We didn’t call it cottage then, it was our house. Every house looked pretty much the same, thatched roofs and lime washed walls. We lived quite close to the road which for many years had a gravel surface and was rough. In later years and during summer time when cars became plentiful my mother always kept the door closed because the dust from the passing cars would blow in and fall onto the dresser where her plates, cups and saucers were displayed, and she was proud of her willow-pattern delft.
Our childhood was a happy one and we loved it when my father would take down the melodeon and play reels and jigs, marches and polkas. He had a good collection, picked up from travelling musicians. My mother played it too and some preferred her style of playing to my father’s, but we didn’t notice the difference then.
Times were bad then, there was little or no work and the wages were very poor. But our village didn’t fare too bad in a way. Mitchell Henry was the Landlord at Kylemore Castle and he gave employment to a good many men there. It’s Kylemore Abbey now and the Benedictine nuns still give good employment to many women; the roles are reversed, first man, now woman.
We liked it too when the old people would come to visit us at night, especially in winter time, and listened to them telling stories about their young days. And they had some awful tales of the treatment at the hands of the Landlords! It was British rule then and they suffered. They were living the after effects of the Great Famine but this has been another story which we all know well.
We lived in a mainly fishing townland and the talk was about good fishing ground for lobster, the best bait to use, and so on into the night. The men filled their pipes and passed them around to those who maybe had no pipes, and it all ended with a prayer for the dead, saying “The Lord have mercy on all belong to you” to the man who provided the tobacco. My father didn’t smoke. Watching the old men he cut the tobacco from the plug. Putting it into the left hand palm, then having it teased and ground into almost a powder and loaded into the pipe, that was an art itself. When all this was done, their chat and stories continued on, stories about ghosts that would put your hair standing on end. Curragh building would be discussed too. My father built curraghs and was reputed to be good; his father did too, and some of their boats are around to-day and in good condition.
Growing older we were allowed to stay up later. When we heard Irish being spoken we knew it was something children shouldn’t hear and wondered what it was; judging by the expression on faces it must be terrible in most cases.
was the oldest of the family and time to go to school was fast approaching. I didn’t like the idea at all because I often heard about the cruelty of teachers and the use of the cane. When the day came, I thought that first day was a year long. I cringed every time when I saw a child being slapped, and I thought to myself that I would do everything to avoid that. There were 89 children enrolled in our school which was divided into two large rooms. The female teacher had infants, first and second class, and the master from third class to the eighth class. We called it classes then, we never heard of grades.
Our teachers were a husband-and-wife team. They had no children themselves and in after years we often wondered if that was the reason why they were so hard on the children they were teaching. I really couldn’t complain, I think it’s because I grasped things fast and had good retention that stood by me and of course a profound fear of that cane. But what did a good education mean to a boy then unless you had the priesthood in mind or, for the girls, to join some order of nuns? If you did emigrate, it was back to the pick and shovel, but we never looked that far ahead.
All the children had one thing in common, we all hated school likewise the teachers. The easiest subject was Religion, everyone knew prayers from home and stories from the Bible and I eventually graduated from 2nd class into the master’s room along with some others. That was a big step for us! It was a brighter room with the walls covered with maps of Ireland in English and Irish and a huge map of the world. The master was o.k., I think, but he was getting old. Small wonder, he had taught my father before me!
He was a Kerryman and a fanatic for the Irish language. He had a huge collection of old Irish sayings and proverbs, and he loved to hear the local gossip. So he set aside time while he smoked his pipe to hear all the stories, and all this had to be told to him in Irish. Indeed he was told many a lie too, one in particular that I will always remember. “The North Pole came ashore last night, Sir, in Pórt na Luinge” (a cove so called because a boat was driven ashore there in bygone days), a boy told him. But the master didn’t take any notice of the joke even though there was a muffled giggle among the children. Round poles, you must know, were often washed up on the strands along the coast, from ships who may have run into gales and bad weather. They would jettison some of the cargo into the sea then. Those poles were used to prop up coal mines and on building sites. Scaffolding was not like it is to-day.
Our teacher had the play-ground divided into two sections, one portion he called the Pale and the other the Gael. Those who were heard speaking English were put on the Pale side, and the Gael was for the Irish speakers alone. The Pale was a part of Ireland surrounding Dublin where no Irish was spoken, a part where all the English Aristocrats lived, Lords and Ladies. They were known as the Gentry, and to be sent to the Pale in the play-ground was worse than the cane.
At an early stage at school I made a friend with a boy of my own age, he started school on the same day as I did and had the same name. In later years we joined the Army on one day and now, 70 years later, we are still good mates and often meet and have pint of Guinness. Our conversation would always go back to our schooldays and to our Army days, and we would recall stories we heard from the old people and so on.
Well, the days at school were beginning to get more and more monotonous and the bug wanderlust biting my friend. I began making plans to quit. We were now aged 13 years, and 14 was the school leaving age. The days at school then were the hardest because we couldn’t or wouldn’t concentrate, the hatching of plans always came first in our minds. I had started to fish with my father and whenever his partner failed to turn up, I was delighted to take a day off from school and to go to sea instead. This made it harder to punch the time at school, especially on those glorious sunny mornings when we would loiter along the road and watch all the curraghs at sea. This was too much, so back to the planning board again! Then one morning we got carried.
Johnnie (right) fishing with his friend
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