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Those were the Schooldays

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By John Kelly

The years I spent in St Mary's BNS seemed at times a sample of eternity - would three o'clock, the weekend, the holliers, never come? - But I can say in retrospect they were golden times. I was never the class swot, but what the school and its long-suffering teachers taught me was more important than anything you might learn in English or Arithmetic or for that matter History books. It was about life in general and how to embrace it, especially family and friends.

I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for those dedicated teachers as they struggled to knock some book learning into us unruly pupils (I almost said 'students', but that would be to suggest we actually studied) before we graduated to Colaiste Phadraig or the Tech or some other academy of higher learning.

But somehow they managed it, and without ending up in institutions for the very, very nervous. And despite ourselves - and thanks to their diligence and example - we imbibed, without necessarily being aware of it at the time, knowledge and standards and ideas that would stand to us in the long run. Although we didn't realise at the time, teachers like Mr Roche (Tom), Mr Noonan (Noel) and Mr O'Connor (Vincent) had a profound influence on our lives.

We shared our hopes and dreams, and we laughed and cried together. But perhaps the greatest lesson I learned was never to take yourself too seriously. I will always cherish the friendships I made in 'Mary's', and fifty years on they still mean the world to me.

I remember with a smile Mr Downing (Paddy), small of stature and bald of head, who would occasionally nod off while reading the morning paper with his feet perched perilously on a large desk stacked with copybooks, pencils, chalk and steel nibs.

It was the funniest thing for youngsters to witness; as the snores grew audible the Irish Press would gradually sink down to rest on his legs - before he would suddenly come to attention with a little start, almost knocking over the inkwell that he had topped up earlier with ink powder and water.

Then there was the day when, having perused the headlines, he got up to open a window and was stung by a wasp. Much to our amusement he panicked, flapping wildly at his aggressor and howling in pain and anguish. Now Mr Downing was well into his 50s but for those few minutes that afternoon he was just like one of us kids.

I will always remember him, however, as a competent teacher, warm and affectionate, who loved and respected those in his care. And as far as most of my classmates were concerned the feeling was mutual.

On another occasion myself and Larry Pierce, my near neighbour in Sarsfield Park, were put outside the class for misbehaving. To pass the time I resorted to a favourite trick of mine - but on this occasion it almost ended in tragedy.

In the cloakroom next to our class I would regularly climb on a bar below the coat hanger, hiding behind the coats with my feet out of sight. Teachers who might come looking for me there would find only the obligatory ranks of anoraks and assorted hats, scarves and mittens.

It baffled them for several weeks - until on the day of our expulsion from the class the trick went pear shaped. The little hanging tag on the back of my jumper got caught on a hook and I was left dangling and choking in mid-air. It was only after much flailing and screaming on my part that Larry was persuaded that an urgent SOS call - to the headmaster's office - was in order.

Mr McCarthy hurried to the rescue, but my antics did not go down well with either him or my parents, who failed to see the funny side of it.

Then there was the time I was caught with a very dead fish in my pocket. No, that's not a misprint.

There was a tradition in the school that if you were extremely lucky you got the job of collecting and delivering the headmaster's tea. Mr McCarthy, Larry to his colleagues, was a formidable figure who enjoyed his cuppa with his sandwiches during lunch break, and in those early days there was no such luxury as a staff room with electric kettle. So his adoring wife would fill a Taylor Keith lemonade bottle with tea and wrap it in a stout woollen sock to keep it warm.

And since the couple lived on the other side of Lucan village, in an old stone building opposite Bob Carroll's pub (now Courtney's), the errand took at least half an hour - and such an opportunity to skip lessons was eagerly hoped for.

Mrs McCarthy was as genial as her husband and would ply the lucky messenger with Bourbon Creams (the biscuits) while she prepared the steaming brew and filled the bottle amid repeated assurances that there was no need to rush.

But back to the deceased river dweller. I was a keen angler in those days, and once when it was my turn to do the tea run I decided, on my way back to the school, to take a detour and check out a night line I had set the previous evening in the Griffeen River.

To my delight I found at the business end a handsome brown trout, which I unhooked and shoved into my trousers pocket, supposing in the excitement of the moment I could conceal him until school finished at three o'clock. It wasn't a genius move.

A few quizzical looks from the headmaster on my return suggested I had taken a bit too long to complete the task, but he seemed to accept my explanation that his wife's kettle was on a go-slow that morning. What I didn't bank on was Liam Fleming, who lived in one of the posh estates up the Chapel Hill, letting the cat - or rather the fish - out of the bag. Rising to his feet he announced to a startled teacher and class: 'Sir, sir, sir! Johnny Kelly has a trout in his trouser pocket and it's still alive.'

At first Mr McCarthy dismissed the revelation, ordering Liam to sit down and desist from telling fibs. But soon the ripe smell of my specimen catch began to waft through the small classroom - and the headmaster's keen sense of smell did the rest.

Just another of several occasions when Mr and Mrs Kelly were politely requested to drop in for a little chat with Mr McCarthy at their earliest!

Anyway, to put it all in perspective - we now know those early years of our lives are the most formative of character and values, and so I can claim unequivocally to have been greatly blessed not only in my home life and boyhood friendships but also in my primary education: the lovely school and its excellent teachers.

Thank you from the heart, St Mary's BNS!