Back to school... and a history lesson on my local alma mater

Back to school... and a history lesson on my local alma mater
Children returning home from school at Dromina, near Charleville, Co. Cork in 1937.

IT’S a hundred years ago since my father started in National School.

Dan Arnold was born in 1913 and four years later he was one of 21 pupils who made their way to the school at Hightown, Bartlemy. It was still regarded as a ‘new’ school at that time, though it had opened in 1904.

My father’s only sister Johannah — Aunty Joe — was two years older than him and had started at the school in 1915.

Back in the year 2004, we had a reunion to mark the centenary of the ‘new school’. From the year it opened until 1986, that building served as the educational institution in the Bartlemy area.

In preparation for the reunion, copies were made of the oldest school registers which gave the age, name, address and father’s occupation of each new entrant. I have been looking at that old register a lot in the last few days.

Last week, one of the oldest surviving pupils of the old ‘new school’, Julia Murphy, died in her 94th year. Born Julia Ahern, her home was on the farm next to ours at Hightown, Bartlemy — the school built in 1904 was once part of the Ahern holding.

Her grandfather and my great, grandmother, Patrick and Bridget Murphy, of Moulane, Rathcormac, were brother and sister. Just to make the ‘connection’ closer she married Vincent Murphy who, in the late 1950s, ‘stood for’ his first cousin’s daughter, a baby named Mary Meade — my wife!

Blood is thicker than water so Julia’s children are Mary’s second cousins and my third cousins!

From the old registers, I know of at least five ‘pupils’ in their nineties and hale and hearty. The ‘Class of 1917’ was a large one with 21 pupils — 17 of those enrolling at the National School were locals, I’d know their seed, breed and generation, as they say. Indeed I knew and met most of them when I was a teenager.

Four of the names were ‘strangers’ to me but when I looked under the Column ‘Occupation of Parent or Guardian’ I solved the mystery. It was still the era of the ‘Fit Ups’ where travelling shows went from town to village staging plays and concerts in local barns or stores — Woods’ Store in Bartlemy Village was often used as was the national school itself.

Ernest, James and Maureen O’Brien were all children of a ‘Showman’ . Likewise Annie Linehan, her father was also a ‘Showman’. These four children, varying in age from five to 12, had all previously attended Lisgoold National School. That was the life of those Travelling Troubadours’ back then and for decades afterwards.

Indeed, during my early years in National School, the three Heffernan brothers, Gerard, Dave and Tony, spent a term in the school having come from Kilworth. Their father’s occupation is listed as ‘Aisteoir’ (actor) and the three boys had been to school in Kilworth before crossing the Bride and Blackwater.

I can recall the shows put on in the Parochial Hall around this time. The Heffernan ‘troupe’ lived in a few caravans whilst in Bartlemy and then moved on to some other venue. Their stage name I think was ‘The Tower Players’.

My granddaughter started school in Bartlemy this week. I was showing her the copy of the Register — her father started school here in 1985, her grandfather (me) in 1961, and her great, grandfather in 1917! It’s great to be able to see and study such local history.

Just this very week, Dick Roche was here in Ireland on holidays. Along with his brothers, Mikey, John and Dan, he emigrated to England as a young man and now as he nears his 80th birthday next week he’s the ‘last man standing’ in his family.

His brother Paddy and sister Lizzie stayed in Ireland — both deceased with years. He started his schooling here in 1943. At that time the brass tacks were on the floor of the classroom. The tacks were actually there until a new floor was put in.

In 1963, when I was in ‘High Infants’, a big renovation programme was undertaken. The building firm of J J O’Leary & sons Ltd of Fermoy got the contract. New ‘flush’ toilets were installed, the floors and ceilings were replaced, the ‘ESB’ was connected and the playground was cemented.

While much of the work was going on, we spent a term being educated in the Parish Hall. We all know the phrase ‘getting down to brass tacks’. One explanation is that when chairs and other furniture were being made, strong brass tacks were used so if any repairs or alteration were being done everything had to be stripped down to the brass tacks.

Others claim that in olden times brass tacks were tapped into the wooden hulls of boats. Over time, barnacles and seaweed tended to cling onto the underside of the boat. When a big cleaning job was completed, everything was scraped off until the brass tacks were to be seen.

I can remember in the early ’60s when my education was begun, to see two semi-circular rows of big brass tacks — one in each room, Miss Hennessy’s room and the ‘Masters’. I always understood that the role of the brass tacks was an educational one. There were maybe 16 or 18 in a perfect semi-circle before the teacher’s table. When the class was called to attention in front of the teacher. each boy or girl put a foot on a brass tack. All were equal before the teacher as some ‘sermon’ or rebuke was delivered — no favourites, no-one more prominent than the next.

I heard an old man say one time that another well known phrase ‘toeing the line’ also had it’s origins in having a toe on the line of tacks. As the great Eamonn Kelly was wont to say ‘I’m only saying what I heard, I only heard what was said and what was said, I’m afraid, was mainly lies’!

Getting down to brass tacks was all about basics.

Just before Dick Roche began his school life, there was a Miss Abina Cooney teaching in Bartlemy. A native of Kilnamartyra in West Cork, she spent but a short time in Bartlemy. She later moved to Tallow to take up a teaching post. While in the Brideside town she married Michael Ahern. Mrs Ahern, or Miss Cooney as she was known in these parts, died during the summer aged 99 years.

My father would be 104 if he was still alive. I often think of him when I meet someone that knew him in the 1940d and ’50s when he was in his prime. Today is the 56th Anniversary of his death in 1961. In the School Register, after my name and address, my father’ occupation is listed as Feirmeoir (marbh). I fancy if he was alive when I was growing up he’d be telling me of those friends and neighbours of his that had left this parish and country to try and make their fortune in faraway places.

And though yet farther still over ocean’s broad manor

Hard fate should decree that I friendlessly roam,

Should I find ’neath the folds of the star-spangled Banner

Or the far Southern Cross of Australia a home,

Should my pathway through life be well sprinkled with pleasures

Or scarred deep with sorrow, my fond hope will be

To come back at life’s close to that dearest of treasures

A home mid the green fields of sweet Bartlemy.

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