WHEN we asked for memories of your schooldays, it was expected that there would be a fair mix of good and bad, happy and miserable.
Parents were so fond of telling us again and again back then that this period encompassed the happiest days of our lives, but to most Cork folk, it appears, they were far from that.
Perhaps the cliché had something to do with parents looking back from their present onerous responsibilities to a time when as children themselves they had no such worries.
But to the school-goers of the ’50s and ’60s, though, the classrooms, the teachers, and the very buildings they learned in, evoked a flood of reminiscences, not all of which were pleasant.
Back then, Christians and Pres were generally regarded as the two top boys’ schools in the city, and parents who could afford the fees were glad to send their sons there, to be well educated, and to make good friends for their adult lives thereafter.
Perhaps those parents really didn’t know how harsh the regime could be for some of the pupils in those long-ago, unenlightened days.
Tom remembers starting at Christians fairly young, around third or fourth class, after an idyllic beginning at a kindly baby school.
“McCarthy from the Commons Road was my first teacher. ‘Put the hand there,’ he would say to any new boy, and hold out his own to shake yours. You weren’t used to shaking hands at that age. He was friendly though, which is more than can be said for some of the others.”
Another teacher prided himself on his biting wit: “Boys, the only job you’ll ever get is pushing a broad yellow handcart around Patrick Street, shovelling up horse manure.”
Some teachers at other schools — names are being excluded here, for fairly obvious reasons — specialised in backhanders to misbehaving students. One had a habit of punching perceived offenders hard in the stomach.
“I soon learned how to tense my muscles when I was called up, so that he could hit as hard as he liked and it didn’t have any effect. I always wondered why the others in the class hadn’t twigged this method of survival.”
Tom admits that he didn’t enjoy Christians because of the punishments that were dished out back in the day, and which were inescapable.
“No, I didn’t tell them at home. They wanted me to be at a good school so there was no point.
“Sometimes, I would wonder what it would be like to go to a school where beatings weren’t the norm.
“Eventually, after the Inter Cert, I persuaded my parents to let me switch to the Crawford Tech and that was wonderful after the Christian Brothers. It was a completely different environment. The teachers would actually talk to you like you were a human being.”
Richard says almost the same thing about Pres. “After surviving a French boarding school, Pres seemed like a holiday camp! So relaxed and easygoing.”
Pat O’Brien was a pupil at Glasheen National School in the early Sixties. “The main school was on the hill but the small school on the Glasheen road, by the Bendamere stream, was still in use. We pupils lined up on the hill and we all marched down together to class.”
There was a fire in the classroom to keep chilly hands and feet warm, and Pat recalls one teacher challenging anybody to hold their finger in the fire for ten seconds, when a certain religious feast was approaching (presumably to experience the terrors of Hell).
“A few volunteered but failed to follow through when they got close to the heat.”
Another teacher there, Mr Donegan, achieved a measure of fame as the extra on whom the mast fell in the old Moby Dick film, shot in Youghal in the 1950s. “He was quite a character.”
Donal Murray’s first steps in education were at St Peter & Paul’s on Paul Street.
“My teacher there was Miss Jones. I don’t remember too much except the classroom was on the front, to the left of that big front door up the steps.
“Then I went to St Francis’ Boys School which was down off North Main Street. Neither place was more than five minutes from where I lived in Corporation Buildings.
“I remember the teacher we called ‘Knocky’ at St Francis’. He had a stick — not a cane, a stick — and he’d use it on the palms of our hands. One lad I remember had a habit of stealing that stick and Knocky would go mad! The lad threw it right over the roof and into Imco one time. But Knocky would go out and find another one and it might be worse!
“The headmaster was a Mr O’Brien and he was very partial to giving us the afternoon off if it was raining, so when it was coming up to dinnertime we would be praying for rain, so that he would say, ‘Don’t bother coming back this afternoon, lads,’ quite relaxedly.”
Johnny Campbell has pleasant memories of his earliest schooldays in the baby room at St Angela’s. “My brother, who was two years ahead of me, fought valiantly against the idea of going to a girls’ school but to no avail. My elder sister was already going there, so the die was cast.”
He looked forward to going into school every day, he says, and reading everything he could get his hands on.
“All in all, I thought, I’m going to enjoy school.” From Babies he graduated to High Infants and was prepared for First Communion to which everything else took a back seat.
On the big day, girls and boys alike were scrubbed up and dressed to the nines, and after the ceremony, were brought up to the convent proper which was normally out of bounds.
“There was lashings of lemonade, cakes, ice cream, and fresh fruit and we stood there saucer-eyed, afraid to tuck in. In my mind I can still hear Brendan Mitchell’s stage whisper, ‘Quick, let’s eat it before they take it away!’
“All the nuns were there, fussing over us. Mother Margaret Mary, the school’s Great Leader, talked to each of us individually and gravely reminded us that we were now grown up and full members of Christ’s great One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the One True Church.
“We were in a State of Grace! If we died now, we would go straight to heaven and sit on the right hand of God!
“The excitement carried us through to the end of the school year and we left St Angela’s happy and ready for the next adventure.”
Little did they know what was ahead, he adds darkly.
“I should have had some inkling of what was to come, really, as my older brother had been regaling me with horror stories about the Christian Brothers. I didn’t believe him — then.”
Mary Holly went to primary school in Glasheen. “The boys and girls schools were separate and dad taught in the boys school. He became Principal at a later date.
“Mum, her sister and brothers, had also gone to school in Glasheen and her old home was situated straight across the road from the schools. Because Dad taught in the boys’ school, some of my classmates thought I got preferential treatment. I am not sure that was true.”
Was she happy there? “I suppose I was most of the time, but having seen my own children and grandchildren thrive in a much more benign atmosphere in later years, I realise that life in the ’50s was very circumscribed and some of our teachers were not really suited to the job. Our first class teacher was known as the kindest in the school, and she was. But she still had a stick. She called it Johnny. If she felt she had to chastise one of us, she went behind the blackboard and consulted Johnny as to what punishment should be meted out!”
One can imagine all too vividly the quaking offender sitting and waiting in terror. Psychological trauma? Probably.
There was one teacher feared above all others, remembers Mary. “We had her in second class and just our luck, the teachers were rotated and we had her again in fifth class. She made girls wash her handkerchiefs and polish her shoes among other menial jobs. She put the fear of God into us all because that was the Confirmation class and Bishop Lucey himself used to come and examine us in our catechism.
“When the visit was over, there was no praise or treat for us. Dad had the boys’ Confirmation class and he always had a treat for them to celebrate passing the ordeal.”
Mary’s secondary school was South Presentation Convent in Douglas Street where her mother had also gone. “I am going to be brutally honest when I say that most of the teaching was sub-standard, and many of the teachers, nuns and lay, were not actually qualified at all.
“There was little or no ambition for us and I now look back and realise that the narrowness of vision was par for the course in the early 1960s.
“It’s a miracle that we managed to break free and make something of our lives in later years.”
Katie O’Brien says that St Angela’s was very much like that in her day.
“My mother had gone there in childhood and must have enjoyed it, because all of us girls in the family were sent there too.
“Everything was tidy and controlled, with the emphasis on good behaviour and modest ways, and although there was very little in the way of physical punishment, they were really good at psychological torture.
“One nun in particular stands out: without fail she would spend the entire daily Religious Education class terrifying us about how Communism would take over the world and we would be dragged away from our parents, our homes, our pets, and everything we loved, and put to work in labour camps. I remember lying awake at night crying in fear.
“Now that I look back, I realise it was severe abuse of young, vulnerable minds and imaginations. She was somewhat unbalanced, I think, and was often taken off to hospital with ulcers, so I suppose she was another unfortunate forced into the convent by her family.
“There were a few nuns who clearly loved their place in life, and others who quite as clearly resented it, us, and everything!”
Katie doesn’t remember ever being encouraged to work hard or achieve.
“Did I learn anything at school? Not really. Anything I did learn I got at home, where we were lucky enough to have an endless supply of books and parents who were always willing to discuss questions and ideas and encourage us to think.
“The day I left that place I vowed never to go back, and I didn’t. It would have been nice, I think now, to go to a school where your individuality was recognised and where you were encouraged to develop your unique gifts or skills.
“There wasn’t that kind of choice in Cork when I was growing up.”