Happy schooldays in Cork and hand-me-downs

In our Throwback Thursday feature, today JO KERRIGAN revisits the school days of the 1950s and ‘60s — this time with some happier tales — and also recalls how clothes were made to last, then repaired
Happy schooldays in Cork and hand-me-downs

Preparing to deliver the last of the Christmas post at the GPO, Oliver Plunkett Street, Cork, in 1936. Many parcels contained hand-me-down clothes.

WE featured some rather unhappy memories of schooldays in last week’s Throwback Thursday, but this week Bernadette McIntyre, of Cathedral Road in Cork, writes firmly to redress the balance.

“I’ve been following with great interest Jo Kerrigan’s recent columns on Cork in the past. In general the articles are very entertaining, especially when I come across people and events that I well remember,” said Bernadette.

“However, I disagreed with the views of one of her contributors last week who went to the same school as me, South Presentation Convent in Douglas Street.

“My experience was completely the opposite. I feel so grateful to all those nuns and teachers for the fact that I got to go to college and become a teacher myself.”

Bernadette can see, she says, how the accusation of teachers not actually being qualified could be made, as certified primary school teachers were allowed teach the junior classes in a secondary school up to Inter Cert level.

Some nuns, therefore, who were primary teachers, could have taught pupils for the first three years of secondary.

“This does not mean their teaching was sub-standard,” points out Bernadette, “they were qualified for the post and officially entitled to fill it.”

In general, she says, they had some excellent teachers.

“There will always be some better than others, but I cannot remember any teacher failing in their duties over the years when I attended South Presentation Convent — 1958-1963.

“Many even gave extra tuition outside of the regular class timetable. Indeed, one girl from Hartland’s Avenue — Maureen Murphy, I think — came first in Ireland in French in 1962. That indicates good teaching, doesn’t it?”

In Bernadette’s Leaving Cert year there were 38 students, of whom five went on to UCC, including Bernadette herself.

Many others progressed to worthwhile permanent employment in the Civil Service, or with public bodies like the City and County Councils, Aer Lingus, CIE, ESB, etc.

Others went to either the College of Commerce or some other commercial college and got steady jobs in local businesses and stores around the city.

“Also, I should mention that in our final year the Head Nun announced she had just got word from the Department of Education that we were the largest girls’ secondary school in the country,” recalls Bernadette.

“We had just beaten Scoil Caitríona in Eccles Street, Dublin, which had been at the top for years.”

Students came from several miles out on country buses because of the great reputation of the South Pres, she affirms.

ALL SMILES: Children outside St Nicholas School in Cove Street, Cork city, on the day that it closed for good — October 2, 1957.
ALL SMILES: Children outside St Nicholas School in Cove Street, Cork city, on the day that it closed for good — October 2, 1957.

Bernadette went on to spend her teaching career in Kilkenny, because that was where the work was.

“I never really wanted to leave Cork, though, and always knew I’d get back eventually. When finally I retired and came home, 15 years ago, I heard our head nun, Sr Berchmans, was alive and well and still in the convent in Turner’s Cross.

“In 2010, I phoned the convent to make an appointment to visit her. When she rang back I gave her my name and said ‘I don’t expect you to remember me.’ She replied: ‘Of course I remember you, you’re from Mayfield. We never got many from Mayfield as it was on the north side, but six of ye came that year all together’.

“I think that says it all. She remembered the six from Mayfield after 47 years!”

So, other happy schoolgoers of the Fifties and Sixties, let us hear your pleasant memories too. They can’t all have been bad, surely?

Of course, it was maddening to be forced off to that classroom every single day of term, with only the faraway beacons of Christmas, Easter, and the wonderful heaven of the long summer holidays to comfort us, but if you have particularly good recollections, then do share them with us!

(Hey, did you ever make a little calendar in the back of your copybook in December, wreathed in holly, and cross off the days to Christmas?)

Now, the clothes we wore back then have been featured in a couple of previous Throwback Thursdays, but we have just received such a wonderful letter from Mary Crowley from Kanturk that we make no apology for quoting it to you in full.

Parcels of hand-me-downs from overseas, the unceasing repairing, darning, re-using, even social welfare and the Relieving Officer were part of life back then, and it should make us all feel thoroughly ashamed of ourselves as we queue up for rubbishy tat that won’t last till January.

But let Mary tell the story:

“When Dan O’Connor, the local postman, arrived at our house with a parcel on the carrier, all plans for school were abandoned. School bags (then called sacks) were dropped as we tore the brown paper off like rabid animals.

“Even the threat of physical and verbal abuse from the nuns for turning up late didn’t deter us. This was like Christmas morning!

“I was lucky that I had a cousin in England older than me, so I knew that I’d get a coat and maybe a few dresses. I simply had to try on the style before school, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate in class that day.”

Mary remembers that one day her brother was in town and an English car stopped and asked him if he was attending the rather prestigious UK private school that the crest on the blazer he was wearing indicated.

“He replied, ‘no I’m going to the Tech!’ The humour of it wasn’t lost on my mother and father when he recounted the story. The blazer of course had arrived in an English parcel!”

It would be very difficult to explain to children in today’s throw-away world that you very rarely got new shop-bought clothes back then, observes Mary. Mothers turned collars in shirts when the telltale ravelled line became obvious.

“Even our jumpers were hand knitted by our mothers. I still recall the ache in my arms as I held the skein of wool in my outstretched hands as my mother wound it into a ball. It was very important to get the same shade (in our case red)as that which was the colour of our school jumpers.”

When the elbows wore out, and repeated darning had failed to fill the hole (does anybody today know how to darn?), that wasn’t the end of the garment. No indeed, new sleeves were knitted to add to the body.

Children’s pleated skirts often came (perhaps they still do) with cotton tops which hold the skirt firmly in place.

Mary adds: “My mother made pleated tartan skirts with that top part made from flour bags, over which we wore our red school jumpers. Those same flour bags had many uses. Sheets and pillow cases were made out of them, plus they were our tea-towels for drying the ware.”

Shoes needing repair? Her father did all that work on a traditional ‘last’, which Mary still treasures to this day.

“The leather was bought at Connolly’s shoe shop in Kanturk, plus a handful of tacks, and my father worked his genius with a penknife,” she recalls.

“On one occasion when my father was unemployed, we got shoe vouchers from the social welfare, from a man called the relieving officer. You couldn’t pick out shoes that you liked, of course. You had to make do with the special social shoes which everyone knew came from social welfare. They were common black brogues, but at least they weren’t hobnailed like the boys’ ones, where you’d hear them coming a mile away!”

Mary vividly remembers the first time she got a new shop-bought coat for Christmas.

“It was at Mrs Lehanes in Percival Street. I can still recall the smell of newness when she slid that glass door across. The floor was a blue colour and a big mirror stood in the corner. It was the year my father went working to England, to Fords in Dagenham, and money was sent home. My mother bought not one but two new dresses. We were rich!”

Every year, that long-forgotten stalwart of the old days, the ragman, arrived.

“He would drive into our terrace in his blue pick up truck, offering trinkets for clothes,” recall Mary. “The more you gave, the more you received.

“We tore through presses and drawers, begging my mother to let us have some cast offs, of which there were precious few.

“She even used to cut the buttons off every piece of clothing before discarding, to be used for future garments. I still do the same thing to-day even though I have never used one of them. Old habits die hard!”

Oh yes, she says, the ’50s were bleak enough, “but where we lived everybody was in the same boat. There was no tuppence halfpenny looking down on tuppence!”

Mary Holly remembers pleated skirts made by her mum too.

“She didn’t make them with a waistband. They actually had a slip-like top so they just popped over our heads and then our jumpers covered that. When the skirts were washed, Mum would add ‘glue’ to the rinsing water to help keep the pleats crisp.

“The ‘glue’ looked like shards of brown opaque glass and was bought in Waters in South Main Street.

“Mum would melt some gently in a ‘ponny’ (a tin mug) on the gas stove and then add it to hot water. The skirts were dipped into this liquid.. A tedious process.”

Let’s hear your memories — whether of schooldays or exciting parcels from relatives abroad. Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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