John Arnold: Rhymes and phrases that echo down years, half a century on

John Arnold reads over some messages, written over more than half a century ago...
John Arnold: Rhymes and phrases that echo down years, half a century on

MEMORIES: John Arnold’s 1969 autograph book, which is filled with signatures of people he met that year at Irish College

I WAS a shy little boy in the summer of 1969. Just gone a dozen years of age, my secondary education in St Colman’s College in Fermoy stretched in front of me.

I knew nothing about girls of the opposite sex, indeed, I knew very little about that small three-letter word at all. Boys were boys and played games and read comics and ‘cowboys and Indian’ was still a favourite of mine.

Girls were… well, they were girls, different entirely. I suppose in a pre-puberty (didn’t know what that word meant either!) era, boys and girls didn’t mix much.

In National School we were ‘mixed’, but when we went out to play we self-segregated.

Going to ‘big school’ in Fermoy, well, ‘twould be all boys in Colman’s and I was told the girls in Loreto, across the road, were behind a big high wall.

Wasn’t it strange then that I attended Loreto before I started in St Colman’s? In early July for two weeks a ‘Saoire Le Gaeilge’ was held in Loreto Convent and I was one of the 40 or so that attended.

It wasn’t that I was trying to brush up on my Irish, no, because I always had a gra for the Gaeilge. I suppose there was no under 12 hurling or football back then — only under 14 — and though I went to games, I never really made the team. I’m not blaming the men in charge mind, they knew that enthusiasm was no excuse for skill!

Anyhow the Irish Course was on during the daytime so nocturnal sporting excursions were still possible. I can’t recall how I found out about the Course, maybe Mam knew someone, and I know a few locals also went. A bus collected us each morning about nine and we were home around five.

Though based in Loreto, we travelled out a good bit. We had a ceili on the slopes of the Galtee mountains one day and a few days went to a swimming ‘pool’ on the Araglen river below Kilworth.

Going through my boxes of ‘childhood treasures’ lately, I found a little Autograph Book dated July 18, 1969. That was the last Friday of our two weeks of bliss and innocence. There are 22 pages of little messages signed by those friends of more than half a century ago.

I knew I’d kept that little Autograph Book but where was it all these decades? The boys just kinda wrote ‘Best Wishes’ or, in most cases, their name and address. One lad, PJ, wrote

“Two in a car

Two little kisses

Two weeks later

Mister and Missus”

It seemed a strange verse to me at the time because, truly at 12, I didn’t know the nature of things.

Our teachers Breandán, Sean, Bob, Liam and Caoimhín and Noel wrote lovely messages as Gaeilge. Just one of those muinteoirí did I ever meet afterwards. When doing the Oral Irish Examination for the Leaving Cert ‘twas one of the ‘Summer of 69 ‘ men was the Examiner.

I got A in Honours Irish in the Leaving — I made off he reckoned he had taught me well in Loreto in July, 1969!

The girls on the Course, well, I wasn’t swooning or anything about them — they were just different in a nicish kind of way. I was freckled with a Luke Kelly mop of red hair —there was not one girl on the Course that even looked a bit like that.

At the swimming pool ‘tween Kilworth and Araglen, I was compromised. The first day we were there a girl — I think ‘twas Jill — said to me demurely: “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours first” . I agreed, though blushing profusely.

As it happened, both of us had got our appendix out recently and though ‘togged off’ to learn swimming, we were advised to stay out of the water. I rolled down the top of my swimming togs about two inches to reveal my fine line of stitches. She admired them but said she had more — and she had. Just looking at what she wrote now I see:

“Remember M

Remember E

Put them together

And remember me, Jill”

And I don’t remember her at all, sorry Jill.

The year before, in 1968, Mary Hopkin had a huge Hit with Those Were The Days.

Those were the days my friend,

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

A song that reflected the swinging sixties in ways, but it was a grand song and everyone knew it.

Well Caoimhín, one of the teachers, composed a version of the song ‘As Gaeilge’ and before the two weeks were up we had off by heart — it became our Theme Song’. Time plays tricks with the memory and all I can now remember is just a snatch that goes something like

Ba iad na laethanta

le linn ar n-oige

Ni raibh aon leisce fuinn

mar ni raibh aon rud uainn

Yes, those were lazy, hazy, innocent laethanta in a summer just like we’ve had with the past three months.

Esther S. signed her name with xxxxxxx while Ann O D was more poetic;

When you are married and live in a flat

Send me a photo of your first little BRAT

And then Bernadette McC wrote;

To Sean, dearest darling ducky, behind your ears are mucky,

Love is blind, never mind, dearest darling mucky

(in rem. Of Irish Course’69).

Marian D wrote ‘In Remembrance of the “Saoire Le Gaeilge”, Love, 18/5/69.

I never went to Irish College in West Cork or Kerry — I don’t recall ever wanting to go. I suppose all the talk about the Gaeltacht Course being a ‘rite of passage’ and all that, sure that was all Greek to me in 1969.

My two weeks in Loreto where I met — well, that might be too strong a word — where I came into contact with girls was a new experience. I wouldn’t say I was profoundly changed or enlightened by the time Friday, July 18, came but I really enjoyed it. To say I was infatuated by the girls would be an extreme exaggeration — that was another word I only came across in a dictionary in the following decade!

There was one girl that I wanted an autograph from but I couldn’t pluck up the courage to ask her. She was from the town of Fermoy so I asked a boy I knew was also from the town. I tore out a yellow page from my book and gave it him and he asked her to sign it.

She did and I have it still 51 years later. I imagined she liked me but I never really knew.

Last week, as I read that yellow page, I thought ‘Yes, Those Were The Days’, she wrote “From a Fond Friend, Rosemary’ with the initial of her surname ‘B’ encased in a heart. Gan Dabht ba iad na laethanta.

“Words are seeds to grow to deeds,

None know how far they reach”

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