Throwback Thursday: I learned to read from Echo’s Mutt and Jeff!

This week on Throwback Thursday, a reader tells JO KERRIGAN about his first day at school in Cork in 1956, and recalls how a comic strip helped his education
Throwback Thursday: I learned to read from Echo’s Mutt and Jeff!

A Mutt and Jeff cartoon strip that appeared in the then Cork Evening Echo in 1942 - the cartoon ran for years for six days a week and was popular among young and old.

TOM Jones, now living in Key West, Florida, has told us before of growing up on Shandon Street and witnessing the sad end of the Opera House from his bedroom window.

Now he writes again to say how much, as a long-term expat, he is enjoying our recent Throwback Thursday columns.

He particularly enjoyed last week’s article, about Michael Scanlan, who lost his job at the Opera House when it burned down in 1955, and whose wife was in hospital at the time having their fourth child.

“Indeed, the story of Michael Scanlan, stage manager of the Opera House, whose son ‘Mickie Sca’, brother of the writer of that piece (Dan Scanlan), became a cherished friend of mine in later years, touched me deeply,” says Tom, who sends his sincere thanks to Dan for the memory thus awakened.

However, another correspondent’s mention of the Christian Brothers, and their fondness of the leather strap, compelled Tom to write of his own experience of school days in Cork of the 1950s and early 1960s.

“As I recall, there was snow on the ground, that cold early January morning of 1956, when I set off with what I would now describe as a sense of trepidation and anticipation, mixed with excitement.

“It was quite a heavy load on my young shoulders at what was to be the beginning of my journey of education toward the pursuit of knowledge in life.”

Tom recalls that he was keenly aware of his surroundings on that all-important day.

“Walking down North Abbey Street, past a mixture of tenement houses, and places of commerce. I believe one may have been a blacksmith’s or carriage repair yard. Then, turn right at the Garda Station, up the narrow passage steps, then further up the Rock Steps, turn left on Blarney Street, walk a little further up, to finally arrive at the iron gates of the old Blarney Street C.B.S. school.”

Pupils and teachers from Blarney Street CBS pictured before setting off on a day trip to Youghal in August, 1954. Tom Jones started at the school two years later
Pupils and teachers from Blarney Street CBS pictured before setting off on a day trip to Youghal in August, 1954. Tom Jones started at the school two years later

Entering through the gates, recalls Tom, he walked nervously across the concrete schoolyard, the frosted snow creaking beneath his footsteps. Then down a narrow passageway to enter through a door at the side of the school building, to begin his first day of formal education.

“The classroom itself was of a large dimension, though I cannot recall its decor,” says Tom. “I would guesstimate it consisted of about 20 pupils, and I quickly observed that most of the children there were somewhat familiar with each other.

“Because they had turned five years of age before the beginning of the school year, they were there a few months already. I, having turned five only a few days before, was the only new kid on the block.

“All this of course added more to my fears. It seemed like a daunting task lay ahead of me.”

The Christain Brother in charge of that introductory class was a Brother Fitzgerald, and little Tom was instructed to address him always by that name.

“He was a heavyset man, clothed all in black, as was the attire of the fraternity at that time. Advanced in age, of a large girth, the black billowy cassock, from which his sash hung, created a swishing sound when he walked, to and fro. His portly jowls moved in unison emphasizing and annotating each word, of one; two, or three, syllables which we repeated aloud, while we followed along with our fingers on the pages of the books he had passed out.”

Here Tom was fairly confident, though. “I knew I could keep up because I had learnt to read from the Mutt and Jeff and Billy The Bee comic strips on the Evening Echo. Plus, as they say in Cork, even then; ‘I was no daw like.’”

The curriculum for that day, apart from the reading lesson, was learning the elementary functions of mathematics, for which coloured beads on an abacus were used. 

“And a little portion of the day, I recall, was a quiet period, when we were required to place our hands on the little tables, then our cheeks on our hands, to take a nap perhaps.”

Tom points out that he mentions the little tables and chairs emphatically, “because it would be the last time I would sit at an individual desk for the entire duration of my time spent in the school.”

Grades then, he explains, were from entrance level considered to be called ‘Babies’ then ‘Low-First’, and onwards through 1st to 7th Class, the final level.

“Or, I suppose, Graduation Level, though I personally can attest to the fact that some, sadly, never made it that far.”

Eventually, his momentous first day at Blarney Street C.B.S. school came to a close. A milestone in life had been passed.

“A prevailing sense of well-being enveloped me, as I walked back across the schoolyard, although this time, I’ll admit, with a bit more pep in my step. I exited through the iron gates. Then I ran all the way home!”

A Fáinne - a pin badge worn to show fluency in the Irish Language - is presented to a pupil of the Model School, Anglesea Street, Cork, in 1956
A Fáinne - a pin badge worn to show fluency in the Irish Language - is presented to a pupil of the Model School, Anglesea Street, Cork, in 1956

Looking back, Tom recalls that the school building itself was old, with large windows and high ceilings.

“Its only source of heat in winter was one cast-iron radiator per classroom, fed with a two inch iron pipe of which many were glad to sit on, or at least be near to, if only for a moment, to shelter from the cold wintry blast that was a constant, even indoors.”

Inevitably the master would spot these seekers after comfort, and command that they got back to their seats.

The desks, he remembers, were wooden with cast iron supports, accommodating from four to six students.

“There were ceramic inkwells on top of the work area to dip our writing pens into. These were a twin-pronged nib held by a circular wooden shaft, with a sheet of blotting paper to help your progress. There was also a shelf underneath the work area in which to place your school sack.”

Such ‘conveniences’ as the school possessed consisted of a long concrete structure out on one side of the schoolyard.

“This, of course, was open to the elements of Mother Nature. On the other side of the schoolyard was an enclosed shed with wooden benches and tables, in which we were provided with a tin ponny of hot cocoa and a bun topped with a creamy substance of sorts, supplied by the largesse of some local bakery, I presume, although I don’t recall which one it was.

“These goodies were served in rotation per day at mid-morning, by two of the boys of seventh class. As seventh were the last class to receive their daily allotment, and servers were the last to partake, on occasion, the supply would run short.

“Then, the Brothers, ‘fair dues’ as they say, would provide cakes to compensate for the shortage, which added to the joy of your day.”

Looking back, Tom remembers it as a time of sweetness and sadness, happy and hard times.

“But through all the vicissitudes of our time at the school, there are many proud moments to reflect upon, not just for the education we received there. There were the accomplishments of the Blarney Street C.B.S. Pipe Band in which a friend of mine, Frankie Martin, played. There was also, of course the Iona Basketball team, of which many went on to achieve recognition by playing with the Irish National Team; one, Andrew Houlihan, being a good friend of mine.”

While Tom does not want to be unfair or unkind to the memory of the Christian Brothers, nor diminish the many points of goodness they brought into the lives of pupils, he was witness on many occasions to some of their blind indifference to young and fragile developing psyches.

He mentions in particular the over-use of corporal punishment in the form of a large stick, or leather strap, one of the latter being christened ‘Excalibur’ by the brother who wielded it.

“That, at least to me, was not considered to be an inducement to higher academic achievement, and a concept I could never subscribe to,” says Tom.

“Now, allow me to say this irrevocably and unequivocally. Placing an already nervous child at the blackboard in front of the class to solve a mathematical problem, or tugging at his earlobe as he tried to recite the verse of a poem, or some passage of literature from memory, as his voice quivered, will never be a pleasant memory of mine. It seemed as if two distinct emotions, anger over humiliation, fought with each other inside him for permission to be heard. Please Brother, I ask simply after all these years, were you not aware of the child’s limitations and/or problems, to be taken into account?”

Many years later, says Tom, on return visits home to Cork, talking in some pub with friends from his old school days, the conversation inevitably would turn to days gone by.

“The poignant words of some of them still resonate with me, after all these years: ‘The day I turned 14 years of age, I walked out from the schoolyard, and never looked back,’ was typical. It was legal then, to leave school at 14 years of age.

“For many at that time the only recourse to further education was the Crawford Tech on Sherman Crawford Street. For many, unfortunately, the only other schooling they would attain in life was the ‘One Day A Week’.”

These, says Tom, are some reflections and recollections of his own that remained embedded in his brain ever after.

“Now I realise that others, perhaps, may have fonder reminiscences about these times, or can truthfully express the aphorism, ‘Happy Days’. I’ll say, with great respect, due diligence and comportment, ‘To each their own, to each their own. I only know what’s mine. For me it was bittersweet, and these words I just had to express. Yet, even today, I’ll simply say,

Sweet Cork of Thee,

You’ll always be

A precious fond memory to me.

Wonderful, poignant, and thought-provoking, Tom. Thank you for sharing those memories.

What memories do other readers have of their schooldays? Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com, or leave a comment on our Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/echolivecork)

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