Throwback Thursday: Fun in the Savoy, and school-day memories

The Savoy organist left an imprint on the minds of many Cork people, says JO KERRIGAN, who also unearths more of your memories of your schooldays
Throwback Thursday: Fun in the Savoy, and school-day memories

A rare photo of Fred Bridgeman playing the organ at the Savoy cinema in Cork on October 23, 1965. The lyrics are from the song ‘Oh Lonesome Me’. Picture: Richard Mills

THE famous Compton organ at the Savoy has featured in Throwback Thursday in the last couple of weeks, and it reminded Tony Finn of a highly entertaining incident in his own childhood.

“My mother took myself and my sister Mary to an afternoon matinee at the Savoy. Mary was about four, I was about seven, so it must have been in 1956.

“We sat up at the back of the theatre while Fred Bridgeman went through a medley of hits, and the audience sang along lustily, us included.

“When he finished, Fred turned and waved to the audience as he always did, while the organ went down slowly and magically into its recess. As he waved, my sister stood up on her seat, waved back to Fred and shouted ‘Bye, Bye Man’ at the top of her voice. 

 Fred Bridgeman.
Fred Bridgeman.

"The audience roared with laughter but Mary calmly sat down and proceeded to watch the film. I have reminded her of that occasion on a regular basis ever since!”

Of course we immediately asked for pictures of those childhood days, but Tony couldn’t oblige.

“Sorry I don’t have any photos of us back then, and even if I did, my sister, who still lives in Cork, would kill me if I allowed them to be published!”

It was a dangerous business standing on those seats in the Savoy, Tony reminds us, as like most cinema seats at the time they folded back automatically, “so as soon as my sister started her climb, my mother had to steady her. But I don’t think she had any idea what Mary was going to do; she probably thought that Mary was trying to get a better view of Fred as he disappeared down the hole.”

Well, you can tell Mary from us, Tony, that her action was entirely right and proper and showed a just appreciation of that man’s kind generosity in entertaining the audience.

There is one picture we can show, however, not from the Fifties but from 1965, when Richard Mills (then still a Pres schoolboy, not yet a noted photographer with the Echo and Examiner) snapped that iconic musical instrument and its interpreter, Fred, from the body of the theatre. It’s a small photo, it’s not very clear, and Fred Bridgeman himself is tiny, but it is, as far as we know, one of very few in existence of this enormously popular feature in the cinema programme.

There is, as we recall, a close-up of Fred in The Golden Age of Cork Cinemas, by John McSweeney (a lovely little book) but we haven’t seen another of the full size organ with Fred seated at it. If you know of another, then do let us know!

For those interested, the song on the screen in this photo was Craig Douglas’s Oh Lonesome Me, a popular hit at the time in the mid-1960s, and well suited to huge sing-alongs which took place in places like the Savoy.

That organ was, as we know, bought by the great inventor Russell Winn (creator of one of the first electric motorbikes), who intended to instal it in Kilbrittain Castle. Winn, however, was tragically killed in a plane crash near Carrigaline in 1980, in an aircraft he had built himself, and the organ eventually went on to Limerick.

FIRST DAY: Young students arrive at the new Glasheen School in Cork, on October 28, 1955
FIRST DAY: Young students arrive at the new Glasheen School in Cork, on October 28, 1955

And so to schooldays...

Tim Morley wrote to say that reading other contributors’ tales of early education in this column last week brought back memories of his own.

“And so I am offering you some school stories, perhaps rather dark, but basically with light at the end of the tunnel.

“I first went to a National School (Glasheen Boys) from the end of 1949 until 1957, then to Sullivan’s Quay secondary until 1962. UCC followed, then a spell doing research at Cambridge (where I got to know the English education system). I went off to Germany after a few years, studied medicine there, and worked as a medical practitioner until retirement a few years back.

“Basically, I had relegated my Irish schooling memories to the back of my head until I read of the scandals of paedophilia and the alleged brutalities of the Christian Brothers. It was then that I began to recollect, because I had very different memories of school times and certainly no bad memories of the Christian brothers.

“In the National School, the stick as a form of punishment was there right from the beginning, and if this, administered by the lady teachers, was not sufficient, there was always the threat of the headmaster who could add to it (and he was quite athletic).

“I remember once, my fear being so great, I made a dash for the door, but at the tender age of six, the adult lady teacher (probably being used to this diversion) was quicker.

“My brother some years earlier, at age 11, was in fact quicker, and as the previous head (Mr. O B) marched down one side of the class to catch him (because, crime of crimes, he couldn’t say the Angelus in Irish) he managed to get up the other side and out the open door!

The rest of my brother‘s schooling, at the other side of the city in the North Mon, was uneventful. He did his Primary Cert successfully, and held a good job in a trade in Cork. I never heard a word of criticism from him of the Brothers.

Tim observes philosophically that he got to know ‘the stick’ quite well from his second year on at national school (aged 8).

“At that time, our teacher averaged about 2-8 wallops per day with me, and as I was one of the quieter ones and thus being lower down on the stick averages, he must have maintained a very high level of fitness to keep up this walloping frequency.

“Our next teacher established the record of giving one boy 24 wallops in a non-stop act. He was the only teacher against whom I bore a grudge, I remember him once telling a lie to our head (Mr.C) on my marks in arithmetic, and children don’t easily forget injustices of this sort. I was on the right side of our head because I sang in the church choir with him.

Mr. C. and Mr H., he says, were very skilled teachers, and got along almost totally without physical punishment.

Then there was Mr B, from Kerry, who had an MA in history.

“In fact, he used to lecture at UCC, and you could say he had a very one-sided view on historical matters. Essentially, anything British was bad. If they won any war, it was due to trickery. And he didn’t have to go back to Henry VIII to find fault in their politics!

“Only once did this determined Mr B. send a pupil to the head for extra punishment. Presumably he felt he would not be able to restrain himself in administrating the ‘deserved’ beating. The crime? The miscreant had called his deskmate ‘a Kerry cawbogue’. Bad move!”

All ended fairly well, though.

“Mr B had forgotten that our head teacher was from Waterford, on the other side of Cork, not at all near Kerry, so the boy got off with a very light belt, and a lot of us in the class (probably the head too) were smirking quietly.”

From there, Tim went on to Sullivan’s Quay (CBS). “My experience of the Quay National School was only hearsay,” he says, “there seemed to be only two teachers there who were a bad memory for physical punishment.

“All the teachers in the secondary had a leather (somewhere) but nobody used it nearly as much as was the case in my junior school,” adds Tim.

“There was one instance where I, along with four or five others, incurred the wrath of the system by writing our names in pencil on our school desk, rather innocently. This apparently is the supreme crime, as I learned afterwards.

“One of the perpetrators became himself a head teacher, another a tax inspector, a third a Garda, so the ‘hiding’ didn’t seem to inhibit our later development.”

Children taking part in the Cork Grammar and High School junior sports day held at Glasheen Road on June 3, 1953
Children taking part in the Cork Grammar and High School junior sports day held at Glasheen Road on June 3, 1953

Gosh, how many of us were guilty of writing our names on our desks, in junior, in senior, even in third-level education (back when you could actually find a wooden desk or form on which to write?) Didn’t we all do it?

It reminds us of a story recounted by Richard Mills of following one of his childhood friends, Joe, older than him by some years, up to UCC and finding to his delight on the first strange day that he was at the very desk used by Joe, since his name was carved carefully there! “It felt like a welcome,” says Richard.

Returning to Tim Morley’s account of his schooldays, he observes cynically: “The Brothers were celibate, meaning that in the evening, if they were bored, there was nobody to stop them preparing courses assiduously for the next day.

“We had two Brothers in particular, Williams and McInerney, where I doubt if there were any better in the whole of Ireland. (Well, in Pres, they claimed Mr. H was the best maths teacher in Ireland, but the Quay had their equals in other subjects, and the science teachers there were also excellent in these tricky subjects.)”

Tim adds: “During my time studying in England, I learned that over there, if you had a good wage, you saved a small fortune to send your children to a public school (not the best for the psychological development of a child, I would say.) Here at home we had the good luck to have had the Christian Brothers, and no doubt as others in Cork can tell, the Presentation Brothers. And the difference in fees? In the UK, literally thousands a term for any good public school. At the Quay, ‘ten pounds if you can afford it’.”

Tim adds that many of his teachers “did an awful lot for the people of this country, on totally idealistic grounds”.

Well said. And it certainly didn’t put you off education, Tim, to judge by your subsequent stellar career!

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