Era of pen and ink... and a school ban on Biros!

Throwback Thursday: Fountain pens and inkwells were the only way of writing for many in Cork schools back in the day, says JO KERRIGAN, who also recalls some childhood street games
Era of pen and ink... and a school ban on Biros!

Pupils at North Monastery Technical School, Cork, in March, 1958

REMEMBER when you first learned to write well? Your first fountain pen or the much-maligned Biro? And the games of yesteryear.

Dermot Knowles has written fervently to say that we touched a raw nerve when we spoke a few weeks back about the now almost forgotten art of writing letters, and items associated therewith - pens, ink pots, and ink wells.

“Of course, the children of the ’50s and ’60s will remember the huge emphasis placed on penmanship by the education authorities, which was implemented with relish by De Brothers in The South Mon, where I started in 1960,” recalls Dermot.

“It was pen and ink for every subject, and God help you if a Biro was found in your school sack.”

That was the case in many Cork schools of the day, Dermot, if not in every single one of them.

The Biro, or ballpoint pen, had really emerged after World War II as the newest and most convenient way of writing, since it did away with the need for a flat surface and an inkwell, and simply did the job wherever you were - out and about in a forest, scribbling on the wall of a shed, or making a note on a table napkin.

But to schools of the old brigade, such a casual approach was anathema. “Biros were certainly forbidden in St Angela’s,” recalls Katie O’Brien. “We weren’t even invited to discuss the issue, we just knew that we would be in trouble if we were found writing with them, or handing in homework that had very evidently been scribbled in that giveaway different ink.”

Ah yes, that Biro ink. Invented by a Hungarian dentist, the pen was viscous and dried far more quickly, but didn’t look the same as the old quality Quink, so you were betrayed at once.

Dermot Knowles remembers that De Brother in charge of his class had a big glass container, probably a gallon in size, and regularly topped up the inkwells on the boys’ desks from this.

“And since all the pennies had to be minded, it was watered down. What had initially been a royal blue liquid ended up as charcoal grey on the page,” recalled Dermot. “Nibs (we are talking here of the old wooden pens with attached nibs of course) had to be in pristine condition, but they had a habit of splitting, so the Brother kept a ready supply in his desk, to be supplied for a halfpenny each.

“Now, in midweek, a halfpenny wasn’t always in ready supply, so your name was put on the slate and you were obliged to pay up on Friday.

“When we entered sixth class, we were granted a reprieve. We were allowed to use a fountain pen if we were lucky enough to possess one.

“I can remember feeling so grown-up heading into Woolies to purchase my very first fountain pen. It set my mother back a shilling, but was worth every penny for the sheer pleasure and ease of use after the dreaded timber pen and nib.

“I felt liberated and so grown-up using a fountain pen, like so many adults did then. I was actually so surprised that De Brothers relaxed the pen and nib regime because, as I mentioned previously, they were anal about penmanship. It, along with religion, was a cornerstone of my/our education. Superfluous now in the social media age.

Sean Moylan, then the Minister for Education, visits Mayfield National School, Cork, on April 28, 1952
Sean Moylan, then the Minister for Education, visits Mayfield National School, Cork, on April 28, 1952

“I wonder if the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram generation would even recognise a fountain pen if they saw one now? Such is life.”

You have a point there. Indeed, we saw a picture on Twitter only this week, showing a bundle of fountain pen capsules - the kind you could slot into the pen instead of filling it from a bottle with the old-fashioned lever.

The person posting commented that if you knew what these were, you were showing your age.

Well, some of us can go back quite a bit further, can’t we?

Yes, says Dermot, “when I relate these stories to my children, they think I’m making it up!”

Oh but you aren’t. We imagine other readers have exactly the same memories and can even visualise those little round white inkwells set into the much-scarred and battered double desks of our schooldays.

And the first fountain pen! What a thrill.

Later on, perhaps, for the lucky few, the incredible excitement of being gifted a special big name model like a Parker or a Sheaffer or (for a very special occasion) a Cross. What quality, what beauty. How it would improve your handwriting!

Dermot also found great pleasure in another recent Throwback Thursday column where contributor Donal Crowley gave vivid descriptions of the street games we indulged in back then.

“Kick the can, Release, Cat and Dog, Chasing, etc. It reinforced the truism that Cork city, back in the day, was a rosary bead of connecting communities, lifestyles, sayings and pastimes.

“One of those games he mentioned was Thunder up the Alley. My goodness, that brought a tear to my eye,” said Dermit. “I hadn’t heard that phrase in donkey’s years.

“Thunder up the Alley, for the initiation of your younger readers ( do you have any younger readers, Jo?) was, if my recollection is correct, purely a winter sport. It consisted of getting hold of last night’s Echo and a box of matches, pushing the papers up a drainpipe, and setting said paper alight. An updraught was created and a glorious, roaring noise ensued. Great fun on a crisp, cold winter’s night.

“Like Runaway Knock, it didn’t always make you very popular with your neighbours, but that only increased the sense of fun. Much better than being stuck inside doing your ecka or listening to Din Jo on de wireless!”

Dermot went on: “Donal Crowley also mentioned his beloved steering car, which of course, like a true Rebel, he referred to as his Steerin-ah. Again for the younger readers, a steerin-ah was a prized possession, consisting of a slab of timber with two timber axles back and front and two ball-bearing wheels at either end, with a piece of rope tied around the front axle for guidance. Ball-bearing wheels were a prized possession.

“With this, you could roar down one of Cork’s many steep hills, risking life and limb, but thinking yourself no end of a racing driver.”

Reader Tom Jones recently wrote about damming a local stream with rocks and sods to create a swimming area for himself and his pals. Dermot added: “That brought back memories too. In my case, growing up in the southside, a big gang of us decided to dam up the Tramore River

“It was a roasting hot summer (weren’t they all, back then?) and you couldn’t just head off down to Crosser for a swim, like today’s generation, and you mightn’t have the funds for Down the Baths (Eglington Street).

“The place we chose was The Black Ash, directly where the entrance to Harvey Norman is today. Remember, back in the 1960s this was still countryside, mostly unspoiled, and a veritable playground for southside kids.

“So we toiled like beavers for days with rocks, sods., logs, and anything else we could lay our hands on. Eventually, we got it waist-high. a little pool to cool off in.

Young students and their teacher at the new Glasheen school, Cork, in October, 1955
Young students and their teacher at the new Glasheen school, Cork, in October, 1955

“The rule of thumb was, only those who gave their sweat could partake of our little oasis. But, of course, in no time at all every young fella from Ballyphehane church to the South Douglas Road turned up with togs and towel under his arm and that rule went out the window sharpish.”

The usual course for swimming when you had the money, recalls Dermot, was Up the Baths (Victoria Cross) or down the Baths (Eglington Street).

“Eglington Street admission price was thruppence, (a tanner after tea-time). During the summer holidays, the place would be jammed to the rafters.

“Dermot adds: “Swimming was out of the question. It was mostly a case of jumping in and out, but still great fun. When the lifeguard blew the whistle to signal the end of the session, it was all in the pool to get the maximum value for your thruppence. Then it was all out to tog off, until one of the hard chaws decided to wax across the steel girder supporting the roof and drop into the deep end.

“All the kids would start a slow hand clap while this crazy stunt was being played out. The lifeguard would rush back into the swimming area, haul said hard chaw out of the pool, and of course, the punishment was the usual. Barred.

“Couldn’t imagine this scenario being played out in the women’s pool next door!

‘Up the baths’ to Victoria Cross was a different kettle of fish.

“You could only attend on your designated day, ie. Men’s Day or Women’s Day,” recalls Dermot. “I have often wondered about this particular ruling. Was it a Cork Corporation rule or an edict laid down by Bishop Lucey? Would our little minds be corrupted by the sight of a female in a bathing suit or, Heavens forbid, in a bikini?

“But shur , we knew it all. We were already corrupted by the sight of all the bikini-clad girls Elvis was cavorting with in Blue Hawaii, Fun In Acapulco, and Viva Las Vegas in De Pav.

“We were beyond help. Or redemption. Such innocence.”

Dermot, these are wonderful memories. We did run all over the streets and lanes of the city and play games out of doors back then, didn’t we?

Nowadays, you never see a child sitting on a doorstep singing, chanting skipping rhymes up and down the pavement, tossing a ball against a wall, or playing ‘pickie’ in a group of friends, with an old boot polish tin kicked along chalked squares. Gone, all gone.

You’re right, says Dermot. “Street games are a thing of the past now, consigned to history like the donkey and cart. And we weren’t as strictly divided as all that either.

“Back in my day, we even played ‘pickie’ with the girls if we didn’t have a ball to start a match, or enough of a gang to play Cowboys and Indians or Release. Anything to stay out of the house, and my mother’s mood, because if we were under her feet she was a great hand at finding a job for us to do, usually a grim and boring task!

“I feel like an old fogey even talking about those days now,” he says thoughtfully.

“I remind myself more and more of my father-in-law who always liked to reminisce about Cork in his youth. I suppose that’s the fate of all of us as we enter our twilight years.

“Nostalgia for our childhood days is embedded in the psyche of all of us. But your column is a joy, eagerly looked forward to every Thursday. Keep up the good work!”

Thanks, Dermot!

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