Fragments of Memory

Mat's Story - A day at school

Although an intelligent man my father Matthew O’Gorman had little formal education. He left school before the age of 14 after completing the equivalent of Year Six. Primary education had only been compulsory in Ireland since 1926 when Dad turned six. His generation was the first in Ireland to have free compulsory primary education. The following narrative is an imagined account of a day at school for Matt. The events described below take place in Meentulla and Murroe, County Limerick in late spring 1932. Information about the school he attended and schooling in 1930s Ireland was obtained from a number of sources. The depiction of the character of Matt and his siblings are based on family stories.

It is early morning In the little whitewashed house perched on a steep fir-lined slope of Meentulla of the Slieve Felim Mountains. Twelve years old Matt scrambles out of the bed he shares with his brother Willie, splashes his face from the wash basin on the dresser, pulls on his grey jersey and knee-length shorts, picks up his scuffed leather boots, and scrambles down the narrow wooden stairs to join the crowd of siblings getting ready for school.

The kitchen is bustling with children and animals — two dogs, the cat and a stray chicken scratching in the dirt floor. The smokey smell of bacon cooked in the open hearth permeates the kitchen. Matt’s Ma leans into the fireplace cleaning the griddle; Martin, the youngest, clutching her skirts. Mat's Da and Pau, his oldest brother Patrick, have already left for work. Da riding his bike to the forestry commission and Pau on “shanks pony” to his work as a farmhand on a nearby farm.

Dropping his boots with the others near the door, Matt negotiates his way to the wooden kitchen table where the breakfast fixings lay — a freshly baked round of soda bread and the remains of Da and Pa's breakfast. His older sisters Katie and Nonie are busy scrubbing six-years-old John's face over the sink. his brothers Tommy and Mick are noisily munching slices of the thickly buttered soda bread. Matt reaches for a slice of soda bread and pours himself a mug of tea from the iron teapot on the hob.

Glancing in the wall mirror over the shoulder of his brother Willie, as usual preening himself, Matt flicks fingers through his gloss black curls. The mirror shows home bright blues eyes in a face tanned by the sun.

Breakfast over, Matt joins the scramble to get his boots on. His Ma finishes pouring milk from the churn into glass bottles for their midday dinner. She hands a bottle to each child as they leave the house. Each of the boys grabbed a stick from the wood pile to take for the school fire.

Matt, Mick and Tommy sprint across the yard and start down the path to the main road. William follows more sedately after. Katie and Nonie, after receiving a kiss from their Ma, are last out the door — Katie clutching John's hand. He is the youngest to go to school. Ma standing in the doorway with Martin in hand calls after them.

"Now boys, don't be mucking about on your way, mind. I don't want to hear from the teacher that you were late again."

It is a fresh, clear day as Matt and his siblings undertake the two mile journey to the village of Murroe where their school is located. The older boys shamble along the beaten earth pathway through the pines to the main road. Willie, the sisters and a reluctant John follow briskly behind. The road winds down to the northern end of the village past the grounds of Glenstal Abbey. Sometimes, if running late, the boys will risk trespass and take a shortcut across the grounds of the Abbey. Today, as they are in no rush, they keep to the road.

The schoolhouse located at the edge of the village is soon reached. Passing the old priest's house, Matt and his brothers head to the boy’s entrance of the two-storey red sandstone schoolhouse and drop their sticks onto the firewood stack. The place their milk bottles in the line of bottles next to the entrance. Matt, Mick and Tommy run to join an impromptu game of football on the patch of sandy ground next to the schoolhouse — muddy after yesterday's rain. The boys are kicking around a well used leather ball. William prefers to join some boys chatting under the eaves of the lattice windows of the schoolhouse.

Reaching the school, John, escapes from his sisters and joins a line of first year boys enviously watching the football match in progress. Katie waves farewell to everyone and briskly walks into town to catch her ride to work. She has a new job at Silvertown Mines office. Nonie joins a cluster of the senior girls at the southern end of the schoolhouse where two of their friends are practising their step dancing for the upcoming competition. Another group of girls stand in a ring playing a clapping game.

Just before 9 o'clock Mr Maher the head teacher comes out of his cottage past the southern end of the schoolhouse. He is soon joined by Miss O’Leary in charge of the Girls' school and the two assistant teachers. He rings the brass handbell for assembly.

Jostling for position, the boys and girls line up in segregated sections by age group. Matt and his sister Nonie line up with the seniors — Nonie will be leaving school at the end of the term. Mr O’Dwyer, the assistant teacher, looks disapprovingly at the muddy legs of Matt and his fellow footballers as they join the lines.

After the usual notices and warnings, Mr Maher leads the boys in single line into the schoolhouse through the boy’s entrance. Matt stoops down with the others to pick up his bottle before passing through the doorway. Miss O’Leary leads the girls and the first year boys through the girl’s entrance and up the stairs. John to his disgust has spent his first year of school upstairs with the girls.

As Matt enters the schoolroom the smokey damp smell of chalk, dust and tobacco fills his nostrils. The schoolroom takes up the whole ground floor with a stone-lined fireplace on one side of the room and a tier of battered wooden desks on the other. Matt plonks his milk bottle on one of the hobs in the fireplace and takes his place with the other senior boys in the top tier of desks. Willie, Tommy and Mick sit in their respective places.

While Mr Maher stands at his desk checking attendance Mr O’Dwyer supervises the distribution of readers, slates, exercise books and pencils from the shelves in the corner. One of the junior boys is busy at the fireplace, cleaning out the ashes from the previous day, setting the kindling and using the strike-a-light to get the fire going. Another boy is cleaning the self-standing backboard with an old rag.

Attendance completed, the boys are instructed to stand and recite the morning prayer facing towards the crucifix hanging on the right side of the fireplace. Although this is a National School, all of the pupils are Roman Catholic.

The lessons of the morning start off with English, Arithmetic, and Irish. The boys are divided into four class groups by age. Mick seated with the youngest group at the front is chosen by Mr O’Dwyer to read from his well-worn textbook while his classmates follow on. Tommy sits with the group behind working on English grammar exercises from the day before. Mr Maher has a third group of boys seated on the dusty wooden boards in front of the blackboard as he demonstrates the mysteries of subtraction. Matt and Willie in the senior group are transcribing a passage of Irish into their exercise books using nib pens. Matt copies the ornate Gaelic in his elegant script.

For the rest of that hour the only sounds that can be heard are: the exasperated voice of Mr Maher as he tries to drum some understanding into his group; the drone of the reading group; the restless clatter of boots on the wooden boards; and the muffled sounds from the floor above where the girls were busy with their lessons.

At ten o'clock the classes switch round. Mick with his group returns to his seats and using his slate copies down sentences three times from the lefthand side of the blackboard. Tommy's group is brought to the blackboard to study the mysteries of long division. The seniors take out their poetry books and memorise the poems they will be asked to recite later in the week. Matt has chosen "The Burial of Sir John Moore" by Charles Wolfe. He will remember this for the rest of his life. The murmur of their voices joins the other sounds of the schoolroom.

At eleven o'clock the classes change again. Mick and the boys preparing for their confirmation are taken out of class by the parish priest for Religious instruction. Mr Maher takes Matt and the other seniors preparing for the Year Six Certificate. He throws questions at them on grammar, mathematics and history. Matt, along with Willie, considered one of the brightest boys in school, answer the majority of questions. Sadly, it is unlikely their parents will agree to let them take the voluntary exams.

Mr Maher rings the dinner bell at twelve. The boys return to their desks for the recitation of the Angelus prayer. As soon as they finish, the boys grab their bottles of warmed milk from the hob and head outside to eat while Mr Maher and the other teachers head for their cottages and a cooked meal. Some boys have buttered bread or a lump of cheese. Matt and his brothers make do with the milk.

When finished the boys rinse their bottles in galvanised buckets at each end of the schoolhouse—filled earlier at the pump in the main street. The football match is resumed under the watchful eye of Mr O’Dwyer. Nonie joins a group of girls playing skipping games on their side of the yard. John joins a line of boys waiting to use the outdoor toilet.

The dinner hour over, Mr Maher rings the bell and the children return to class for the resumption of lessons.

The last part of the day is taken up with Geography and History lessons. The afternoon sun beams through diamond patterned windows onto the opposite wall of the school room and onto Mr O’Dwyer. He stands by a faded canvas map of Ireland with the junior boys at his feet. As he points to the map Mick, Thomas and their schoolmates to memorise "The Rivers of Ireland" reciting. Mr Maher's voice can be heard over the drone of the juniors as he enthrals Matt, Willie and the seniors with his lively rendition of the events of the Easter Rebellion.

Three o'clock boys take off along the pathway meeting goals and John behind. Thomas is held back by Mr Maher to sweep the dust off the schoolroom floor before he can leave.

On the way home, if the boys could persuade Nonie to carry their milk bottles home for them, they would enter the grounds of the Abbey and climb the Monkey Puzzle trees. Willie was disinclined to join his brothers on their ramble through the Abbey grounds being self-conscious of his appearance.

By the time the boys cluttered into the kitchen their sisters were busy helping Ma prepare the evening meal for when the men return. Mat and Tom grab a slive of thickly buttered bread each and slurp some milky tea before heading out to finish some chores before teatime. School for the day is over.