The thought of returning to St. Finian’s College Mullingar after the Christmas holidays of 1952 didn’t excite me; I wanted the warmth of the holidays to linger, and I used to think it was a sad state of affairs that Christmas came only once a year; As someone said, “Pity he didn’t have a brother.” Instead, I was facing the harsh realities of freezing weather, dull days, beatings, barred windows, and tea that tasted like tar. Going back to school for my second year was especially difficult because I had lingering doubts as to whether I should be there at all. Nor did it help that there were upwards of three inches of snow on the ground. I was outright depressed until I met Paddy Mullen and Gerry Crean from Oldcastle only to find that they too were equally depressed. Time permitted, so we decided to walk down town to take a last look at the shops and bright lights in the windows on Dominic Street, Mullingar. Darkness had fallen as we crossed the canal bridge on the way back. We lingered a while on the bridge to have a last fag in liberty and to rail at our misfortunes. None of us was happy at the prospect of going back behind walls. One word led to another, and before we knew it, we had decided to run away. We had to act quickly because there would be a head count during the Rosary.
We settled on a vague plan to go down to County Cavan to work on a farm. In order to get there we would catch the Dublin-Granard bus in Castlepollard. Once we reached Cavan town, we would wander around until we would find a farmer who would hire us. Excitement was high as we ran back to the dormitory and each began to pack the necessities into bedspreads. “And be sure to pack any food and cigarettes yis have,” said Mullen.
We walked in the tracks the cars had made in the snow. Problem was that every time headlights loomed on the horizon behind us, we dove for the ditch lest it might be Father Fagan out looking for us. We plodded along at a steady pace until Crean began to complain about being tired. The poor little fellow was smaller and weaker than Mullen or I. “Howld on Gerry,” I said, “It’s only another mile to the Crookedwood and we can rest in the warm pub.” As for me, I could have gone all night because by comparison the few items in the spread were much lighter than a load of fodder or a bundle of cipeens.
The village was quiet when we reached it about midnight. We went into the pub and sat on a form along the back wall. Apart from the barman, there was only one other person in the pub. Because of the dim light, I did not recognize him at first, but as my eyes became accustomed to the light, I realized he was one of the Gilsenans from The Black Hills. I think his name was Joe. I had seen him at Mass in Fore many times when I was on holidays at grandfather’s. I did not want him to recognize me, so we sent Mullen to ask him if he was going towards Castlepollard. He was, and he went entirely out of his way to oblige us, decent man that he was. I was sitting in front. I was inclined to think he knew who I was but he asked no questions. He dropped us off outside Kennedy’s Boarding House in Castlepollard.
The big brass knocker reverberated throughout the entire square. What was the need for so much noise is beyond me, but it did bring immediate results. A man stuck his head out a second floor window. He did not sound very pleased when he yelled down at us.
“What the hell are yis doing down there waking half the neighbourhood?”
“We’re looking for place to stay,” I yelled back.
“Well, yis won’t find it here.”
I believe the man thought he was dealing with travellers, and then he threw in the punch line. “Blaggards! Well, yis bether buzz off down da feckin road before I call da law on yis.” There we were, standing in the cold.
I recalled earlier in the day having seen a few cocks of hay in a haggard outside the town off the Oldcastle road. The two boyos did not think it was the most brilliant of ideas but when I said, “Have it your own way lads,” they quickly came around to my way of thinking. We gubbed enough old meadow hay to cover the snow. When the two boys lay down, I gubbed a few more handfuls to throw on top of them. Finally, I threw a few good wisps on myself.
At six o’clock the following morning we were in Saint Michael’s Church, not because we had gone religious, but because each of us sat on a storage heater to thaw out. We must have been a curious sight to the handful of old people coming in for the seven thirty. We just sat there continuing to warm up until the priest came on the altar. It was Father Cooney. I thought I saw him looking suspiciously at us a few times, so I whispered to the lads that it might be best if we skipped communion and left early. We made a hasty exit, only to find that some busy bastard had swiped our stuff from behind the entrance door. Some fancy language was aimed at the unidentified miscreant, but what the hell; we would have to manage without it.
When we checked in at the bus stop in Lee’s drapery store, a woman behind the counter told us that the Granard bus would arrive at 11:00 am. We took a long stroll out towards Packenham Hall. When we returned to Lee’s, the same woman directed us into a small waiting room at the back. What she did not tell us was that Father Cooney, the parish priest, was hiding behind the door. Well, my heart nearly went to my boots when I saw him. I wanted to bolt, and I would have if he had not kicked the door closed in our faces. In a voice as pleasant as you please he said, “Hello boys.” He had us cornered.
He took us to the parochial house and brought us into a huge dining room. We could hear him inside talking on the phone, but could not discern what he was saying. Paddy Mullen looked at me. “Didn’t yeh say this mornin’ at mass that ya suspected him, and ya were right bejay!”
Mrs. Mullen and Mrs. Crean were very distressed when they arrived on the scene. All I could hear out of the two women on the way back to Mullingar was, “How could you do this to us, Gerard?” and “How could you, Patrick?” For my own part, when I thought about it, I was glad we were going back. That is not to say I was not concerned about our immediate future and what would happen now that we were going back.
Next morning each of us separately had to face Father Larry Fagan. As soon as I entered, I could hear the hiss of air. His jaws were white and I could see the twitching. His expression had the angry look of a boxer about to land a knockout punch on the opponent’s chin.
Well, Egenton, what have you to say for yourself?” His teeth were chattering.
“Nothing! Is that all you can say? Nothing! Mrs. Crean and Mrs. Mullen seem to think you were the ringleader of that stupid, irresponsible venture.”
“Well, I don’t think two townies are dependent on a bogman to make up their minds what they ought or ought not to do.”
More hissing, more teeth rattling. “True for the old saying: You can take the man out of the bog, but you can’t take the bog out of the man.”
“Well Fadder, ye’d know ’cause yeh was born closer to a bog nor me.”
Now his face was livid with anger to the extent that I thought he was about to give me an ogious wallop on my jaw.
“Ooooooh! You impudent pup, you hooligan! If your father were alive, he would be ashamed of you. Often and often, he carried me on the bar of his bicycle. He was a fine man, your father, but you,” he concluded, “I just don’t know how to deal with you, whether to put you in my car and leave you at home or allow you to stay. Which do you want me to do?”
At that stage, because of his ranting, I was shutting down, and replied in a grumbling tone of voice, “I don’t care one way or another,”
“Do you want to stay in St. Finian’s?”
The day before I was due to go back after the Easter holidays I told my mother about the affair. There was a slight quiver in her voice when she spoke. “Michael,” she said, “you don’t have to go back to St. Finian’s if you don’t want to; there’s always loads of work to be done on the farm.”
I thought long about that. The typical boy in rural Ireland at the time did not receive an education beyond the primary level. When he left school, he had to scrounge around for something to do and be content with any job that paid a few bob to tide him over until he would be old enough to emigrate. Scarcely a family in the country escaped the long tentacles of emigration, and the wandering genes of the Irish were well documented. Every now and then Patcheen would remark “Mickeen, six months from now I’ll be washin’ me feet in da Red River Valley.”
I’d say to him, “And tell me now Patcheen, and where is da Red River Valley?”
Patcheen would always give the same reply, “Mickeen, to tell yeh da God’s ‘onest truth a don’t know, an’ what’s more a don’t give a damn so long as it’s not in Ireland.”
Mother gently guided, but never forced. I knew her desire was that I would get a good education, but in allowing me the option she gave me a new responsibility, for no longer could I use the excuse that I was being obliged to attend St. Finian’s. I went back with a changed attitude after that Easter holiday.
Michael Egenton, from Moylagh, living in New Jersey, USA