Young and Easy

Vincent Coyle (Dungimmon) reminisces on his schooldays in Ballinacree

‘When I was young and easy under the apple boughs’ wrote Dylan Thomas in his wonderful poem Fern Hill. Well, I was young and easy in Ballinacree from about 1950 to 1958. Life was quite different then and yet in some strange way it was exactly the same. I’m talking about a time when “Twitter” was a language birdies in bushes used to chat each other up.

Facebook referred to a person with their face stuck in the book and one asked for a google if one wanted a look at something. A “Yahoo” was a thunderin’ twit of the highest order and a cursor was a lad who used bad words as in “Mammy he said a curse”. An icon was confined to small pictures in Russian churches but we didn’t even know that then… and in all fairness if you did … then hop up gently to the front of the class. When we said “Oh my God” we were usually praying and “like” meant “similar to” rather than a nonsense word that’s slipped in between every five words like in a sentence like.

“Savage” referred to lads who jumped around the jungle choppin’ each others heads off at a casual nod or a wink; “o” was pronounced like “o” rather than “ow.” To be totally fair we did have a few little peculiarities ourselves. We did have a tendency to call “yellow” …”yella” or sometimes “yollah” as in ….” That calf has a touch of the yollah scour”.

Our clothes were quite different then too. Girls wore blouses. If you said to a girl “I love your top “ you’d be likely to get a slap across the puss. Nowadays every girl wears a top. With regard to a bottom I have the suspicion that none of the lads in national school wore underpants. If they did it was a well concealed secret. Most men and quite a number of boys/ lads had what was referred to as the good “Sunday suit”. This was reserved for Sunday Mass, fair days and state occasions. As that era in the early fifties drew to a close so did the fashion for elderly damsels to wear casually across their shoulders the skin of a feral animal. Now you may think I’m off to the dark ages but folk of my vintage will easily remember when these ladies came to church with a fox fur or, to put it bluntly, the skin of a fox, head and all strewn nonchalantly around their neck. Anyway I do tend to ramble – back to school, the sós is over.

If it rained we all appeared in school equally wet and gathered around the pot-bellied stove in the Master’s (Connaughton) room or the open fire with Miss Simpson. Our toilet facilities were substantially different to today’s modern systems but rigours were shared equally by all – hence no one felt deprived or indeed better off. Toilet facilities in most rural houses in that era were more or less the same as in school. Bill Bryson in his latest book on English home life tells us that one in ten houses in France had an indoor toilet in the 1950’s. There were no mobile phones then or iPads or pods. YouTube concerned a bike and anyway we’d have called it U-cube. Privileged lads had “spinners” from broken clocks and bits of broken mirrors, used to reflect spots on the blackboard and annoy the Master no end.

Playing ball in the yard was the general lunchtime activity and every now and then somebody got a small cut or graze. This was ignored until it was time to go in for class and the “victim” was introduced to the Master with the standard phrase of the time: “Sir he’s pumpin.” This was a loosely veiled plea for permission to take him out to the Master’s tank across the road for urgent medical treatment which consisted in a liberal splash of stagnant green tank water on the recently injured area. The “medical assistants” in charge of the patient had to spend some time considering the nature of the injury and generally discussing same with a view to spending as much time out of class as possible.

In those times many parents had young cattle who were skulled. This was an annual ritual and naturally given our capacity for aping our elders we took this task to school and on the “hill” behind the school many a lad was “skulled”. The procedure involved grinding ones middle knuckle on the forehead of the victim involved. Some sophisticated farmers used cover the cut area of the head with a puff of antiseptic powder.

In those heady days every home had a yellow tin box manufactured by Dunlop containing all the necessary items for puncture repairs. Each box had a small grater and a stick of chalk like material. One was advised to grind sufficient powder onto the tube “to prevent adhesion to cover”. It was a while before I discovered what that meant – anyway back to skulling on the hill. We sometimes used this grinder and chalky thing to cover our skulled colleague lest he become infected. We were nothing if not perfectionists.

A lot of our learning in those days of blackboards and chalk was by rote or as we called it “off by heart.” We learned that “mysteries were truths of our religion that we were meant to believe in but could not fully comprehend.” We had no idea what “comprehend “ meant but like the swallows who thronged the school eaves it came back many years later. All our tables in the days of old maths, which we called “sums,” were learned off by heart and stand all of us in good stead to this very day.

Fr. Troy used take the altar boys – and in those days it was boys only – out to the gable wall at the end of the school where he drilled ‘Juventutam meam’ into us with all the determination of a sergeant major. Sometimes at Mass we’d make a rush at the ‘De profundis’ and hope to slur our way through it when we’d hear the dreaded “Start again laddie.” That was nightmare stuff as the ‘De profundis’ was the type of long Latin psalm that needed a good kick start; concentration on individual phrases was enough to render one dumb.

The Master was a great man for the quotations and I still recall him taking a piece of paper from his top pocket and suggesting that if ever we read a good sentence we should learn it off by heart and use it in future essays. The bit he pretended to read from the blank paper was “In modern times the science of aviation has progressed with marvellous rapidity”. From that day to this a goodly number of us have been slipping it casually into essays with some minor changes to suit the context. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” was another regular on the blackboard in copperplate writing. We were quite unacquainted with lads or lassies who wore crowns in the Ballinacree hinterlands but in these troubled times who’d swop with herself in Buckingham palace?

One of the great moments of the school year was the day we closed for the summer holidays. Lads were dispatched down to the well in Carthy’s field for buckets of water which was then liberally splashed all-round the school’s wooden floors. The floors were brushed clean and all the years dust disappeared down the knot holes and cracks in the timber. This task was carried out by lads in their bare feet – naturally it was always warm and sunny and both floor and feet dried quickly. Then the highlight of the day came when the Master produced the tin gallon of boiled sweets. Like the famous Radio Eireann programme ‘The School Around the Corner’ the sweets were divided and we all headed off into the summer sun, young and easy under the apple boughs; one year older and a small bit wiser.