Well before the century had reached its teens the writer made his first appearance in Lisheenaheltia National School (locally referred to as Lisheen) at the age of three or so he was told, John Comer was then the Principal Teacher. He retired shortly afterwards and was replaced by a young N.T. named Patrick Sheehan. The school building, according to the standard of those days, would be regarded as modern, but now days it would be considered primitive, dusty, ill-kept, and draughty. There was no flush toilet and no provision for drinking water. Money was then scarce, very scarce indeed; all the children went to school barefooted throughout the year, be there hail, rain, frost or snow. Hard to believe but such was the case. Looking back, another sidelight is that there was then far less evidence at lunch hour of apples, oranges, sweets, or sweet cake than there is now – a piece of ‘arán coirce’ was the fare in my day. How times and standard of living have changed.
The school in those far-away days was cleaned and swept by senior pupils after school hours every evening and little was ever done by way of repairs. Parents supplied the fuel – a load of turf annually in respect of each family, big or small. However when the supply they provided became exhausted, each pupil above the age of seven or eight or so, was obliged to take two sods of turf every morning, that is until the wintry weather petered out. With the best will in the world it was natural that those sods were forgotten now and then. But if they were there was (for some of us) consolation in knowing that old Joyce turf reek – built by a stream alongside the road, not far from famed Boyounagh Bridge – was always there. It was tempting bait and it was all too often that rather than face the teacher empty handed (he had an ungentlemanly habit of standing at the door of the school as we passed in) a youth took a chance, nipped out a sod and quickly replaced it with an old shoe, or perhaps pulled out two sods, broke one in half to plug the cavity and took the other. Indeed at one stage an old stool was used by the smaller fry to help them pick out the sods.
Like all boyish schemes all went well for a time, until one morning as we were passing by the turf reek caved in, alerting old Joyce. We then, predictably, did what boys always did and what boys always will do in a crisis –we ran, innocent and guilty alike, for our very lives. But if we did, the irate Joyce, with sally rod in hand, was on our heels when we burst into the school like frightened rabbits. Complaining bitterly, he likened us to wild geese feeding in the bottoms, in the sense that one always watched so as to give the signal to others in case of danger. The upshot was that we were punished, but if we were the punishment mated out were less severe than was feared, and certainly less no than the warning given. However, teachers in those days could by no means be taken for granted, as many of them regarded the cane as a crucial part of the educational curriculum.
As was inevitable, like all youngsters we grew up, dropped off from school, each to make his own way in life, whether at home or foreign fields. Long afterwards at least one of the school boys of these days, in his imagination and in his dreams, often re-visited the scenes of his youth and re-lived many of the incidents of his school days. In fact, after an absence of well over half a century he re-placed nostalgically the journey he had so often travelled barefooted as a boy to and from school – a journey which promted these lines and the doggerel which follows:
In the evenings when the shadows gather round the old mill,
I roam by the river that flows down by the hill
And I think of the days with a book and a rule,
Barefooted I shanked it to Lisheen school
Now long, long ago when I first went to school
Each morning two sods for the fire was the rule,
But when we forgot them to Joyce’s turf-rick we went
So I scarcely need tell you that we left our dent.
Right well I remember how we surveyed the scene,
We looked up, we looked down, we were ever so keen
Like wild geese that feed we pulled sods from the core,
Then with rash courage here and there we took more.
For appearance sake we filled up the spaces,
By halving a sod and filling two places
Of the hollows within there wasn’t a sign or a trace
And we left at a speed that would win a foot race.
Inside in the school we were held in a spell
Using mere nods and winks lest someone would tell.
Then when all seemed quite safe came a bolt from the blue
We were stunned by the news – Old Joyce had a clue.
One morning as we passed by was the last for the turf stack
For it wobbled and shook and went in with a crack
Sure we all took to flight as Joyce gave a full yell,
Then he bound after us like a hound out of hell
Off towards the school we straight away tore
Sweeping before him as he cursed and swore
To those by the wayside who say the charges made,
There was nothing ever like it since the “the Light Brigade”
Face-to-Face in the school things took a worse turn
For the old man went wild when he saw his turf burn,
But when put on the mat we admitted like men
And accepted the cane in atonement for sin.
I can swear by the book while I’m now calm and cool
I often broke the mile record from the bridge to the school
But it was in faraway places in the middle of the night
When painting and puffing I woke up with the fright.
Lo, golden years later I re-visited my old school,
Now in measured step without a book or a rule.
A pause at the bridge saw us once more in flight,
A glance at the playground echoed boyhood delight.
For school-pals who roamed overseas I now mourn,
Most of all I lament those never more to return
And with these in the homeland who still go to mass,
I meet now and then for a chat and a glass.
Agus beannacht Dia le n-Anam to those who now sleep
Whether round Boyounagh Hill, or away o’er the deep
For all I ask pardon for sods pinched with aid of a stool
In our happy free days around Lisheenaheltia School.
Author: John Healy
Source: 1978 Glan to Glan Parish Magazine