Growing up in Drumbally

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4. School

I started school when I was four. The school was a mile away. For a little chap the two miles to school, up two steep hills, was quite an ordeal. My sister May tells me that she often had to carry me as I would sit on the road and refuse to go any further. As she was only eight this must have been tough on her. The first part of the journey was up Drumbally Hill. This seemed very long and steep and I was always glad when I got to the top. Halfway up the hill was the Lamb's house. I can't remember his first name but his wife was called Annie and they had two daughters. The odd thing about him was that he had made his own small gravestone that he kept at the house for many years before parking it under a palm tree in the graveyard of Creggan Church. Although it was Church of Ireland both Catholics and Protestants had always been buried in the graveyard. When I visited the graveyard recently the stone was standing beside the family grave. Towards the top of the Hill was Failie (Felix) Grimes. He had an apple orchard and every autumn it was regularly raided by the children coming home from school. The apples were mostly cookers but in those war years we thought they were great.

The school was mixed and in two rooms, with three teachers. Miss Carroll taught the Junior Infants, Senior Infants and first, second and third classes. At the other end of the room Master Hannon taught the fifth, sixth and seventh classes. In the second room Mrs Hannon had the third and fourth classes. Each class had few pupils, reflecting the size of the rural community. There were probably no more than 70 pupils in the whole school. There was a bare front yard bounded by laurel bushes through which the boys chased each other when not kicking a pug about. The sloping back yard was divided down the middle by a high wall, dividing the boys from the girls. The facilities were primitive with the dark, doorless and waterless toilets discharging directly into a drain in the field behind. It was a thoroughly unpleasant place and needless to say was avoided as much as possible.

It was very cold in winter. Heating was provided by open fires at each end of the room, kindled daily from October to April. During the spring jackdaws filled the chimneys with twigs and bracken as support for their nests. This had to be removed before the winter fires could be lit. It never seems to have occurred to anyone to fit covers to the chimneys to prevent this.

John Hannon at 90Discipline in the school was enforced by corporal punishment. Mrs Hannon never used the cane but her husband was an enthusiastic exponent. Someone stole it and in its place he started to use a foot long section of rubber hose - about an inch thick, ribbed lengthways. This had a heavy hard action on the hand, leaving it numb. In its turn this was also stolen, leading to him using a length of flexible red piping, about half an inch thick. This had the merit, from his point of view, of wrapping itself round the hand; administering punishment on both sides at once. We would have been better off with the cane.

When the National Health Service was introduced in 1948 we started to get free school milk. This came in third-of-a-pint bottles, sealed at the neck by a waxed disk which could be extracted by popping a central core. These disks were later used as the basis for raffia work, making baskets etc. In wintertime the milk would be frozen in the bottles, causing expansion which popped the disks. We had to heat them by the open fire.

My sister, Kathleen, had a chronic condition, which left her in some pain, and she was frequently off school as a result. She was just a year younger than I was. We were great pals and I was very protective towards her. On one occasion, after she had been off school for some weeks, she failed to answer some question put to her by Master Hannon and he called her out to be caned. He was a noted caner who never "pulled his punches" and I knew that she would be hurt so I objected, pointing out that she was delicate and that she should not be punished. This so infuriated him that he gave me a hammering instead. I gave him no satisfaction, never flinching from the assault, though truth to tell I was in considerable discomfort.

My best friends in the school were Tom Hearty and Gerry McKeown, who came from Cornonagh. I did see Gerry once when we happened to be in Cross at the same time, at someone's funeral I suppose, but that was thirty years ago. More than 50 years later Eddie Daly sent me a school photograph taken in 1949. It is reproduced HERE with most of the names gathered at a meeting of the Creggan Local History Society in 2003.

The school did not have any playing fields so the opportunities to develop any sporting skills were nil. Master Hannon was not interested in sport and did nothing to bring in anyone to develop it. The only time I recall any sporting activity was when some boxing gloves were produced and I squared up to Sean Campbell in the back yard. Within ten seconds I had received a painful punch right on the nose and that was the end of that for me. I can not recall whether the gloves were a private initiative on the part of one of the boys or a school thing. At any rate nothing came of the initiative.

I stayed in Glassdrummond School until 1952 when I got a scholarship to the Abbey Grammer School in Newry. Without the 1946 Education Act it is highly unlikely that I would have had the opportunity for secondary education. As it was I did not take the 11+ examination (for reasons I never found out) and instead succeeded in the Review procedure at age 13.

I don't have any fond memories of those school days. In truth I was glad to leave. Without the scholarship I would have left within another year and given the norms of the time there is no knowing if I would have made anything of myself. I was never conscious that the school was interested in my progress or made any special effort on my, or indeed anyone's behalf. I have the impression that I was entered for the Review Examination only at my mother's insistance, not having been put forward for the 11+ for reasons never explained to me.

Just before I left the Primary school Father Halfpenny organised a sports day in the field across the road from Cross Graveyard. I was entered for the 400 yards run and I won it. Father Halfpenny has filmed the event and I recall watching the recording in the Picture House in Cross. I wonder what ever happened to that film?

We had moved out of the house in Drumbally some time in 1951 and moved across the river to a one-roomed house until the new Council Houses in Cregganduff were ready. We moved there in the autumn of 1952.

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