School Days in Lislea in the 1940s (1)
At infant school Hugh A Murphy longed for the freedom of the countryside
When my turn came to attend Lislea School in 1945, I had not far to travel, merely across the road. I had long envied the older children who passed each day looking so important with their schoolbags on their backs and I could scarcely wait to join them.
The day at last came and I headed off, the new leather satchel tightly hitched, with its single jotter and pencil. The teacher, Mrs Donaghy, welcomed me warmly and put me sitting in the front seat beside her and generally made a great fuss of me.
Before the day was out I had taken my first step to paradise, when she presented me with a new hard-backed book, which contained all the knowledge that there was in the world! I remember clutching it in my hand in triumph that evening on my way home, my badge of learning, much too important to be hidden in a schoolbag!
The infants’ room was quite sparse. As you came through the main door, before you entered the classroom, there was a small porch with a row of hooks for hanging up coats along the back wall. On a wet morning, there would be pools of water on the floor as all pupils walked to school at that time, and some of them quite a distance.
Inside, there were four rows of desks down just over half the length of the room, with a large table for the teacher at the top. To the left of this was a blackboard resting on an easel. There was no such thing as central heating or lighting at that time, anywhere at Lislea.
The heating in the classroom was provided by a large, free-standing 'barrel' stove from which a round asbestos chimney led up through the ceiling. During winter on cold or wet days we were all allowed to gather in a circle around the stove. It produced a great amount of heat. When the fire would be at its height , the outside would glow red.
During writing practice, after we had mastered a sufficient amount of the alphabet, 'writing slates' were handed out. These were about the size of an A4 page and we practiced copying the letters on them with chalk. When the exercise was over we would clean them with cloths that were supplied and they would be collected again and left on the teacher’s table.
There was a short break each day at half ten - 'the free milk break'. The milk would be delivered each morning and the crates stored at the back of the room. The milk came in small, squat bottles with a flanged top. Inserted in this was a flat cardboard stopper with a small perforated circle in its centre. Each pupil pushed this inwards and inserted a drinking straw from a box which stood beside the crates. This was always a welcome break.
My initial impression of Mrs Donaghy on my first day at school was to remain unchanged throughout my infant education, a kind, protective person, almost a mother-like figure, with a warmth that was close to affection.
The only time I ever saw her in any way flustered was on the much feared day of the ecclesiastical inspection, when her true merit as a teacher was being assessed by the powers almighty on the basis of how well she had instilled into us the time-honoured, unquestioned ritual of the catechism.
I remember especially an occasion when the older children, including my sister Ann and my brother Joe, were being examined for Confirmation and I found myself, unwittingly, the focus of attention for a brief period.
Many weeks of preparation had preceded the event, with much chanting and individual reciting of answers filling our ears from the right hand side of the room where the intended victims were gathered, as we worked on in the middle rows.
When the great day arrived and the usual questioning and 'spontaneous' answering was in full flight, the priest suddenly departed from his brief and asked if anyone knew where St Brigid was buried. When there seemed to be a silence, and no one replied, I put up my hand, much to the bemusement of both priest and teacher, and informed him that she was buried in Downpatrick along with St Patrick and St Colmcill.
I have no idea where I had got this from but it was information I assumed everyone knew and of no great importance. However it seemed to invoke a certain amount of interest in the ecclesiastical inspector. He came over to me and started to ask other questions from the Confirmation list, and naturally I, like all the others on the receiving end of the constant chanting from beyond for weeks previously, knew them off by heart.
After some whispered conferring with Mrs Donaghy, the inspector announced solemnly that I was 'ready' and should join the others.
For a brief period I felt like a hero, but that only lasted until I got home and my mother discovered that she had not only two children to kit out for Confirmation but three! The general feeling was that I should have 'kept my mouth shut'.
Although those infant days with Mrs Donaghy were happy ones, the euphoria I felt on that first day at school gradually wore off, as it eventually dawned on me that this school-going was to be a permanent condition and that it had many disadvantages, especially the curtailment of the unlimited freedom that I had had in the previous years. I longed for the weekend, or at least for the evening, when I could again be free.
My most frequent excursion, as often as discretion would allow, was out to the boys’ toilet, situated on the left hand side as you came out the main door, against the graveyard wall. There was a large stone beside the toilet , adjacent to the perimeter wall of the yard along the road. When I stood on the top of this stone my eyes were just about level with the top of the wall. From there I could look through the parallel stones on the top and see our house, and the journey from where I was to it seemed forever, and the time between me and escape was eternity!
Throughout the rest of my life, until it was finally removed during later renovations of the old school, that stone was to remain for me a symbol of imprisonment. What first fixed that image in my mind was an occasion early in my school life when I stood on the stone one morning and watched my father driving the cattle out from the byre on to the road on his way with them to Donnelly’s hill.
As my father reached the road he stopped to light his pipe and as the first smoke rose and mingled with the steam still rising from the cows’ flanks it was like an image from Heaven, the ultimate symbol of unfettered freedom.
I stood on the grey stone,
My gaze skewered
On the gapped ridge of the wall,
A prisoner to the school yard
As my father drove the cattle out.
The dull thud of hooves called
The smell of the byre
Rising from flanks
The close warmth of the straw,
And my father’s pipe spoke
In the cold air
As they melted away to Donnelly’s hill,
Their freedom bolting my cage.
Every time I see the stone
Twenty years of cells.