School Days in Lislea in the 1940s (6)
Punishments of a proud time prove poignant to Hugh A Murphy, years later
The most graphic of all my memories from my early days at Lislea school was the morning that I stood outside my father’s house in fascinated awe as a local pupil, and a personal friend, was marched to school with grim-faced determination by his father on a halter.
The pupil, the dearest soul I have ever known, had apparently absconded from school one spring morning into the freedom of hills and fields. This was at a time when 'mitching', unlike today, was still taboo and carried with it a great family stigma. When the father found out he determined to exact an extreme and public retribution, sufficient in its severity to ensure that family honour was saved.
I still remember the image that morning as both of them marched down the centre of the road, the young lad in front with his father walking resolutely behind at a distance of the full extension of two twenty foot horse reins, one held firmly in each hand, just like a man ploughing.
The other ends of the reins were looped in a halter around the lad’s head. Thus he had marched him the long distance from home and delivered him up to the master at the school door.
That image burned itself into my brain that day and has never left me. It has raised questions in my mind often about people’s reactions, including my own, to various situations where our responses are dictated more by prevailing conventions and codes than by reason.
The poignancy of this scene was given an added edge, which made it almost tragic a short number of years later, when whatever chance that lad had of any freedom in his life was terminated forever when he was blown to pieces at work during blasting operations, his hard-won education virtually untouched.
I was attending University at the time in Belfast, sitting as usual in the evening listening to the six o’ clock news as I took my tea, when the words that I had just heard gradually sank in.
I remember the day in Belfast
The cultivated voice
Honing the name from the box.
How unusual to hear “Lislea”
From a radio station in London.
The blast ripped him apart
The gelignite erect for his shovel,
Orgasm of death.
And I had seen him at mass
The previous Sunday.
His mother stood at the door
To the parish priest and the copper,
In conspiracy of truth
“Pete’s not dead
His tea is ready.
He left me a note
On the table this morning,
Propped up by the jug –
The original scene that morning came back to haunt me many years later, when I was back living at home. On hearing a strange noise outside, I went to the window and looked out and found the image being virtually replicated before my eyes.
There coming down the centre of the road was a local farmer, walking at the full extent of the reins, one held tightly in each hand, holding back firmly against the pull of the haltered bullock straining his way in front. It was being led, in its mad, forward dash of urgency, on the first phase of its journey from the upland farm to Camlough fair and thence to the meat factory and the slaughter.
I remember him pulled along on a chaffed halter,
Taut against shame,
Ready to explode for the nearest ditch
Into the ecstasy of fields, unshuttered learning,
His father sombre-faced in his dedication,
Haltering him along to the master.
Wild innocence on a short fuse
Detonated at the corner, the gelignite
Punctuating his learning.
But still the face hovers, transparent,
To be filled often, like now,
When the farmer passes,
Back straight against the pull,
The bullock beating harsh syllables
On the drummed road.
Staccato for the slaughter.