Whatever description could be applied to my mother, being a helicopter parent was not one of them. I was warned, on more than one occasion, that she never wanted to see a guard coming to the door about me. Apart from that, I was pretty much left to my own devices. They were more innocent and simpler times. Every morning we left the house in the village to travel the three miles to my grandparent’s house in Stonehall where she looked after them throughout the day until my father came home from work and after he had eaten his dinner we headed back home. By the time I was able to dress myself and manage on my own to some degree, I was usually left to stay with them. I quickly became their favourite grandchild and relished my independence apart from my siblings. Besides, there wasn’t much for a small child to do out the country that might attract the attention of the guards.
I spent much of my early years exploring my rather limited world, visiting neighbours, building forts down the crag, or making a slide out of the hay in the haybarn. Mother didn’t pay too much attention, just as long as I showed up for meals. One September morning while I was still just three years of age, I made the journey down the road past the pump and fifty yards further down the road until I reached the gate of Stonehall school where I saw other children going in the gate. Being at a loose end with nothing better to do, I decided to join them. Mrs. McCormack knew who I was and gave me a place in one of those old pine, two-seater desks with the sliding brass tops over the inkwells. She expressed no surprise that I had neither school bag nor pencils but here I was – my first day at school.
At eleven o’clock Mrs. McCormack gave me half an apple and a biscuit that she probably had brought for herself but at lunchtime she suggested that I go back up to Granny’s for my dinner. When my mother asked me where I had been all morning, I proudly announced that I was in low-babies, (now called junior infants). Despite it being a year earlier than she had planned, she rushed me through dinner to be back in time after lunch. Honestly, I think she was glad to have me out of the house.
Stonehall was a two-teacher school at the time with Mrs. McCormack and the Master Kelly. A few years into my education the numbers swelled, and we became a three-teacher school with the arrival of Mrs. Fitzpatrick in her blue Mini, (car not skirt), driving all the way from Kilkee every day. Mrs. McCormack had what I now regard as a unique style of discipline. If you misbehaved to the extent that some punishment was merited, she gave you a choice between the bata and the béal. If you chose the bata, you got a slap, while if you chose the béal she would report you to your parents. I learned very quickly and early that you always, always chose the bata. It was swift and complete while the consequences of being reported lasted much longer and could be a lot more severe. I don’t think it could be much worse if I had drawn the guards to the door.
On balance I always look back on my days in both primary and secondary school with affection and gratitude. I am conscious that there are others whose experience has not been so positive. I don’t think that I was particularly aware of the sense of our school’s ethos as Catholic schools. Yes we had Christian Doctrine, we were prepared for the sacraments, Mrs. McCormack went through a lot of Silvermints teaching us how to receive Holy Communion and we had prayer at different times of the day. But I think the real ethos of the schools shone through the teachers and other staff of the school. Being a Catholic school was not always about the curriculum but about the people and the relationships experienced as part of the school community.
Catholic Schools week runs this year from the 23rd to the 30th January. In these pandemic times those who staff our schools and care for our young people are among the heroes of these difficult days. They have gone above and beyond the call of duty to give our youth a sense of the normal in a turbulent world. This year as we celebrate Catholic Schools week we are invited to reflect upon how Catholic schools are communities where we live life to the full. We celebrate how we are called to be communities of faith and resilience through our thoughts, words and actions. In doing so we follow the words of Jesus in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel; “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”
Fr Brendan Quinlivan – VF Ceantar na Lochanna
Clare Champion Article 14th of January 2022