Fintan Ryan first year at St Mary’s 1972-1977

On the fourth of September 1972 I first walked through the gates of St Mary’s Secondary School in Askeaton. I placed my bike against Purcell’s wall just like all the other country people who cycled to school. The yellow school bus was dropping off the students from further out the country and from Kilcornanand Pallaskenry. The Kildimo brigade came on the normal morning CIE bus from Limerick. There was a lot of hustle bustle around the gate with a mixture of friends who may not have met since June and other wide-eyed “gobaloons”, like myself, passing through the gate for the first time. Luckily, most of my Askeaton National School classmates were also making their secondary school debut and some of us were lucky to have older siblings who directed us to the furthest up prefab on the right of the passage which was designated for first years.

In those days, the school consisted of the main old stone, two storey building with an array of prefabricated classrooms, all on the east side. The teacher’s car park, (a flattened area of rock covered in limestone chippings) which accommodated less than a dozen cars was directly outside the first-year room. Beside the carpark and in full view of the classroom was Purcell’s orchard and between the orchard and us a row of ash and elder trees that would provide plenty of punishing ammunition for angry teachers. The boys “jacks” (toilets) were on the ground floor of the main building with the entrance close to the first year pre-fab facing out on to the field. The girl’s toilets were at the opposite side of the building with the door facing out under the stone stairs that ran in two flights to the second floor. Both roomswere cold with bare concrete floors and cold running water.

Just to put 1972 in context; Jack Lynch, Fianna Fail was Taoiseach and Eamonn Devalera was President. 1972 was the worst year of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland with 497 people meeting violent deaths, including 13 on Bloody Sunday during a Civil Rights March. That September , Gilbert O Sullivan, from county Waterford, was top of the Irish and US music charts with his song “Alone Again (naturally)”. Others whose songs were on our transistor radios were Neil Diamond, Queen, the Osmondsand a very young Michael Jackson. In sport Kilkenny had won the All Ireland Hurling Final and Askeaton won the last of their County Senior Football titles in that year. Very few houses had a phone, and at home, we were just after taking possession of our first (black and white) television. 

Needless to say, there were no computers or mobile phones and “social media’ was what happened at the back of the classroom or in the “jacks” at break times. Smoking was prevalent,especially with young boys and a steady pall of smoke emanatedfrom the toilet window at break time. While cigarettes (fags) were expensive, they could be bought singly in some shops!!(How many remember Imelda Hanley’s on the Quay?) Cigarettes were shared and it was common to hear someone ask: “Is that a Major, Give us a drag out of that”. It was a request that was seldom refused. Some boys were better to inhale and if they overdid it and took too much out of the cigarette there would be a string of curses and a kick up the backside. I only ever remember one person to smoke a pipe…stand up Peter Dundonand take a bow!! Smoking was banned and every now and then there would be a shout “Nob it, here comes Mrs Hawkes”

Some of my classmates in “72 were Malachy McDaid, EamonnCarney, Dave Sheehan, Tony Greed, (Askeaton), The three Gers (Mann, Boyce and Dore) with Philip Sheehy (all Kilcornan), Ger Ranahan (Ballysteen), Mike Fitzgerald (Pallaskenry) Liam Hayes (Kildimo), John Ryan (Clarina) and Tom Ruttle from Cappagh. (I apologise if I omitted anybody) Because my aunt, Miss O Sullivan (Miss O) had thought in Kilcornan, I knew most of the Kilcornan lads by reputation (Good) and as Liam Hayes lived next door to my grandparents in Ballyoshea,Kildimo we had a natural link and became good friends. When I think of Liam, I think of Latin which was a subject that wasneeded if you wanted to go to university at that stage. Liam and I both did Latin, well more correctly Liam did Latin and I copied what I could. I gave up the subject after the end of first year having mastered how to decline the word “mensa’ which I think meant table!!. I am still not sure why you would want to decline a table but apparently the Romans did!!

Secondary school was very different for most of us. Askeaton National school was divided into a boys and girls school from second class to sixth which meant interaction with the fairer sex was limited. The change was welcome and having the girls in class added a much-needed distraction. There were classes in secondary school that were almost to sole preserve of girls; Home Economics which included cooking and sewing was almost exclusively taken by girls. In those days boys were not expected to be able to (or indeed need to) cook. Girls on the other hand were deemed to have no need for Woodwork or Mechanical Drawing. Thankfully, we live in a more enlightened age now where girls can become engineers and scientists (and still do the housework!!). I have not named any of the girls from my year as I would surely leave some out but you know yourselves who had the pleasure of my company. 

There is no doubt but that the advent for us of co-ed classes coincided with or maybe caused a dangerous increase in testosterone levels. If there was a fatal level of this hormone I am sure that we would have exceeded that dose in our first few months. I fell madly in love at least four times in first year. I can clearly remember competing with a friend of mine for the affections of one particular girl. It put a strain on our friendship …..for a few days!! It was ironic because neither of us ever vocalised our unending love, so the unsuspecting girl went about her education none the wiser. In some ways, we were like the dog chasing the car……if we ever caught a girl we wouldn’t know what to do. Our hormone fuelled world is probably still replicated in today’s first years but (luckily) we were without the internet for support.

Apart from my new surrounding, new classmates and new teachers, I have one abiding memory of first year.

In those days in St Mary’s it was the “custom” that (male) Leaving Cert students were “ducked” in the boy’s jacks in the month coming up to their departure. Ducking meant having their head stuck under the cold tap and having their heads wet. While it was not in any way painful and, coming up to the summer, not a huge inconvenience, there was a matter of pride involved. The ducking ceremony was performed by the fifth-year students, the heirs apparent, and Leaving Cert students did want to be humbled in this way. For that reason, it became a game of “cat and mouse” as to who and when people were caught and subjected to the ritual. Some succumbed easily which although got through the numbers did not give any sense of achievement to the protagonists. Others fought and ran to extend the process and if possible avoid the humiliation. This, of course, made the chase and capture all the sweeter and raised much cheering from the onlooking students from the other classes.

One student who would not succumb was Fergie McDaid. Fergie, one of the oldest of the McDaid family, was a ball of muscle and energy and hugely competitive. This stood him well in later years when he played League of Ireland soccer with Cobh Ramblers. Because of their proximity to the school some of the “townies” went home for lunch. Fergie was one of these. This, of course, meant that the opportunity to apprehend and duck was rather limited and especially when Fergie began delaying his return to the school yard until the bell was ringing or about to ring. On the day I remember, either he timed his return wrong or the teachers were listening to a good story in the Staff Room and rang the bell for classes slightly late. Either way, as Fergie entered the gate he was jumped on by a waiting crowd of eager fifth years. Initially caught, Fergie broke free and ran with his pursuers on his tail. I remember seeing him as he did a complete lap of the building and on his second lap climbed the stone steps in about four giant leaps. The Staff Room was just inside the main door upstairs. Fergie knowing his way around the building ran into the “fifth year” room which was just beside the Staff Room. This was a smaller room as, in those days, many pupils took the option of leaving St Mary’s after Inter Cert to follow a trade or take up work. Just inside that room was an even smaller room and both rooms had windows facing out over the back field. 

Fergie ducked into this room and with the crowd slightly behind him, managed to lock himself into the smaller room. The room had only one door and one window. The door and lock, being of a light variety, was unlikely to hold off the pursuers for long. With the followers pressing on the door, a crowd of excited onlookers, including your truly, gathered below to see the final scene play out. Fergie quickly realised that it was either give up or make a daring move. Fergie, with the pride of his year at stake, was not about to surrender. With the waiting crowd of students holding their breath, he pulled down the top sash of the window, climbed out on to limestone sill, stood for a second and then, to gasps from the onlookers, jumped, rolled on landing and took off like a deer freed from captivity. The fifth years were left with their mouths open in despair, their faces against the glass of the upstairs window. If people cheered when someone was “ducked”, that day Fergie got an even bigger cheer for his daring escape. I’m not sure if Fergie was ever “ducked” that year but I can say for sure it was not that day.