When I was starting secondary school in 1961, which seems like a couple of lifetimes ago, like others in the Kilcornan area my main option was Askeaton Secondary as we knew. It was close, with very affordable fees and a recognised great school for getting results. The major challenge was going to face this Mrs Hawkes about whom students before us and all their parents spoke of in voices that sparked fear and trepidation in the hearts of all who were about to go there.
Her reputation reached me before ever I laid eyes on this woman whose fierce reputation ranked higher than anyone else I ever heard of in West Limerick. Dire sounding warnings like; “Wait until Mrs Hawkes gets a hold of you; she’ll straighten you out” only served to heighten my anxiety. I must have seen her at the entrance examination but I don’t remember now; on my first day I felt like I had never set eyes on her before entering the school grounds and asking, “which one is Mrs. Hawkes”? so that I could steer clear and make myself as invisible as possible
It is amazing that I could have lived that close to Askeaton and Cappagh and never seen her. It was a sheltered life in those days!
I settled in to the belief that I could get by and do all right in Secondary school until I heard one of her more forceful quotations that I would hear repeated consistently throughout my 5 years:
ALL THAT YOU DO, DO WITH YOUR MIGHT; THINGS DONE BY HALF ARE NEVER DONE RIGHT. .
So frequently and forcefully did she repeat it in the face of lazy or sloppy work that even after more than 50 years I can still visualize here saying it to impress on us that there would be no half measures with her. It would take more years to realize how she wanted to get the best out of her students teaching us to give of our best.
I still remember an older man in the town who would dare me to call her Hawkeye to her face! I didnt even dare say it behind her back as I was sure my life would be over prematurely — besides, I couldn’t imagine being that impertinent to someone in authority.
I had an idea of the consequences when I would see her charge in with stick in hand in anger at the noise and horseplay that we boys were capable of and I recall being barely able to contain laughter as she shouted that we were worse than The Balubas in the darkest corners of Africa! It was the era of tribal uprisings in the Belgian Congo.
She also would provoke barely suppressed laughter when she would compare the music of the 60’s to tribal music out of Africa. That coincided with her well-known warnings about no dancing during school terms; we all clearly knew that expulsion was the penalty. We knew that some people broke the rule and we had a grudging admiration for them until they were found out and the ensuing expulsion scene was enough to quell any further. admiration.
One other scene that has imprinted itself in my mind;
A student in our second year who was a perpetual trouble maker really got her going during an Irish class. She was heavily pregnant at the time with her last child when he got under her skin and she jumped up from her chair in front of the class with stick in hand to go at him. She caught her foot in someone’s bag under the desk and tripped and fell forward onto the floor.
There was an audible gasp from all in the room thinking of the consequences in an advanced pregnancy — to the extent that we understood those things in that more sheltered era! She got right up even more incensed and flaked him with the stick. We had no idea if she did anything to check with medical personnel to see if she had harmed herself; she just kept right on going as far as we knew.
Friday was a day to be feared when those Irish essays were returned with all the ‘gramadach’ and ‘leiriu’ mistakes underlined in red, knowing that you would have to put out your hand to get 3 of the best for every one of those mistakes. It was a painful nerve-wracking afternoon.
After years of attrition and drop out there were just 5 of us in Leaving Cert. There was nowhere to hide if you didn’t get your work done. My recollection is that by Leaving Cert there was no more slapping but you didn’t come in unprepared out of respect and a sense of pride of wanting to do your best.
She added a huge amount to her life when she voluntarily took to coaching Pat Wallace, Betty Ranahan RIP and myself in Public Speaking competitions.
This occurred during school and after school; she drove us to those Muinter Na Tire competitions in Limerick and beyond to a Munster Final. She never mentioned compensation for something that was totally beyond the scope of her job. I can’t imagine it happening today. It was something that made a huge difference to our careers due to the stage presence and confidence it gave us.
It would only be in hindsight many years later that I recognised the amazing job she did; what a phenomenal amount of work she did pushing us to excel while raising a family and having a life of her own. I don’t know how she did it all.
It feels like I would end by saying —-
Ar Dheis De go Raibh a Anam —- but not so as she is still living so vitally.
One day a few years while visiting her and still addressing her as Mrs Hawkes she stopped me and said — my name is Nora. It took a bit of adjusting to feel that it was still a respectful way to speak to someone you hold in such high regard. It was a long journey from the boy in fear and trepidation to the man with appreciation and gratitude.
Thank God for the gift and energy of her life poured out unstintingly in service.
Fr. John Madigan.