Summer of 1974…..
Overnight, my life had changed. My maternal grandmother had passed away and almost immediately, my family had relocated from Manchester, England, to the small rural Irish Village of Askeaton, Co. Limerick. It felt strange to have suddenly been taken away from everything I knew, from my friends and my school, and all things familiar. I was fourteen years old and I felt as though my life was shattered.
My education in Manchester had been very happy. We had moved around quite a bit so, I had attended a number of different primary schools, before being accepted at second level into one of the best Grammar schools in Manchester. I had sat the eleven plus exam and had followed that with an entrance exam to the Hollies. When I was accepted, I was so proud of myself , and my new school was everything I expected and more. The next three years were the happiest I ever thought I could be and then one day in June 1974, my whole world was turned upside down….
The first thing that puzzled me about the Irish education system was how long the summer holidays were. I couldn’t believe they were more than three months long, when all I had been used to was six weeks maximum. Seemingly, they had always been long, with lots of older students taking on jobs during the summer, or heading of to Irish college to improve their oral ability. I wondered with great interest how I was going to pass my time until September came.
When the time came to return to school after the summer holidays, I organised myself for my first day back as best I could, not really knowing what to expect or how I was going to adjust to my transition from a convent grammer school in Manchester to a mixed ( boys and girls ) secondary school in rural Ireland. St. Mary’s Secondary school was an old building, very different to what I had been used to. I climbed the steps with my mother and then opened the door to what looked like the foyer leading into the classrooms to the right and the staffroom to the left. I had hoped that the interior would be a little more modern. It wasn’t.
My mother knocked on the staffroom door and asked to see the principle.
Mrs Hawkes was a formidable woman, who at first glance was a rather stern looking lady, at least for me, as a fourteen year old child. After a brief discussion with my mother and myself, and after perusing at length my Hollies school report book, it was decided by mutual consent, that I should join the Intermediate Certificate examination class.
My first term was a challenge. Luckily, all the subjects, I studied in the Hollies, were available to me in St. Marys. I took all the usual subjects, English , Maths, Geography, History, and Science, and then additional subjects such as French, Domestic Science and Latin. Irish was the only subject that I couldn’t partake of, as there was really no hope of catching up at such a late stage. It was in fact something I always regretted, as being reasonably good at languages, I later felt that with extra tuition, then maybe I might have given it a chance. In any event, I didn’t actually escape Irish classes at all as it transpired. Mrs Hawkes suggested I study English during Irish class. How extremely amusing in hindsight! How on earth could anyone possibly study English during Irish Class?
A loud hush came over the room when Mrs Hawkes was due to take class. You could hear a pin drop. I was always amazed at how much the mood of the class changed when our principle was about to arrive. Students were actively going over last minute poems and pieces of prose, and whatever books were required were arranged perfectly in readiness for the next forty five minute class. I tried to learn as much as I could of course, by ear wigging, but most of it went over my head. How I wished I could have participated. After class I asked, how do I pronounce this word and that word and the other word. I used to read passages from books in as good as Irish as I could, making everyone laugh in the process. I wasn’t too bad, but I hadn’t a clue what it all meant with the exception of an odd word here and there. And so sadly, my knowledge of Irish remains almost as limited today as it did back in 1974
I was behind in most subjects, with the exception of English and Maths. Geography was like a completely new subject. I had been used to learning the names of English mountains, rivers and whatever else was relevant in Geography class. Now, I was really challenged, as the spellings of Irish rivers, mountains and towns were as peculiar as the Irish words I had tried to read in Irish class. It was a memory challenge really, but somehow I managed to muckle through. History was even worse. The old Irish names that I could barely pronounce also had to be learned off by heart as that was the only way I could possibly remember them. I was glad when we moved on to European history, as then at least, I felt some bit in sync with what I was learning.
Mrs Hawkes said I could change classes and go back to 2nd year if I couldn’t cope. She was well aware of the fact that it was not going to be easy for me. Coming from a different country and going straight into an exam class was a difficult job. I had settled in well though and had made new friends. There was no way I was going backwards! I was staying put and was prepared to put in all the effort that was required to bring me up to speed.
As time passed, I settled in well. Everyone was friendly and I think my presence sidetracked a few people who were glad to have a distraction in an otherwise busy year where everyone was expected to knuckle down. From the start, it became obvious to me that not everyone in class was terribly interested in what was going on. Academic students were very focused whereas others seemed to look for anything to find a distraction. I found this to be rather annoying, as I liked absolute quietness in the classroom as I did when I was at home studying. I soon came to realise that for this particular class, it was something I just needed to tolerate, as the lads who were ‘messers’ as they were known were going to disrupt no matter what.
They didn’t misbehave in Mrs Hawkes’ class though! Her authority was never flouted. No matter what tom foolery went on before, when Irish class was about to commence, the usual hush would descend upon the room. This was something that I looked forward to with bated breath. Such was my fascination with our mighty principle.
My teachers were excellent for the most part. They were very encouraging and gave me plenty of praise for which I was grateful. It was the only way I knew if I was keeping up, or in my case catching up. In the subjects where I felt I was compromised, I did extra work at home. The text books were well laid out so it was relatively easy to pick up and learn the bits that I had missed out on. By the time the Christmas tests were held, I felt that I was more or less up to speed. I was more relaxed at that point and had begun to enjoy my schoolwork at last.
Suffice to say, I had my favourite teachers. There is an inevitability at school that there will always be a teacher or teachers that you click with or will enjoy their methods of delivery. Often, these can decided by a favourite subject, although not always. For me, it was being able to connect with someone and also to be treated as a mature person with a valued opinion and not just as a school kid.
Ms Ita Mc Donnell was probably my favourite teacher. Her classes were so interesting and diverse. We would discuss topical issues, have discussions and then have to write our essay for the following week. These classes made the routine work all worthwhile. It fascinated me the amount of poetry we had to learn off by heart and how valuable in fact it was at exam time. We also had to learn off sections of our Shakespearean play, which was also more helpful than one might imagine. I can still recall ‘compare and contrast’ on exam papers. Well you couldn’t compare much if you didn’t have those valuable memories etched in your brain! And there was no escaping learning them off either! We were tested in the next class just to make sure, hilarious!
My next favourite teacher was probably Mrs Josie Scanlon. She was my domestic science teacher and I really loved the subject. I particularly loved cookery class and enjoyed bringing home the fruits of my work. I enjoyed Mrs Scanlon carrying out her demonstrations and then afterwards perusing the class and walking from station to station as people were carrying out her instructions. Sewing class was also very enjoyable. I loved sewing class I think because I was pretty good at it. I loved cutting out patterns and putting them together to create a garment. As a rule, you couldn’t do more than Mrs Scanlon directed you to do, but she never really minded me going ahead with my work. It made me feel great that she trusted me so much. The grounding I received from Mrs. Scanlon, I feel, gave me a life long love of food and nutrition which I still hold today. The sewing however never really continued after school sadly, but I never envisaged myself becoming a seamstress anyway, so I wasn’t too dissappointed on that score. In any event, the white suit that I made in Leaving cert, won first prize in the domestic science class so I was very proud when Mrs Hawkes presented with my winners envelope at the end of the year.
French and Latin were two of the subjects that I was behind in at the start of Inter Cert year. I was at year three of a five year course in England and as such, I hadn’t covered as much of the languages as year three of a three year course in Ireland, if that makes sense? For me, I had decided that Intermediate certificate level was no different to GCSE’s or ‘O’ levels in the UK, which put the Irish system considerably higher up the academic scale than that of its UK counterparts. In England, most students completed school with some ‘O’ levels, but by then you would be 18 years of age. Bright students would go on to sixth form colleges for a further two years and complete three ‘A’ levels before heading off to University. This would make students starting University age twenty or twenty one, a much better age at which to be starting. In Ireland, Students started University straight after Leaving certificate, which in some cases is too young to be even accepted by the facility. Students who started school early would end up being just seventeen years old ( sixteen in some cases even ) which is mostly too young to be venturing out into the world, well for most people anyway. This was the fundamental difference at that time between the two educational systems and I had been unfortunate enough to be caught up in the middle of them!
I loved both subjects and that was fortunate, as I had to chew both grammar books night after night to make up ground in the classroom. Mrs Mary Meade (RIP) was my French teacher and I was extremely fond of her. It was a shame though I always thought that there was no emphasis on oral French back then, as there was no oral exam at that time. As a result, we could all write French beautifully but no one could actually speak the language. Thank goodness this mindset changed and nowadays the spoken language is just as important as the written one, if not more so.
Latin was another challenge. Ms Eileen O’Brien ( later to become Mrs Fitzgerald ) taught me Latin, but our class was very small. It can’t have been easy for her coming into a class of just five or six students. I could never understand the disinterest in Latin as I always loved it in England. I adored the discipline of the language and how everything was constructed. Much of what I learned when I joined the class, was from the Latin grammar book itself as this was the subject that I needed most work. I studied as much as I could on my own and eventually bridged the gap and felt as comfortable as all the others. The Latin unseens were always a challenge. This was the one part of Latin which I found utterly fascinating. One word could mean two, three, four or even five! A tiny paragraph in Latin when translated could be as long as two full pages. Amazing! Such an incredible language; how could anyone not love it! I did, but I was definitely in the minority, as our leaving cert year in 1977 was the last year in which any exam class had the Latin language in its curriculum. To this day, I fail to understand how Latin was axed from the school syllabus, not just in Askeaton but virtually everywhere in the country. I believe that a knowledge of Latin can improve and enhance the knowledge of so many other languages as they are all basically derived from their mother language. English vocabulary is very much improved also as so many of our words are easily worked out once we have an idea of their Latin origin. In any event, no one will change my mind about the value of the Latin language, and what a mistake it was to cull it from academia.
I was lucky I had a half decent memory. Mrs Dooley ( RIP) was my History and Geography teacher. I’m sad to say the classes were not ones that stand out in my mind as being particularly enjoyable. It was just a matter of learning facts and figures, dates and events off by heart really, and so the odd time when the ‘messers’ started their tricks, it was a welcome release from the boredom of the class. Poor Mrs Dooley couldn’t cope with these episodes and would eject the perpetrators from the room in an attempt to get things back on track. I enjoyed my history a lot more when I was at home, where I could read through the various chapters and learn all about the Irish history that had never been taught in English schools, as there was too much destruction and pillage involved I’m guessing. The difference in the recounting of the ‘same history’ was truly remarkable.
Another of my favourite teachers, Mr John Egan, taught Science. He was always quite dapper in his beige suit and neatly combed hair. Its funny how as teenagers we all thought that our teachers were so much older than they actually were. This also applied to Mr Egan. I laughed a lot years later when we became friends and realised that he looked exactly the same twenty years after we first met! I enjoyed my science class a lot. In England the science subjects were separated from the beginning, but here in Ireland they were taught as a single subject until senior cycle started. At that point you would decide which of the three you wanted to study for the leaving certificate, with most people choosing Biology or Chemistry and hardly anyone choosing Physics. This became a bone of contention for Mr Egan for many years, as he tried hard to encourage students to study Physics, sadly to no avail. I think that perhaps they had this one right in England, as I remember really enjoying my ‘Physics only ‘ class far more than when it was part of a general science class. In Ireland, I loved Biology, was baffled by Chemistry, and was indifferent to Physics. As a result, it was just Biology that I studied for the leaving certificate which I later regretted as my lab technician job which I later procured would have greatly benefitted from a little more Chemistry knowhow. Oddly enough, when I started working and Chemistry became more to the fore, I began to enjoy the subject and it all began to make sense at last! There really is no substitute for real life situations at the end of the day!
Maths were taught by Mr Sean Curran and Ms Eileen O’Brien. I think it was mostly Mr Curran for myself, as he taught higher level maths mostly and I was part of that class. Mr Curran was super intelligent and extremely witty. I enjoyed his humour and he knew I think that I could read his wit. I looked forward to Maths classes as there would always be some form of amusement at some time in the class. If only more teachers realised that having the odd giggle with students is far more productive than dispassionate learning. Mr Curran did change mood occasionally; when he was called upon. It was a job that was unnecessary in my opinion and one that was later to be banned. This was the administration of corporal punishment. I only had occasion to witness this once in my time at St. Marys and for that I was grateful. I found it quite upsetting and never having witnessed the practice before, I was extremely shocked by it.
The Civics class was always a little boisterous. Miss Crowe was a timid lady and an ex sister so she was possibly and sadly targeted for that reason. The ‘messers’ gave her a particularly difficult time, misbehaving at every opportunity and throwing bits of chalk at her when she was writing on the blackboard. I hated that behaviour but it was a regular occurrence so it was just a question of getting through the class and waiting for the next class to begin. On this particular day, Miss Crowe could no longer tolerate the bad behaviour and demanded to know the perpetrator. No one owned up of course and she disappeared from the room leaving in an obvious state of distress. Shortly afterwards, Mrs Hawkes returned. She demanded to know the offender; but was met with a deafening silence. The boys were then told to report to Mr Curran at a specified time and venue for corporal punishment to be meted out. I can still remember how awful it sounded and felt bad for those lads who were innocent of all crimes but still had to endure the punishment. I was glad when I heard not many years later that this sort of barbaric punishment was no longer permissible. It would spell the end of an era and of a methodology that would be banned in schools at every level forever.
When I returned to school after the summer holidays following my Intermediate certificate, I looked around the class on the first day back, wondering where everyone was. It seemed at though we had been cut in two, with regard to class numbers. I asked one or two people what was going on and they said that it was quite usual for some students to leave at this point. Some went working straight away, others started trades such as electrical or plumbing and finally there were those who just wanted to put as much distance between themselves and school! These guys were largely ‘the messers’ at least for the most part anyway. They didn’t care where they went as long as it didn’t entail getting up in the morning for English, Irish or Maths!
Ours was the tiniest Senior cycle class ever. Just twenty students remaining to continue on to Leaving Certificate. We also became known as the no smoking class. It seems we were the only Leaving certificate class ever in which no one smoked. It was usual for the domestic science teacher to send to the older student class for a lighter or matches to light the stoves but we were unable to fulfil that role. Well done us! It was also usual for the fifth year class to move to the fifth year room, one that had always been designated, but as we were such a small class , we were relegated to a smaller room than usual. The same happened the following year. The sixth form prefab remained with the previous years students and our little class stayed put. We decided it was fine, after all there wasn’t much point in going into a big prefab anyway. Twenty students would only be rattling around. In our tiny little classroom we were like a family, close knit and loyal to each other. Two years passed quickly.
The Leaving certificate was upon us before we knew it. There had been exam after exam all year and I for one was glad that I put in plenty of effort in fifth year. The leaving cert year was just a recap of all the work which had been covered in fifth year, except at a much faster pace. The mock exams were always marked harder, or so it was said. Funnily enough I find it hard to remember these exams as they were so close to the actual main event!
The Leaving Certificate began on Friday, June 10th 1977 . The exams took place in Askeaton Parish hall and for myself lasted a total of one week. I suppose I was lucky that my subjects fell in such a way that there were very little days off, just an odd morning or afternoon until I had them all finished. Goodness, it felt as though my hand was about to fall off at the end of those exams. Mrs Hawkes was so lovely to us all during that time. She came down every day to see how everyone was doing and to make sure that we were all as calm as possible. So did some of the other teachers. There was always a good old post mortem after each exam, which I always preferred to steer clear of to be honest. I never wanted to hear that I had made some stupid mistake or answered a question incorrectly.
I finished my Leaving certificate on Friday, June 17th The following Monday June 20th 1977 I started working in Wyeth nutritionals, Askeaton. In today’s world, this would not happen for a variety of reasons, but things were different at that time. I did an interview for my job when I was still at school, in April if my memory serves me right. It was more like an informal chat with my then manager to be and he did his utmost to persuade me to go on to university and get myself a degree. I declined, as I knew that family circumstances would not allow me to continue on. I was sad, but also grateful for the opportunity of becoming a trainee microbiology laboratory technician. It was a job I knew I was going to love. When the results came out in August, I was at work when a call came through to me in the laboratory. Mrs Hawkes called out all my results while I nervously wrote them all down. I achieved an excellent Leaving Certificate, one that would have given me access to any number of college courses. I was delighted to have done well, and even though I could have taken my foot off the gas knowing that my job was secure, I didn’t. That wasn’t me. I was a high achiever when it came to my studies, so it was important to get the best grades possible, no matter what. That was the way I had always carried out my work, school or otherwise.
St. Marys secondary school had served me well over the three years I studied there. (1974-1977) . I was happy too, happier than I could have ever imagined. I recalled the negative thoughts I had had when I first arrived. They were all blown away now, as I had formed friendships with both teachers and students that would remain with me for the rest of my life.
It has been fulfilling to see the new school being constructed , especially and only after Mrs Hawkes fought tirelessly to make this happen. We almost lost St. Marys at one point, but didn’t, through the grit and determination of this remarkable woman, who made sure that that was never going to happen. This fine school now stands on the site of that modest school that Mrs Nora Hawkes was principle of for many years until she retired from her post in 1985. This was not the end of her teaching career however, as a new chapter was just about to unfold……………
Jackie Cronin 1974
Summer of 1974…..