Memory Essays/ Ita Mc Donnell


Ita (3rd from left, 2nd row) teaching in Africa

Memories of St Marys
Ita Mc Donnell
My first encounter with Mrs Hawkes was on the old bridge in Askeaton when I was about 5 years old. As we passed, my eyes were fixed firmly on the path as I was in awe of this stranger but fully aware that she was the new teacher at the secondary school.
It would be a few more years before I would look her in the eye as a pupil of St Mary’s Secondary school. (We didn’t graduate from the ‘National school’ in those days).
The school consisted of three rooms in part of the county library building. The first-year students were upstairs in a dismal room-, every room was dismal in the early 50’s!. The staff consisted of three teachers: Mrs O’ Mahony, Mrs Hawkes and Miss O’ Neill who later became Mrs Casey. A strong work ethic and strict discipline were the hallmarks of St Mary’s. The chief disciplinarian at that time was Mrs Hawkes assisted by her trusty leather strap. We both respected and feared this “iron lady”. The strap was mostly used for bad behaviour. I only recall being on the receiving end of this punishment once. With the unerring instinct and thoughtless cruelty of children, we preyed on the youngest and most vulnerable teacher. Using folded pieces of paper propelled by rubber bands, missiles were fired at the board when she turned her back. These bands were stored on our arms,  beneath our jumpers. Inevitably Mrs Hawkes heard about this and one day swooped on the class, insisting on us pulling up our sleeves, thus revealing the evidence. Retribution followed. At that time Mrs Hawkes was a strong healthy woman in her prime. Six of her ‘best’-three on each hand was something one remembered for a long time!. There could have been about 6 culprits that day but she was well up to the task.
She was a wonderful teacher and I credit her with the high standard of Irish I achieved, which came to fruition in my Leaving Cert where my mark would have been equivalent of an ‘A’ today. Outside of her speciality, she taught many other subjects: history, commerce and when the need arose, French, Latin, Algebra, Arithmetic and religion. I believe she would have taught us Greek, if required to do so!.
Another abiding memory was the day Mrs Hawkes expelled a boy for ‘cheek’. That particular day we were all astounded by the degree of insolence, back answering and shouting of the obstinate boy. Rather than having a slagging match, he was evicted, his bag thrown down the stairs after him. Even, we, all felt he deserved nothing less.
Fast forward to 1970:-
A phone call to Mrs Hawkes about a vacancy in her sister in laws school, resulted in a job offer at her own school. I joined the staff of St Mary’s as number 8 on the timetable. One of the perks of the job, so she informed me, was the relatively new arrival of a very eligible bachelor, Mr Egan, who had joined the staff the previous year- the first full time science teacher in the school!

Over the years the curriculum expanded considerably to include science, woodwork, home economics and mechanical drawing. The school now occupied a different building- an old protestant school. The two-storey building had an outside stone stair to reach the upper level.
The staff at this time was as follows: Mrs Hawkes, Mrs O Mahony, who retired later that year, Mary Meade (nee Fitzgibbon), Sean Curran, Peggy Dooley (nee Sheehan), Rose Mc Elligott (nee Doupe), John Egan, Joe Scanlon and myself, Ita Mc Donnell. The staff room was extremely small, especially at break time when we were all crowded in for our cup of tea. However, I believe this helped to foster a great spirit of comradery, especially since we all lived locally and knew each other well.
While discipline of students was now handled by Mr Curran, the staff was strictly controlled by Mrs H. One rule was definitely inviolate-, no trousers allowed for the ladies. However, with a prolonged electric strike in the middle of winter this rule was relaxed. After her retirement, Mrs H herself succumbed and nowadays is definitely biased in favour of trousers.
In those pre-computer days, Mrs H had the unenviable task of drawing up a timetable. Then of course the number of working days (I recall a figure of 183 or 184) had to be adhered to before working out the holidays. According to Sean Curran who always had totted up the working day, we always worked one day extra-apparently this was being held for any unexpected day off due to unusual circumstances. I need hardly say there rarely were any.
I remember on one occasion about 2-3 weeks after our return in September, Jo Scanlon had the temerity to ask about our Christmas holidays (Jo believed in forward planning for her skiing holidays). Mrs Hawkes was outraged, we got a lecture on the fact that we’d just had almost 3 months holidays, and already we were looking for more holidays!!! (Jo had worked in a Limerick school prior to her appointment in Askeaton so she was bringing all her ‘foreign’ ideas into our little group.
Sean Curran liked to stir up confusion just for a laugh. He announced in the staff room that he’d heard we were getting a day off on a particular Friday for what reason, I don’t remember. Mrs H demanded to know who had said such a thing? He blamed Mary Garvey (I don’t think she was in the staff room at the time or she would have hotly denied it). This of course drew the wrath of Mrs H down on poor Mary. Mary had come from a Dublin school& was blamed for bringing these new strange ideas into the school!!
Mrs H ran a ‘tight ship’ but it paid dividends. We all respected her and the school prospered and grew because of our results and our strict discipline.
Outside of our working life, Mrs H and I had somehow built up a fairly close relationship, mainly due to our mutual interest in the theatre. During the late 70’s, 80’s my holidays were usually spent in London & Mrs H came with me on these trips, at least 5 times. She used to write her diary every night , recording the musicals and dramas we had attended. We loved walking around St James Park in the early morning or visiting museums and galleries. Sometimes if there was no afternoon matinee, we would go to a film. On one occasion, I seized the chance to further her education in the ways of the modern world. ‘Brakeback mountain’ was supposed to be a ground-breaking film about homosexuals who at that time were beginning to ‘come out of the closet’ in Ireland. I was curious myself to see how it was handled. I admit neither of us was shocked and by today’s standards it was extremely tame!
Since then our friendship has gone from strength to strength. I feel proud and privileged to play a small part in the life of that wonderful lady.
In our small circle of friends, we have always called her Mrs hawkes in spite of being told many times to call her Nora. Sometimes she’s fondly referred to as ‘Nora Bean’. She understands that name -an abbreviation of her Irish name

Ita at her retirement party