Memories of St Marys
Pat Wallace 1961-1966
Written for the Souvenir booklet in 1990 on the occasion of the schools
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t skate through my private treasury of memories, that can range from hurling at Kelly’s to going to Pallas carnival, to working the holidays on the farm at Castlehewson, to listening to my father and uncle Dick describing great characters and events. It wasn’t all nostalgia either. There was also much to look forward to about 1960. The inauguration of President Kennedy and the advent of the magnificent Down football team were disparate events which touched us all. However it was the coming of TV ad Mark Sheehy’s helicopter on the Green, his amphibious troop carrier in Ballysteen and his magnificent Chevrolet Bel Air with its customized number plates outside the chapel gates in Kilcornan, which heralded a new age…’The Sixties’, when I spent my secondary school days in St Mary’s.
It wasn’t so much the trauma of the entrance exam to St Marys in the summer of 1961 which made me realise that Eric O’ Shea’s, secure almost idillic indoor hedge school world of learning in Kilcornan was our forever. It was a remark of Jimmy Madigan’s one night later that summer, while cycling to the Four Roads after the George Mc Fadden roadshow, which woke me up to my new predicament. “I suppose, Wallace, you’ll be coming back to Mrs Hawkes’ next month…you’ll love it- sure, it’s the courting school”. I can still remember my sense of shock and disappointment that people could actually associate school with pleasures other than History, Geography, English and Irish.
My first two years were the last St Mary’s spent in the Library on the Quay. This culminated in our sitting the Inter cert in a Rathkeale Convent to which John Mc Knight ferried us on a daily basis. The main memories of the library are, meeting contemporaries from Ballysteen and town lads like Larry Baron and Larry Culhane who could skim a slate across the river from Imelda’s door. The weepy damp floor, ice cream fridge and milk bottles with red caps in crates in Imelda’s shop, where adult (ie fifth years and Andy Bourke!) conversation was fixed on the merits and looks of the Everly brothers and the films and goings on at Gazette’s picture marquee. Attempts at mega-adulthood like going to dances led to loud inquisitions, promises of repentance, and even expulsion in the dark, lath-paneled stairway of the school.
Despite the best efforts of the sincere and much put-upon Miss O Sullivan, the maths teacher, I found algebra and related matters like logs very difficult. Maybe the message should have been sold in a more applied way. To this day I remember Patsy Madigan being picked on with the words ‘To the board Patsy Madigan’-a fate worse than death because poor Patsy or whoever would have to conjugate (I know that’s the wrong word!!) the log statement across the board. The summons to the board of one of our female classmates was pleasure beyond words or logs for that matter but had be totally concealed lest any sign of pleasure lead to one’s own confrontation with the dreaded ‘log’ board and chalk. Now one could see that the girls had legs and were generally gorgeous, traits they didn’t seem to have in primary school. During a mock exam in 1963 in this room in the library, I remember how a then pregnant Mrs. Hawkes tripped by being accidently snagged in the carrying handle of Seamus Mc Knights large bag as she attempted to pounce on me for dropping an appropriately prepared ruler to the floor to facilitate Andy Bourke who was sitting behind. All four of us escaped relatively unscathed.
Other early memories of ‘the library’ include John Madigan’s incredible timing with the insertion of a ‘yeh! yeh!’ at exactly the right moment during a Christmas sing –song in the classroom. It was 1963 the year of the Beatles and John F Kennedy, oh, and the Inter (first time round).
It was in this same room that a fuming Mrs. O Mahony responded to the threat of World War over the Cuban Missile Crisis by grabbing her soft leather handbag and hopping it off the bench, saying, ‘Children, if it comes to it, I hope they (the Americans) blast the bastards (the Russians) off the face of the earth!’ With that she fixed her gown on her left shoulder and walked out of the room, presumably for a quiet smoke. We should have cheered her. Who can’t recall her warming her hands over the oil heater with her gown precariously close to the flame and calling the less favoured ‘child’.
New subjects like algebra, geometry, Fr. Winters, business methods, Latin and French had to be grappled with. Irish on a more grammatical aspect with the Uimhir Dhé and the Comhnasc Dá, not to mention the ubiquitous Briathar Saor rearing their ugly and still stick associated heads. I still remember taking ages to realise that Caesar fought Gallic and not Gaelic wars! On the positive side it meant that our programme was full and varied and led to an examination from which, hopefully, one would pass onto a higher level. I remember Mike Purcell saying to me one day ‘I suppose you’ll hang on until the Inter anyway Paddy’. Even then and in spite of our not too rich circumstances, I had never considered not going all the way. Neither had my father. Mike’s comment is illustrative of the general view of education at a time when only a handful went on the leaving. I can’t less this opportunity pass without thanking my aunty Gertie(Mrs. Buckley) for all the lunches my brothers, sisters and I had during our school days in St Mary’s when we made daily bicycle descents on her welcoming home.
The name ‘Paddy’ brings me to one of my favourites, the then Miss Fitzgibbon who christened me this after my father on the first day at the school. I hadn’t the heart to tell her and everyone who copied her that I loathe that version of the name and am known everywhere, except St Mary’s as ‘Pat’. She may have had the odd scrape with the girls who she loved to slag about boyfriends etc. but she was very popular with us boys. Actually, she was soft on us and hadn’t the heart to sculpt us into the required shape. John Madigan once objected to the effect which her nails had on his nerves when she scratched her nylon clad knees (I daren’t go higher). To this day I can’t see his point as by then I approved of anything which took our minds off French irregular verbs and Burke’s Industrial History. Does anybody remember that excruciating little bore, ‘Le Petit Chose? If ever a character had a suitable name it was he! The adjective probably describes his brains as well!
Mention of John Madigan brings me to another laugh. Once, when John was being praised to the skies by Mrs. Hawkes who contrasted him with the rest of us heathens, who, unlike John, had forgotten to bring daffodils for a school alter. I was about to point out that such quality daffodil could only have originated from Charlie Smith’s avenue, which then, and I hope now, produce the best daffodil in Ireland and that moreover, these were decent Church of Ireland daffodils, Madigan threatened me with instant death if I interrupted the torrent of approval in which he was then showering!. While we’re in the business of revealing all may I also now admit that I often wrongly blamed the late Jimmo Shaughnessy’s requests for help to load his milk tankards to excuse my lateness.
The autumn of ’63 saw our move to the new school premises in Church Street. We (Helen Sheehy, Madigan, Betty Ranahan, Seamus Mc Knight and David O Sullivan) decided to do the Inter again. This was the best decision of our or more properly of Mrs. Hawkes’s life. It was at this time that we were joined by Maurice Foster, a source of never failing comment for everybody, both teacher and student alike. Among the events which stand out from this period are David O Sullivan’s persistent chocolate goldgrain biscuit-eating under the desk, his incredibly funny and even now unrepeatable comments and puns which got everybody else into trouble and my bet with Joe Sheehan that Cassius Clay would not beat Sonny Liston. He did, and I had given Joe to which he collected. To this day I find it hard to even buy a lottery ticket.
Happy memories of this time centre around playing with a dewy football in the September mornings when the lovely skill of Tim Shields distinguished an otherwise messy encounter. Less happy is Pat Fitz’s hand-trip which resulted in my going to hospital. A new generation of characters like Noel Ranahan, Goody Ryan and the late Connie Donoghue were making their mark. I remember well cycling to school learning Bun-abhars off by heart with nothing more on my mind than Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield and look at the way they turned out. My smoking from a metal (I couldn’t call it gold) cigarette case and attempts to look like the TV detective Tim Frazer were attempts at teenage sophistication which went unappreciated in the relevant quarter, the girls!
St Mary’s secondary was a totally matriarchal organization until the arrival of Gabriel O Connor about 1965. He was a recent graduate and an enthusiastic historian and UCC man- not a bad combination. Although our teachers were until then all women and this may have impaired the development of our institution in the sports field I feel such a defect (if defect it be) was more than compensated for by the fact that young fellows were made more aware of the intellectual, and organizational skills of women as well as of their patriotism and idealism which can’t be a bad preparation for life. The fact that half our schoolmates were girls hopefully adjusted us to see and value girls as pals. Boys certainly benefit from co-education and people still marvel when I tell them of the advanced philosophy in this part of West Limerick for forty years. We had something for virtually nothing which the so called sophisticated are prepared to pay through the nose for now!
Mrs. O Mahony did a great deal to make us aware of the wider world. Who can ever see Crewe on a map without thinking of her recitation of the wartime slogan ‘Where am I Mr. Porter? I was reading Everybody’s and got carried onto Crewe’. Her appreciation of England’s history and literature did not overshadow her great love of Ireland and our native culture. She made Falstaff and Shylock as well known to us as the Mutt, Jimmy Collins or Dave Shanahan. Once she even got the actor Dennis Franks to read Shakespeare to us. Who that was there will ever forget out great visit to Roscrea to see the students’ production of The Merchant of Venice? She has always had a great sense of academic class and learning which I know wasn’t always wasted on the Deel Air. She was a very special and sympathetic inspirer and an honest reporter of life as it is.
Mrs. Hawkes is equally remarkable but in different ways. Thankfully she has been blessed with great health of which generations of Askeaton pupils have had the full benefit. A consummate professional and perfectionist who gave everything and more to her pupils. Never a nine to fiver, but a strong (and extremely attractive) lady prepared to take the world and its pupils by the scruff of the neck or hasp of their apathy for their own sakes. She is in the tradition of the pioneering schoolma’ams from the East who get off the stagecoaches in western towns and change the course of history. She came from the West (and UCG) and did all this. A woman of destiny who can never be fully thanked by Askeaton or its pupils. Mrs. Hawkes started the Youth club. Who can forget their first cringe- giving moment asking girls out to dance? I remember being pushed across the floor in transfixed fear. That was a long time ago! Mrs. Hawkes transformed John Madigan and I into passable public speakers and by adding Betty Ranahan to us, turned us into a Medal final team and, even more importantly, the lifelong friendship of three minds and hearts. She let me read the proclamation in Askeaton in 1966-anhonour for which I will always be grateful. It is more to her persistent graft and hours of hard work (for both her and us) than to anything else that we are now each communicators (indeed performers) in our respective fields. And look at our academic debt to her. County Council scholarships (when they were desperately needed) and University scholarships were hammered out in her busy and exacting furnace hot workshop. No prisoners were taken and the battle was won. Askeaton and St Mary’s were on the map and colleagues and she had done it.
While all the teachers past and present have contributed to the success story that is St Mary’s, we should single out the two without whom nothing would have happened for our most grateful thanks and humble salutations on this the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the school. They are Mrs. O Mahony (Polly Jones as she then was) and Mrs. Hawkes (nee Duggan) who built an enduring monument on that solid foundation. These two women gave Askeaton and the district something for which it should and will always be thankful. That is their life’s work and dedicated enthusiasm to providing the area with secondary school facilities of the highest standard. Along with that other most cultured and idealistic benefactor from the outside, the late Diarmuid O Riordáin, they put Askeaton on the map and made it possible for its sons and daughters either to stay at home of to go away educationally prepared for the wider world beyond. Mrs. Hawkes and Mrs. O Mahony are part of our identity and have contributed to our self-esteem.
As a final tribute to them both and as a parting wish for their long and happy retirement in the town of their adoption, I would remind them that the wisdom of the Past Pupils committee in saluting them on this historic occasion probably stems from the sense of decency and sincerity which they both espoused in such generous measure and which they tried to inculcate into all of us. We would be doing them less than justice if we said thanks for the memory instead of thanks for everything.