St. Mary’s Secondary School Memories of Una Nolan ( Formerly Murphy ) 1940-1942
Summer of 1940…..
Times were bleak. Hitlers invasion of Poland had thrown the whole world into turmoil and even though Ireland was a neutral country, things still impacted. Food was always scarce, but now, it was so much worse. Shortages of all the very basis items that we used to enjoy, albeit occasionally, were now widespread. These were the war years and everybody suffered.
My father and mother were luckier than most I suppose. My father had just been made permanent in his postman’s job for the first time, and so the time had come for us to move from our beautiful Killaloe by the lake, to the town of Askeaton , Co. Limerick. Askeaton was also a picturesque town, situated on the banks of the River Deel with its historical castle and Abbey. It was adjacent to the smaller village of Ballysteen where my father was to deliver the post, by bicycle for the next 25 years.
For me, as a fourteen year old schoolgirl, who had been educated thus far by the nuns of Killaloe, I was looking forward to a new chapter in my life, one without the sisters at least. Its no secret, as we now know, that the religious orders had a very disciplined approach to teaching. They were tough, no actually, they were very very tough. They ruled with an iron fist and woe betide you if you didn’t comply. I was probably one of the lucky ones. The sisters liked me because fortunately for me, I was good at my lessons. Others were not so fortunate. They felt the stick all too often, as was the punishment for stepping out of line or not answering your question correctly. And you dare not tell your mother about any punishment that may have been meted out in school! You’d quite likely get another smack at home as a second dose. No, it was always best to just say nothing and do your best so as to avoid the wrath of the nuns.
So, when I came to Askeaton, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that my new school had no sisters attached to it! Don’t get me wrong. The nuns who taught me, did so very well. In fact, they were excellent teachers, but it was only when I left them behind, that I realised how much more enjoyable learning could be and was, for the next two years of my life.
I was lucky it was 1940 when we arrived in Askeaton. This was the first year that a secondary school had been established. I always reckoned that God was so kind to me, as He had not only rescued me from the sisters, but also had created a new school in the very town that He had found my father a permanent position!
And so my final two years of education began.
Miss Pollie Jones procured the use of the Library on the Quay, Askeaton, to set up her new secondary school. She had a total of 19 students. Miss Jones had trained in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, as far as I was aware. She was a wonderful teacher, so gentle and kind and knowledgeable. Totally different to what I had been used to at school in KIllaloe. She had another teacher helping her, a Miss Bess O’Shaughnessy, who was similarly gifted. There was just one room used for all classes with Miss Jones teaching at the front and Miss O’Shaughnessy at the back. Sadly, she left after just one year, setting up her own new school the following summer in the neighbouring parish of Borrigone. We were all a bit sad when we found out she was gone. She was such a lovely teacher.
I loved school, but more than school, I adored my mentor. She taught me so much and with so much vigour and enthusiasm. Everything I learned was taught with love, so naturally it was easier to absorb. It all felt so different. Miss Jones was a wonderful teacher, so patient and kind. She taught me all the usual subjects and even some French to boot. The mysterious Mr P. De Barra (at least we thought he was mysterious ) taught Irish upstairs in the library. It was for adults who needed extra Irish tuition in relation to employment requirements.
There was one down side to being schooled in the library though, the awful Winter. Good Lord, it was cold, and that schoolroom, it was freezing. There was a fire in the grate at the front of the room, so it wasn’t too bad if you were up at the front. I did my best I can tell you. Kindling for the fire was as scarce as food was for the table, so, we wrapped ourselves up as best we could and threw ourselves into our work. It was all we could do until Winter had passed and the snowdrops had begun to appear.
I couldn’t believe it. Two years had almost passed since I arrived in Askeaton and now, the time was almost here to sit the Intermediate certificate. I was petrified but excited as well. There were only two students put forward for the exams, myself and my friend Kathleen Crowley ( later on to be Mrs Sheehy ) Looking back, it was a very big deal. We were the very first two students in Askeaton to go forward for a public examination. Very prestigious!
Our exam time arrived. The exams were to be sat in Rathkeale. I was not so fortunate as Kathleen, who was lucky enough to be able to stay there for the week. I had to cycle there and back each day until all the exams were over. In addition, I set off an hour earlier each day in order to attend daily mass and Holy Communion. After all, I needed all the help I could get, and a little bit of Divine intervention never hurt anyone now, did it?
I enjoyed my daily cycle to be fair. I think it cleared my mind somewhat, my form of meditation I suppose. In any event, I was well used to long cycles. I often used to cycle long distances with my father on the weekends. Once or twice, we had gone back to Killaloe, as my father had begun to be a little melancholy, missing his old haunt. He missed some of his old buddies I think, and was happy to return occasionally in the hope he might see one or two of them. My mother was happy to see me tag along I think, as she felt I would be a good reason for my father to return home in time for dinner. We seldom did.
My exams went well I thought. In spite of all the cycling, all the praying, all the last minute studying, I still had energy in abundance. It was a strange time really. At the tender age of 16 I knew that these exam results would probably shape my life forever. I felt like a child still inside my head, yet I knew that adulthood was soon to be thrust upon me and an enforced independence loomed close upon the horizon.
Miss Jones was so excited when the exam results came out. I had passed everything with honours. She was so proud of me. My parents were also delighted with my success, but for me, it spelt the end of the road as far as my formal education was concerned. I was sad at this point, as I would have liked to continue on with my studies and become the teacher that Miss Jones wanted. It wasn’t to be however, as I now had a platform upon which I could find work. My father insisted on it. My results positioned me favourably with regard to a solitary position in Limerick GPO. I did however have to take a further set of exams for this privilege. One would think it was the best job in the world, the way that droves of girls strove to grasp at that one meagrely paid position. On the day of the exam, no less than forty four girls came to the exam hall to sit the exam. Jobs were in short supply for women, and badly paid as well. It was most definitely a mans world in 1942, especially if you were from a working class family such as mine.
I got the job.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, either way I was now employed. My parents were happy; they were proud of me too of course, but more importantly, I was ready to flee the nest and make a new life for myself as an independent woman.
Miss Jones continued in her role as teacher in the library for another few years. When she left, she had paved the way for a new teacher, one who was to remain for many years to come….