This article was written by James Ryder (1900-81), who for many years was headmaster of Mullinahoe primary school
Looking back over almost forty years of serious rivalry between “the Dam” and Mullinahoe school, I am still undecided as to which was the better seat of learning, but I have no doubt at all as to which was the more popular. And I certainly feel sorry for any school that has not the good fortune to have a treasure house like our dam on its doorstep.
Daniel Defoe ship-wrecked Robinson Crusoe on an island which provided many comforts for that poor fellow in his adversity, but in the memories of many hundreds of pupils who found sustenance and solace there, the dam must rank as a very close second to that
bountiful island. For the dam had nearly everything that the heart of a lusty growing boy could desire. Water and mud to get wet and dirty in, a soft carpet of lush green grass to serve as a day-bed, and most important of all, an abundant arbour of bushes and trees of many varieties which provided cool shade for mitchers on hot days and rendered capture impossible when the hunt was up. How many times I have been told in scandalised tones that a missing boy was “in the dam” and that my senior division to a man was prepared to face any danger to get him. No commando unit ever started out on a dangerous mission with more bravado but the result was always the same. To their eternal credit never once did they bring back a prisoner but the quantity of nut shells and plum stones to be swept up that evening told the rest of the story.
The dam served too as an open-air office for the penning of those spurious “notes” from parents which invariably implied that if Johnny was not allowed home at two o’clock, then the year’s crop of grass seed, corn, or potatoes would be lost entirely. I still have one such literary gem which pleads for such release with harrowing eloquence worthy of a wig and gown, but the effect is somewhat spoiled when the young scribe concludes –
Thank you very much, Master,
And only last week one of the culprits reminded me of two such notes emanating from the dam on the same morning, both written by the owner of the only pencil and both “Thenking” me. It seems the writer presented his note first, by right of authorship, and got safely away but when the duplication hit me in the eye, the second applicant was much less fortunate.
Pig-nuts were an underground delicacy that the dam proffered in abundance and whose botanical name I failed to discover. They were highly prized, but I must confess that on the only occasion when I was persuaded to sample one I found it both tough and tasteless. I may have hit the wrong season, or it may be that my taste-buds had succumbed to the ravages of chalk dust and advancing years. There is also the intriguing possibility that the young donor fervently hoped his gift would poison me.
The dam provided for us, too, the kindling for the school fires, and in this connection I fell into a serious error. I could see no point in having tuneful singing ruined by the croaking of the “crows” and so nominated them to go to the dam for sticks during the singing lesson. But years later I discovered that many quite tuneful voices had been wilfully distorted in order that their owners could qualify for this fuel safari in the dam. And the manipulators of the world’s wheat market could have picked up a few tips from my wood-cutters on the way to avoid a glut. I have seen so many pitiful handfuls of twigs delivered with an air of complete exhaustion reminiscent of an Everest expedition. And always more nut shells and plum stones to be swept up.
There was one period, however, when the dam lost all its attraction and that was the half-hour which the timetable labelled “Lunch-break”. Never was there a greater misnomer, for no lunch, however appetising, could compete with the mad scramble to be picked on one of the two teams which daily fought a football game with all the fervour of a national cup final. And never has football been played under such weird conditions. The plot which never deserved the name “playground” was half a rood in extent, had a gradient of one in five, and was bounded by a stone wall with surfaces as abrasive as a steel rasp. The pitch itself erupted a glutinous mass of black mud at the approach of the slightest shower and, to add to the hazards, the adjoining road sloped downwards from both directions towards the playground. Yet the surprising fact is that serious accidents were a rare occurrence and, wet or dry, these marathon battles went merrily on. In my opinion the chief sufferers were the heroic mothers of my charges who continually fought a losing battle against torn and muddy clothing, battered boots and a multiplicity of cuts and bruises. Yet these gallant women repaired the ravages of conflict uncomplainingly and, with sublime optimism, sent their boys out each morning with “shining morning faces” and prayed, I am sure, for better things. For myself, I have enjoyed many pleasant hours in watching these epics through the classroom window, and have often wondered, if ours had been a soccer district, how many potential Danny Blanchflowers and George Bests I had seen cutting their football teeth in the black mud of that sloping morass.
The refereeing of those fierce struggles was a delight to hear. Loud whistle, grubby notebook and a stump of pencil were much in evidence and each score and all infringements, no matter how slight, were grimly noted. The builders of the school, with a view to softening the harsh lines of their handiwork, had planted fir trees, two at the upper end and two at the lower. These were the goalposts, and what a hammering those poor trees had to suffer day after day. As the years passed they became more and more denuded and anaemic and eventually gave up the struggle, shortly before I followed their example. There were no crossbars, of course, and I have seen some agonising decisions being made between goal and point, especially when the referee’s own townland team was trailing in the score. But regardless of his size his decisions were usually accepted with good grace for, if anyone had the temerity to question the verdict, out came the notebook and the objector was grimly booked. During the summer vacation the grass put forth a few optimistic tendrils but two days of renewed combat were sufficient to dash its hopes for another year.
In my day when we did our training as teachers, it was strongly impressed on us that at the end of each paragraph or verse read aloud by a pupil, a few questions would test whether the matter was clearly understood. This precept I faithfully followed and the practice evoked, on occasion, the most wonderful responses. Top of my list comes the following which perhaps some of my Mullinahoe stalwarts may remember. The paragraph read aloud was –
In spring, the mother thrush builds her nest, lays her eggs, and hatches them, while the father thrush sits on a branch close by and sings to his mate.
Question from me – “Where was his mate?” And back like a shot came the answer – “In his crappin!” Local version of a crop and the only kind of “mate” worth bothering about.
If I may be forgiven a bad pun, food was always cropping up among my boys. There was the day, for instance, when I intoned in my best resonance to what I took to be an admiring and attentive class –
It was the schooner Hesperus
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter
To bear him company.
At that point I noticed a boy in the back seat deeply engrossed in carving his initials in the tough pine desk and it was obvious that he hadn’t heard a word about the Hesperus. So, hoping to catch him out, I shot at him – “Johnny, why did the skipper take his daughter with him?” And straight back came the reason – “Please sir, he took her with him to make a bit o’ mate!” In the face of such brilliant improvisation I distinctly remember that only the knife was forfeit.
Again more food with “Alexander Selkirk”. He was a great favourite because every boy in the school knew Blacker’s Island lying off our shore in Lough Neagh, and their young imaginations had no difficulty in making the transposition. However, when we came to the verse beginning – O had I the wings of a dove and I asked the reader of the verse – “Why did he want the wings of a dove?” – Alexander was suspended for that day when the answer came promptly – “Please sir, he wanted to make a drop of soup!”
Many of the more outrageous incidents connected with our work in the school itself we now tend to forget, but Mrs Ryder and I derive the greatest pleasure from being reminded of these by former pupils returning on holiday from faraway places. Like the classroom ceiling festooned with dangling pens, the spoking forward of the long-suffering clock, the hundreds of canes hidden in the rat-holes in the floor, and the startling additions to blackboard drawings over which I draw a modest veil. Through the passing generations this extra-mural art centred mainly on one subject. Not as one may suppose the female form divine, but a fine robust male figure, usually in a state of complete nudity and urinating with gusto. (At a rough estimate I must in my time have collected and burnt enough artistic urine to float the entire fleet of “Queen” liners.) But when these cartoons, adorned with appropriate letterpress, found their way into the adjoining girls’ school, then indeed the balloon went up with a vengeance. The scandalised lady teachers stoutly held that the most effective deterrent against this horrible pornography was to march the artists to the neighbouring Parochial House, each bearing his own abomination. When he held his court of enquiry, Father Walsh, in particular, must have had the same struggle with his facial muscles as I earlier had with mine while the ladies stood grimly by. I know he filed these masterpieces among his important papers but what his executors thought when they went through his effects, I was not privileged to hear. May his kindly soul rest in peace.
I understand that when two or three of our former pupils get together many escapades are re-lived and it seems that none have a more comprehensive list to recount than our own three sons. Be that as it may, I must here record the pride I feel when I recall the determined closing of ranks which always took place in the face of the enemy – any inspector, lay or clerical, sent to pick holes in “our teacher”. My most sincere thanks, boys, for those valiant efforts at the crucial moments which never failed to win the day.
The grim old uncomfortable school house that we knew is no more. Few will mourn its passing for, viewed from Donnelly’s Hill on a bright morning, with the dam beckoning beyond the wall, it must have often seemed like an off-shoot of Dartmoor or Parkhurst. On the other hand, if any authority at any time proposed to deface or demolish the dam, it would not surprise me to see cohorts of Mullinahoe scholars descend on the despoilers to smite them hip and thigh. The dam holds too many pleasant memories for such a desecration to be tolerated.