Memories of Athenry in the Thirties – August 1996

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My earliest experience of school was the first two years the small boys spent in the Girl’s Convent Primary N. S., Athenry. Our teachers, Miss Kelly, Miss Glynn and Sr. Dominic (Roche from Caherlistrane); rather liked us boys; I suppose because being such a minority we were docile and obedient. The Reverend Mother, whether out of pity or approval, sometimes presented me with a rosy apple. We were given free, scalding, hot, cocoa to drink with our lunches. The girls also seemed to like us and we passed on to the boys school with regret in 1930.

A senior classroom was built at the Convent school in our time; I remember getting builder’s lime on my clothes during recreation, as other boys also did.

The Old Boy’s School is still standing between the two bridges over the river Clarin – the Bridges of Sighs, but is now in a very dilapidated condition. It went out of use in 1940 (it had served the town well for more than a hundred years) when the new school was built opposite Hansberry’s Hotel at the end of Old Church Street. That school in turn went out of use seven years ago when yet another boy’s school was built, the present one, in 1989.

Our school consisted of three large rooms, each heated by a single turf fire. Each room had two classes, with seating only for one; one class sat for writing while the other stood to read or receive instruction. Conditions were primitive by today’s standards; no running water, one small toilet for each two classes which was rarely used. But few dwelling-houses had bathrooms in those days. So what! We didn’t have we didn’t miss.

Mrs Woods taught the first and second classes. A native of Kerry, she was the widow of Frank Woods, the former principal, who had died some years previously. She was strict, thorough and industrious but fair. I got to know her well in the fifties when I was a young man and she lived in retirement in Salthill. She lived then with her five children next door to her classroom in what was “the teachers residence”, another building which like the school is now an eyesore. The other teachers residence, at the Ball Alley end of the row, was then occupied by Johnny and Mrs Whelan who both taught in Newcastle.

First Communion was then what it should be, an intensely spiritual experience; you learned the catechism and duly prepared for first confession and communion. Each boy had a new suit for the occasion, a new prayer book and a medal or picture to keep in memory of the event. No gifts of money or any other kind were given to children for that occasion; it was not commercialised. None the worst for that! Also, the only gift for Confirmation was the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

Photo Complients of Gerry Kearney, Author of “Tracing the Taylor Families of Kilchreest, Co. Galway” and “the Taylor Family of Ardrahan Post Office”

Teachers, like parents, worked very hard; three full hours before lunch – break for just a half-hour; two full hours without a break after lunch. The going was hard all day, every day with only five weeks for summer holidays? Their pay was miserly, they walked to work like their pupils; they did not have cars. They taught both by precept and by example. They were strict disciplinarians but not cruel or sadistic. Their bark was worse than their bite.

Frank Burke, a newly qualified teacher had charge of third and fourth. A native of Tuam he had digs in Condron’s Guest house where the Newpark Hotel is now. Very diligent and dedicated he omitted nothing. Where Mrs Woods merely taught us to sing the scale, we now learned some of Moore’s Melodies and songs in Irish like Cnocánín Aerach Cill Muire.

By the mid-thirties gramophones were common; we could hear and learn the best songs (from John McCormack for instance) and Irish dance music.

There were radios in some homes – of the “wet and dry battery” type, always referred to as the wireless. They were adequate for Irish transmissions, but were very difficult to maintain as the wet batteries seemed to be eternally requiring a recharge which took a day or two. The dry batteries were more expensive but lasted longer and didn’t require recharging. The E.S.B. did not reach Athenry until 1950, but the town already had electricity from a generator at Ruane’s of Northgate Street.

Frank Burke went on a promotion to Attymon N.S. as principal where he spent the rest of his teaching life. When he died a few years ago I attended his funeral in Tuam in memory of former days and in gratitude for past favours. He too was strict; a warning was enough – of “skin and hair flying” – they never flew of course.

All our teachers were remote figures who, apart from school, did not get involved in the community. They were not very popular either; I suppose because they represented the “Establishment”.

It was invariably called lunch-hour, but the midday break was only a half-hour, yet a very important part of our education and development. Because there were no recreation grounds at the school we were free to explore the neighbourhood or visit the town. Within yards of the school were The old Court (i.e. King John’s Castle and surrounds); Taylor’s Cornmill and house at the river nearby; Madden’s Forge; the Old Abbey (I recall a charnel-house full of skulls and bones of people long dead); the Ball Alley built into a wing of the abbey; the open river opposite the Abbey Row houses, and for good measure a cobbler shop and a garage in Barrack Lane.

The Old Court – King John’s Castle

The town was then a safe place for children. There were only a few cars in Athenry and the streets were not cluttered with parked vehicles as they now are; only horse and donkey-carts and bicycles. There were plenty of public houses; to a man emerging from the Ulster Bank at the Square (ladies did not then frequent pubs) no fewer than eight pubs were visible – Joe Mannion’s, Peter Kelly’s, Josie Sweeney’s, Carter’s, Mahon’s, The Athenry Hotel, O’Neill’s and Jordan’s.

Beside the Town Cross there was a weigh bridge there for fairs and markets. The cattle mart was to come much later; fairs were held on the principal streets of the town starting before dawn and causing such a mess that the town had to be swept afterwards by the Co. Council. But the streets were mostly full of people and very busy; very interesting for youngsters to travel around at playtime in the hope of meeting their parents or neighbours who would gladly share their luck -penny with youngsters.

Schoolboys got to know the town thoroughly as they rambled around at playtime; not merely the shops and houses but the people as well. We knew everybody. People would also ask you to do little jobs after school. I regularly helped at Leonard’s town house for the three old spinsters, daughters of a former district doctor (as far back as the last century) who was replaced first by Dr. Quinlan and later by Dr. Foley. A half-crown was big money in those days and I was always given afternoon tea as well. Only the grand gates remain of that once beautiful home, then arguably the finest in town. In the dark and damp gatehouse was the dispensary. One would need to be at death’s door to venture so far out of one’s way to sit and wait in such a dark and dismal place. Grown-ups rarely needed doctors; children, never. Work and constant walking kept us all in excellent physical and mental health.

I clearly recall my first film. It was a “silent” at Jas Payne’s Cinema in Cross Street (long since demolished) at the entrance to what is now Dennison’s Car Spares and the film was about St. Bernadette of Lourdes and the Apparitions there. The “talkies” came next. Some of the best films ever made were brought to the Town Hall twice a week by a man from Strokestown. The town crier walked the streets in advance ringing his bell to announce oncoming functions.

Dances and concerts were frequent in Murphy’s Hall and very fine plays. Frank Hynes wrote and produced plays; my first was one of his,” The Right o’ Way”. A local bard had a song about Athenry in the Top 10 of the day as it were (he even recommended the air to which it might be sung). It began “Athenry was a town of importance”. Then it gave a short history of the town in verse, Cromwell was pilloried for the destruction he caused and the last line

“In spite of the wicked aul’ Devil, We’ve still two T.D’s in the Dail”.

They were of course Stephen Jordan (F.F.) and Sean Broderick (F.G.). Politics were hotly disputed in those days; the Civil War was fresh in the memories of the older generation and Taoiseach deValera inspired us with hope of a united Ireland around the corner, the Irish language revived, and “comely maidens dancing at the cross-roads”. He was a fine politician, but no prophet.

The railway station was too far away from the school to be visited at playtime. It was then a veritable hive of activity by night and by day. Animals, goods and people were transported by rail – there were few lorries or vans. Athenry was then an important railway junction. The Sligo—Limerick line has since gone out of use as has the enormous goods-store which was de-roofed a few years ago. A splendid slate and cut-stone building (l20ft by 50ft) has become another eye sore. Stock bought at the fairs were loaded on trains by evening; sugar-beet for the Tuam factory kept the lines busy for the winter months.

A parish priest was changed from peaceful Letterfrack at the beginning of this century on promotion to Athenry, Fr. McAndrew. Alas! the noise of trains in Athenry kept him awake half the night; so being a wise man he returned to Connemara after some weeks and allowed a much younger man, Fr. Canton, to take his place as Parish Priest.

Athenry Priory – Locally called “The Old Abbey” Photo Wikipedia

Now, back to school, games were not played during or after school hours. School was for education, not recreation. Hurling and handball were the most popular games. The Back Lawn was freely available for sport and games long before the Kenny Park was developed, and Athenry produced quite a few first class handballers in those years. There were lawn -tennis courts on the site of the former cricket grounds along the Park Road and the Golf Links was between the Moanbawn and Park roads. Swimming was in the river beside the castle and a less sophisticated swimming—hole is still available along the by-road into Cahertubber. The Canton Hall in Chapel Lane was for men’s indoor recreation; billiards and cards mostly.

People say that our school days are the best days of our life. I would respectfully dispute that view. Our schooling became progressively more difficult as we moved to the top, to fifth and sixth class. Our principal teacher, Martin Walsh, was a native of Rosmuck who had spent some years teaching in Mayo Abbey before promotion to Athenry in the late twenties. His wife had been a former pupil of his in Mayo Abbey. In our day he commuted daily by bus and train from his home in Salthill. Before our time he lived in Caheroyan House, before the D’Arcy’s came there. He ran a tight ship for staff and pupils. He was hardest on himself. He never let up. He sat for only a few minutes each day while he called the roll.

If you asked any male teacher of sixty years ago how to forestall disruption and insubordination at school their cure would almost certainly be – the rod. Healy’s Bible History had a chapter, I remember, on “The Judges of Israel”(eg. Samson & Samuel). We were ordered on Friday to prepare that chapter over the weekend. The weekend was busy or exciting so I forgot. On Monday I was first to be called to account. “Who were the judges?” No answer. “Were they judges like Judge Wyse Power of Galway’?” Me “They were”. He, “They were not. You see what a wonderful aid to the memory the rod is. By Jove, I’ll make you hop” was his favourite threat. Mr. Walsh was aptly described 200 years ago by Oliver Goldsmith in “The Deserted Village”:

“There in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule,

The village master taught his little school;

A man severe he was, and stern to view,

I knew him well as every truant knew;

Full well they laughed with counterfeited glee,

At all his jokes, for many a joke had he.

Yet he was kind; and if severe in aught,

The love he bore to learning was in fault…

..And still they gazed and still the wonder grew,

That one small head could carry all he knew.

But past is all his fame. The very spot

Where many a time he triumphed, is forgot.”

“The love he bore to learning was in fault”.

Yes, he surely loved learning and demanded a very high standard, especially in the subjects he liked best, Irish, Maths and Geography. But the grounding we received in all subjects has stood us in good stead ever since. To the common subjects he added two extras, Algebra and Geometry, and by the time we sat the Primary we were fit for the Intermediate Certificate. “Many a joke had he”. His jokes were normally at our expense. They washed off easily however; he had no favourites; tales were never told out of school (that would be disloyal to the group), and most were too wise to tell tales at home.

There were two boys we particularly envied. One was surnamed; McCoy, a Protestant, the only non-Catholic at our school. He was discharged from class each day at noon when Catechism began for the rest of us. The other was Mrs Woods’ houseboy, “Buster” Walsh, brother of Berlo, the handballer. We fancied he was earning wages besides being well fed with nothing to do all day except sit around, keep the fire lit and answer the door. So if you ask me if there was discrimination in our school I would have to answer “Yes”. At least we felt that all the rest of us were discriminated against except for those two fortunate boys.

We swept our classroom once a week on Friday afternoon just before three o’clock – no paid cleaners in those days. In order to get away fast we made short work of it. Clouds of dust bellowed to the ceiling. Everyone was in everyone’s way. We couldn’t see or hear each other clearly. Mr. Walsh smoked a cigarette and inhaled deeply, very relaxed. Desks were moved and replaced, many hands making light work, dust collected and put out of sight – all in a matter of minutes and off we all went before being suffocated. The dust was left to settle over the weekend.

I finish with a funeral; we all will, won’t we? It was Larry Lardiner’s (April 1936). As we emerged from school for lunch-break, the cortege was mournfully winding it’s way over the Bridge of Sighs, a sight for young eyes to see, expensive cars, wreaths, dignitaries of church and state. The army was represented, a military band, the lot! Needless to relate we joined in the procession to the New Cemetery for Larry was a very prominent citizen and a veteran of 1916. It was a most memorable experience from then on until the last post at the graveside – a funeral oration, a lone piper and his dirge, most impressive.

In the tense excitement and the pageantry, we forgot everything else, – “home, kindred and safety”, safety being the operative word. We knew we were late for school. What we didn’t know (because we had no watches then) was that it was two o’clock. When we arrived back there was solemn silence in the classroom, “the eyes of all in the synagogue were on us” as they were on Christ in the synagogue at Nazareth. I don’t need to describe the sequel; it can be safely left to the reader’s imagination.

It saddens me to pass by the scene today, sixty years later. Excuse me for being sentimental, but my Sweet Auburn is now a deserted village.

“Remember wake with all her busy train,

Swells at my breast, and turns the past to pain”

Gone is the school, the teachers, the cornmill, the forge, the alley, the cobbler’s shop,

the garage and the barrack.

“But now the sound of population fail,

No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale,

No busy steps the grass-grown foot—way tread,

For all the bloomy flush of life is fled”


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About this record

Written by A Past Pupil

Published here 06 Nov 2022 and originally published 1996

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