Learning the hard way: The stick and the leather

Callan CBS pupils 1939 Back row: Lar Hackett, Jim Hackett, John Clancy, Liam Egan, M. Walker, M. Bergin, -Drew. Joe Dunne. Third Row: Ned Woodgate, Billy Burke, Larry Guildfoyle, Milo Foley, Ned Condon, Sean Dooley, Billy Hackett, Danny Roche. Second Row: Larry Holden, Marty Keating, Sean Holden, Jim Bolger, J. Fitzpatrick, J. Byrne, Frank Fennelly, T. Noonan, Dick Power, J. O’ Neill, S. Shaughnessy. Front Row: D. O’ Grady, P. Byrne, P. Purcell, C. Sullivan, -Burke, Billy Sullivan, M. Lynch, Sean Holden, Sean O’ Brien.


Part 1

In 2001 Callan man Sean Holden recalled sitting behind his desk on a typical day at the local CBS all those years before. He listened to the teacher droning on about Irish verbs and tenses as he paced up and down the room.

Sean described what happened next: “Suddenly, without any warning, he’d spot a lad he thought wasn’t paying attention. Out came the leather, as quick as a flash, and he’d lay into the pupil. The lad would get it on the head, and across the back of the neck and shoulders. That was before he was ordered to put out his hand to be slapped.

“He put great force into each slap, and he’d give you a terrible look of reproach before the stick came crashing down. And he always went for the finger joints, to inflict real pain.

“As a rule, when this happened to you in the classroom, you tended to be more alert and tried not to look bored or half asleep for the remainder of the day. I suppose the corporal punishment worked in that sense. You learned by fear.

“Slow learners got a hard deal. They got slapped and knocked about almost every day. There was very little of the softly-softly approach we see nowadays in schools. No psychology or anything.

“It was a military type set-up. We drilled in the playground like little soldiers, and sang martial songs, mostly in Irish. When I got slapped, I preferred the leather because the bamboo really hurt, and I remember one lad whose hands bled after he got slapped with a stick that had splinters in it.

“And you never mentioned the slaps at home or your parents would give you another few, and maybe worse ones, for good measure. Political Correctness wasn’t heard of in those days. You hear nowadays of the Stick and the Carrot. There was no carrot back then, just the stick, and a great persuader it was.

“Some teachers didn’t bother with the canes or leathers. They used their fists. If you answered a question wrong, you got a backhand slap across the face or a thump from behind. One teacher loved to throw dusters at pupils who he spotted misbehaving or who weren’t making progress. He just grabbed the duster and flung it at the lad.

“The rest of us would duck to avoid it. If the duster missed its intended target and hit the wrong pupil, this teacher assured the struck pupil that he would credit the blow to him when his own turn for punishment came.

“I’ll never forget the day he broke a window in the classroom with a duster when he missed a pupil. The Principal heard the glass breaking and strode into the classroom. He demanded to know what happened. When the teacher explained, the Principal asked him to be more careful in future and to please try to hit the pupil accurately, because glass didn’t grow on trees!

“When the Principal left the room, this teacher repeated in a mocking tone what his superior had said, and we all laughed, including the lad the duster had been aimed at. Ah, those were funny times, boy.

“They slapped you for anything, or for nothing. Some days were worse than others. There was one teacher who smoked heavily. His suit was permanently stained with tobacco marks. He was fine while he was smoking, but we all suffered when he gave up the fags for lent. He went crazy in the classroom…with the cane, the leather, and his fists.

“One day, during lent, when most us had failed a sums test, he caught a big bundle of books and flung them at us with all his might. Then he picked up a leather with one hand and a bamboo rod with the other and he ran down between the desks, striking to the right and to the left like a cavalryman at the Charge of the Light Brigade.

“We had to dive for cover. Less than an hour before this, he’d been talking calmly about the danger of war breaking out in Europe. He had drawn some of the flags of the world with chalk on the blackboard. But to us the classroom was a daily war zone…”

To be continued…

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