School days: Mixed memories

Playtime in the 1950s at Callan Convent of Mercy


Part 1

Schooling in the 1930s and 40s was a different proposition from today’s sophisticated education system. Most children walked to school every morning, the poorer ones in their bare feet. It could be a long enough walk for the country kids, though they might be lucky and catch a lift with a farmer bringing his churn of milk to the creamery.

The classrooms of both primary and secondary schools were not like the modern colourful sanitised ones. There was no central heating, an open fire being the main source of warmth. The pupils had to help in collecting sticks to keep the fire going for the day, especially in the winter months.

There was no running water and the primitive toilets were outside the school buildings. The creaky boarded floors had to be swept clean at the end of lessons, and there was no question of chewing-gum or bits of toffee clinging to any desk or being found on the floor.

The teaching style was vastly different from that applied today, the use of corporal punishment being one of the principal “aids to learning” that have now passed into memory.

*Callan school pupils of 1928 in the picture are:
Front Row: Jim Walton, Joe McGrath, Eamon Teehan, Billy Clancy, Paddy (Rodney) Lennon, Nicky Murphy.
2nd Row: Jack Clancy, Billy Kirwan, Paddy McGrath, Tom Larkinn, Lory Morris, Paddy Finnegan, Jimmy Hoyne, Martin Brett, Perse Dermody, Jimmy Nolan.
3rd Row: Maurice Murphy, Kitty McGrath, Bridie Casey, Beeb Murphy, Johanna Kirwan, Bridget Morris, Lizzie Morris, Nick Larkin, Piery Gannon.
4th Row: Mary Hoyne, Bridie Hoyne, Kitty Lennon, Maureen Dunne, Beeb Walton, Maureen McGrath, Bridie Woodgate, Mary O’ Dea, Lizzie Finnegan, Peg Walton.
5th Row: Nellie Hoyne, Dolly Dermody, Moll Kirwan, Mary Boland, Kitty Hoyne, Jo Grady, Nellie Byrne, Bridie Walsh, May Finnegan.
6th Row: Dick Comerford, Paddy Woodgate, Billy Walsh, Mick Coonan, Mick Morris, Jackie Walton, Mick Clancy, Peter Kearney.


But the subjects taught in primary school prepared pupils for either the next stage of their education in secondary, which relatively few of them reached because their families couldn’t afford it, or for whatever life awaited beyond the school gates.

In their heads they carried with them from primary school a reasonable dose of English, Irish, History, Geography, Religion, and Arithmetic, the main subjects. Both boys and girls were also encouraged to sing, and participate in school concerts or pageants. Girls might also learn a little knitting or other needlework before leaving.

Children with learning difficulties in large classes were often, sadly, neglected by teachers, with resulting literacy problems in later life. And others were affected psychologically if not physically by the canings and leatherings they received in all classes. Most pupils in the 1940s had left school by the age of thirteen or fourteen.

Past pupils of Callan schools had mixed and widely varying memories and impressions of their school days when I interviewed them.

Martin Lynch of Newtown was grateful to his educators. He began his schooling in Callan in the early 1930s, and had a clear recollection of stepping into his first ever classroom.

It was in the convent school, where every local boy and girl commenced his or her education as a child. To a child entering the convent, the nuns were towering but (to begin with) benevolent figures: the Superior, Mother Juliana, flanked by Mother Kieran.

They quickly put the children at their ease, and got them started on the lifelong path of learning. Sisters Otternan, Therese, and Patrick taught in Infants and Beginners School.

Using slates to write on, the pupils got their first taste of knowledge acquisition. Tentatively, the nuns guided them along, and soon their formative little brains were fully operational. They quickly learned their ABCs and their One Two Threes.

To be continued…

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