I’ll Tell My Story

I was born in the year 1919 in the sheltered town of Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in the South of Ireland. My parents were farming folk who had set up a public house and grocery store in the town and were determined to progress in business and to give the large family a good start in life. My father hailed from Monalour, near the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains. He had worked within the precinct of Mt Mellaray monastery for some twenty seven years and then moved into the town having previously purchased a farm at Kilbree about 2 miles away.

My mother came from Glenshask a rural area 3 miles from Lismore, her maiden name was Heelan and her people had farmed in that locality for a long number of years.

I remember my first day at school. I was only 3 years of age. My mother being a conscientious woman believed that directly when one of her children attained the age he or she should attend the Covenant school and come within the disciplinary orbit of the Mother Superior Mother Shanrilans and Mother Vincent.

I was a fairly good pupil and progressed. Then one day the terrible news came that those of 8 years and over were to go to the boys national school at the other end of the town. I had not yet reached the age even though I was in the Eight Year Class and I was heartbroken to see all my friends go. I was determined to break guard to and when they had gone I ran past Mother Vincent and took my place in the line of pupils which were to join the new school of Dick Collender and F.X. O’Leary.

The deceit worked for a while and after a few days I remember F.X.O’Leary coming into the classroom and announcing that I was to go back to the Covenant School. I returned in humiliation and had to make the best of it, but only for a short time. I was informed by the Rev mother a month or so later that I was to join the boy’s school. I proceeded there with a light heart and was installed with my former classmates as a pupil of late Dick Collender.

The school was an Irish Slum type building. Looking back I think of it with anger and disgust. Two rooms ill-lighted, ill-furnished and poorly heated. The larger one was presided over by F.X.O’Leary (happily still with us) and in the smaller one that hard hitting pedagogue Dick Collender reigned supreme. He typified the master of the Irish educational system. He believed in the cane as a cure for all and he jonacted, belted and crushed the knowledge into the unreceptive craniums of his unfortunate pupils.

He had certain basic principles of teaching which he strictly adhered to. A pupil had always to not a John Mitchel N Pen the handle of which had to be pointing to the school clock in the corner during a writing exercise. Woe betides the transgressor of this role – a sharp wallop of a thick rod across the knuckles reminded him of this unconscious departure from the laid down procedure. A schoolboy had also to keep the top of his “a”’s flat or risk the physical fury of his instructor.

Old Dick liked to dogmatise on certain favourite aspects of Ireland’s past history. He used to declare with gust “Long ago Ireland was known as the land of Saints and Scholars, today it is the Land of Thiefs and Robbers”. He had a shop in the Main St of the town which supplied the population with an assortment of goods including the John Mitchell N Pens. He was also sacristan of the local Catholic Church and combined the duties of the bell ringer in the one place and ear ringer in the other with equanimity.

In those days the school manager was the parish priest and Canon Whelan acted in this capacity. A big, kindly, Tipperary man he took an active interest in the school and visited us regularly to test our Christian doctrine and to try to instil into our young minds the teachings of the master which he himself followed to faithfully and unostentatiously. To the altar boys, of which I was one, he gave an annual party at his house there he provided us with the best of food and loaded us with presents on our departure.

R.J.Collender was a prolific writer of letters and I often watched from my bedroom window across the road as an docs burdened postman Jimmy Meade shot letter after letter through the letter box of his house – replies from his farians correspondents from many parts of the globe. It is easy to understand his rather harsh painstaking attitude towards the pupils in the matter of handwriting as his own was beautiful, rapid correct and clear, and no doubt his communications to excited friends were just a labour of love.

Some few weeks prior to St Patricks Day all pupils were exhorted to collect as many shamrocks as possible so that he could dispatch it to his numerous friends. On one occasion, after school hours he accompanied us all to fields in Carrigeen to collect the precious trefoil and pack it in small cardboard boxes which he had bought for the purpose. We all derived fiendish pleasure in nearly filling the boxes with anything approaching shamrock and then putting the genuine article in the very top. R.J was blissfully ignorant of the deception and praised our efforts.

At this time an event occurred at home which threw a locality not far from home suddenly into the public glare. It became known as the mystery of the missing postman and concerned the disappearance of the Stradbally postman Larry Griffin on Christmas Eve 1929. The following is a copy of an article which I took some years ago on this and which gives the relevant facts of the strange episode NB have record article in full.

Collender was nearing the twilight of his teaching career and whispers were about that he was to retire. When this happened the business people of town, all of whom had previously been pupils of his presented him with a radio – (a novel contraption in those days) whilst the schoolboys gave him an ink stand. I was amazed to read in a caption under his photograph in the xxx xxxx Examiner that he had been teaching for exactly 50 years. No tears were shed by us at his departure from the school but I remember feeling rather elated when he gave a few brief words of farewell . The realisation that a dominant character had passed and that a new and vastly different era in the school was about to begin.

However, a few days after his retirement he, seeing me standing at the door of the pub, called me over to his house. He showed the radio and invited me to read some of the books in his impressive library. I chose one by Michael Cavanagh a native of Cappoquin who had been a leading light in the Young Ireland Movement. Old RJ was pleased and impressed that I had chosen this and before I left handed me a copy of a poem by Cavanagh called ‘The Fair of Affane’ which I reproduce here.

R.J was succeeded by Moss Brennock from Dungarven. He was thick set in appearance and about 26 years of age and had a marked lump, a legacy of an earlier motor cycle accident. He had connections with the town. His Uncle Jack and sisters Mary and Brigde had a butchers shop in the town and the family were indeed regarded as being of the old and honoured stock of lost Waterford. I well remember his father the late Mick Brennock of Dungarven addressing a political meeting in Cappoquin and even in my very young days I was struck by his bluntness and straight forward manner of speaking.

I did not have very much direct contact with Moss Brennock in the inner sanct – as my time of ‘apprenticeship’ was completed on his appointment and I moved to the large room and came under the watchful eye of F.X.O’Leary. However I had many opportunities to observe the teaching methods. Moss? Brennock as he frequently taught in the big room during the absence of F.X. He was a fluent Gaelic speaker and a rather severe master. I often watched, with awe, his demonstrations of force hand drawing on the blackboard and observed his new and vastly different method of tuition. If Old Dick had been an archaic John L Sullivan of education here indeed was a John Corbett. Where Collender bludgeoned and frightened he prodded and almost succeeded, and seemed dedicated to his job in a much less violent way that his predecessors.

The time had however come for my move to the large outer room of F.X.O’Leary. Whereas R.J was of low stature with a fiercely determined and furious method of teaching, his counterpart here big and expansive – a man of marked intellect and understanding.

I liked F.X from the start. Whereas Collender had been the gaoler here indeed was the Probation Officer. My life assumed a rather smooth path with the occasional touch of the rod which O’Leary was always reluctant to use. Over the years I looked back on the assembly of pupils in those days :- Walsh of Bohila? Lesby of Salterbridge, Dave Brown and Paddy O’Driscoll of Cappoquin – the latter known as Hady Boy and in my young days exceed all other pupils in the confined sphere of the Cappoquin Boys’ National School Studies.
My life with O’Leary progressed along a rather uneventful path. He was content to get his regular glass of water from the spring at Twybog whilst I was prepared (END)


William O’Donnell

©2013 The estate of William O’Donnell (Chiswick)