By Jack Holland
I must confess that I hated school. I put up a brave front pretending that I didn’t. But the truth was that from the day I entered primary school in 1952 until the day I walked out of St. Malachy’s College some 14 years later, hardly an hour went by that I did not regret my misfortune in being there.
This was far from unusual. Indeed, among my contemporaries, no one I knew who felt otherwise about the education system under which they spent their precious years of learning. Liking school was unheard of, in fact. And anyone who did like school was immediately held in contempt as a teacher’s pet or a swot.
Actually, I found myself in something of a fix because I loved learning, I loved reading, and I loved writing. I should, by all accounts, have been a model pupil. But I wasn’t. I found school difficult, hateful and boring, in various measures according to the place and time and, of course, the teacher. The teacher usually held the key.
I was fortunate in that my very first experience of school in Seymour Street in the Markets area of Belfast was fairly pleasant — except for the fact that I didn’t want to be there at all. It was around the corner from where I lived. My grandfather worked as a caretaker for a carting company and we lived on the premises in the large yard where the carts were kept and the horses stabled.
The headmaster was extremely helpful and even allowed my mother to spend part of my first day at school with me. She sat with me behind the desk, and I fell asleep eventually. When I awoke she had gone. I was in a class of about 40 or 50 kids, not one of whom I knew. Apparently, I insisted on leaving and had to be restrained.
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After my first lunch break at home, when the time came to go back to school I disappeared. My mother found me hiding, buried in the bales of hay near the stables.
Seymour Street school was unusual for a Catholic school in that it was mixed, with both girls and boys, but on separate floors. The headmaster was very gentle. Years later, I discovered him working in a sweetie shop on the Grosvenor Road. Maybe he was just too nice to survive in our school system. Things might have turned out differently if I had stayed in Seymour Street. Alas, we moved and I ended up attending St. Gall’s Christian Brothers’ school behind Clonard Monastery on the borderland between the Shankill and the Falls.
Apart from a brief spell with a woman teacher, I spent almost my entire time at St. Gall’s in the same class under the rule of the same Christian Brother, to whom we gave the nickname Walking Lamppost. He earned it being tall and skinny with a long scraggy neck and a prominent Adam’s apple, which went up and down like a yo-yo.
He was probably the first person I ever met who came from somewhere other than Belfast. He was a Kerryman, and a fierce Irish nationalist who loved hurling and Gaelic football. His advocacy of these sports managed to instill in me a hatred of both. He also loved Woodbine cigarettes, and it was a sign of his favor when he asked you to go and get him a packet. He never asked me, but he did succeed in giving me a loathing for smoking which endured all my life.
He was especially brutal to his pupils, using a variety of weapons with which to torture us: leather straps, canes, rulers and on at least one occasion, a hurling stick. I used to look forward desperately to Friday afternoons when the Walking Lamppost took the St. Gall’s team out for hurling practice. Those of us in the class who were not part of the team were placed in the care of Brother Joseph, who was a white-haired, doddering old fellow, half-blind and deaf. He loved astronomy and enjoyed nothing more than talking about the constellations. His kindness worked wonders and soon I became an astronomer.
Going to St. Thomas’s Secondary Intermediate School in 1958 added another element to the hatred I felt for school. To the customary brutality the staff inflicted was now added the violence of the students. It was difficult to decide whom to fear most — your teachers or your classmates. Most of the youths that went there from ages 11 to 16 were from some of the poorest parts of the Falls area: Ballymurphy, the Whiterock Road, Turf Lodge, and the Grosvenor Road. They were mainly killing time before they went on the dole, or to England or joined the British army.
Sammy, the vice principal, was a vicious rotund little man who would strap you if your shoes weren’t polished or if he caught you with your hands in your pockets. The principal was Michael McLaverty, one of Ireland’s best short story writers, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I think it was through McLaverty that a young man just out of Queen’s called Seamus Heaney was recruited to teach us English.
I was finally kicked out of St. Thomas’ for being rebellious and after six months working on a milk float I found myself a pupil of Belfast’s most prestigious Catholic grammar school, St. Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road. How my uncle Tom, who brought me to meet the principal, convinced him to admit me I will never know. But he did. Fortunately, I had only two years to do before going to university, so it was fairly tolerable. At age 16 or 17 beatings became fewer. But the atmosphere remained oppressive and dour, perhaps thanks to the number of priests in the school. Large numbers of celibates impart a kind of chill to the air which is not conducive, in my experience, to the process of learning. They also tend to vent all their frustrations on their helpless charges.
I think it was one of the happiest days in my life when in 1966 I walked out of St. Malachy’s, never to return again.