The Old School

By Michael Boyle

It wasn’t so much that I went to school, but rather that school came to me. In every single waking moment of my life school surrounded me. I never could escape from it. I breathed school air. I heard school sounds. I saw school everywhere. I felt the school pumping in my blood. How could this be?

For thirty years between 1923 and 1956 Dreenan School in County Derry, had two teachers from within Lavey Parish. Would you believe that both these teachers lived right next door to us? A field length away lived the Junior Assistant Miss Teresa Mooney, while my aunt Margaret (Maggie) Boyle, the school principal lived across the lane. In a strange way school and family always overlapped or intersected. If you acted up in school, you were immediately in trouble at home. As a young child I sensed the difficulty of not knowing where each started or ended.

I saw my teachers every single day. It might be Sunday Mass at Mayogall Chapel, shopping in Maghera, card games at Mooney’s on a Friday night or even just strolling outside their houses. My aunt Maggie was a fluent Irish speaker and on Monday night taught adult Irish classes in her house. She even wrote names of some of her pupils in the old Irish language script on the school register.

 Both these teachers were unmarried and devoted their lives to teaching. They gave heroic service working in sub-standard conditions. They were strict and sometimes fussy: an example was the emphasis on personal hygiene. Each day before class both teachers did an inspection of our hands, front and back. You had to have a clean handkerchief at all times. Great care was given to check that behind your ears was properly washed. Not only did your face have to be washed but your hair needed to be combed. North Americans always talk about watching movies and we had movies too. But you would not like our kind of ‘movies’, as they were any tiny lice that would move in long hair on the top of your head.

My five brothers and two sisters all attended this school. We have accumulated a storehouse of memories of the social history of the school. When we gather we share countless stories, yarns and happenings. For many years I constantly talked on and on about having a school reunion. Brian Mulholland inspired me to keep this dream alive as they had a great school reunion in nearby Ballymacpeake. Nothing ever seemed to happen about a reunion until May 2001 when an energetic committee organized a fantastic school reunion and invited me to be the guest speaker.

I paid a visit back to the old school just as it closed and I could see work had started on converting the old building into a modern residence. Construction had been ongoing and major repairs were still being done to the building. New wood paneling was being installed and the smell of new paint filled the air. The wooden partition which divided our one-room school had been removed and gone were the ancient double desks.

I left the building by the old rusty iron gate. Then I almost buckled over in fright because I saw lying on the ground a treasure trove of school documents. Some could not fit into the garbage bin and large school registers protruded. They were dry and all in good condition. I had rescued School Inspectors Reports, roll books, attendance books, and plan books going back to 1890. I had stumbled on riches. I picked them up and I studied these documents in detail. Actually I saw a register listing number 27 for a Miceal O’Baoill, who started school at age three on Monday August 11 1947.

Would you believe the complete history of the school was waiting by my feet? Think of all the hundreds of people who attended this school. Can you just imagine how remote the odds for someone like me to find this material? People ask why these items were destined for the dump and I can only tell them I happened to be there at the right place at the right time.

I will share some of these snippets along with my own school memories. I won’t merely tell you about them. Because I want you to smell the smoke from the stove, see the frogspawn on the windowsill, breathe in the aroma from honeysuckle flowers. Come and sit down with me in the crowded classroom of a remote one-room school on the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains.

All this happened to a fellah, who had the school come to him not once but twice. And you know the school has never left me, even after all these years.

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Michael Boyle is a native of Lavey, Derry, Ireland who emigrated to Newfoundland in 1967. He is one of Tinteán‘s regular contributors, and is an award-winning writer. He was awarded ‘The Arts and Letters’ prize for poetry in 2014 by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. He currently lives in St John’s N, where he conducts a historical walking tour.