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The Path of My Life


The Path of My Life

This is a revised and expanded English-language translation of my original autobiography in Irish, Bíonn Siúlach Scéalach, published by Coiscéim 2016.

Seosamh Ó Cuinneagáin

Copyright © Seosamh Ó Cuinneagáin 2018

First published in Ireland by

The Limerick Writers’ Centre

12 Barrington Street Limerick, Ireland

Limerick, Ireland

All rights reserved

No part of this publication may be reprinted or reproduced

Or utilised in electronic, mechanical or other means,

Now known or hereafter invented,

Including photographing and recording,

Or any information storage or retrieval systems,

Without permission in writing from the author, Dr. Seosamh Ó Cuinneagáin.

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Book Design: Lotte Bender

Cover Design: Lotte Bender

Managing Editor: Dominic Taylor

Some of the names in this memoir have been changed

ISBN 978-1-9998614-4-5

ACIP catalogue number for this publication is available from The British Library


I dedicate my autobiography, “Traces,” to The Street Children in the slums of Kolkata in India to whom I shall donate the proceeds from the sale of the book towards their education and welfare.


The demand for an English-language expanded translation, entitled, “Traces” is based on my original autobiography in Irish, Bíonn Siúlach Scéalach, came not only from my relatives and friends in Limerick, Kilkenny, Dublin and Wicklow but also from the general public here in Ireland, the United States of America, Britain, India and Germany. It is for this reason that I have decided to write a revised and expanded translation of my autobiography in English so that as many non-Irish speakers as possible would have access to my lifelong story. There is also a demand from my colleagues and friends in Germany for the autobiography to be translated into German.

Firstly, I would like to record a special word of thanks to the following authors: An Canónach Mícheál Ó Siochrú, An tAthair Micheál de Liostún, Mr. Joseph Scallon and Mr. Jim Doherty for their literary expertise and advice in the writing of this book. I am also indebted to “The Limerick Writers’ Centre” and in particular to Mr. Dominic Taylor for his expert advice and support. A very special word of thanks goes to my learned colleague and friend, Mr. Jim O’ Farrell the Artist, for launching the book on my behalf. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to the Board of Management and Principal, Mr Tom Prendergast, of Ardscoil Rís, North Circular Road Limerick for affording me the opportunity to launch the book in the school.

I would like to thank our children: Brian, Sinéad and Fearghal who individually and collectively endured my preoccupation without complaint and in particular Brian who helped me with my computer skills whenever technical difficulties arose during the writing of this autobiography.

But my greatest debt of gratitude is due to my wife, Jean, who proofread the manuscript and scrutinised my idiomatic usage of English and who also unerringly identified weaknesses and omissions in expressions which was indispensable and central to all areas of the text. I would also like to thank her for her unflagging support, encouragement and patience, love and devotion I would never have begun, much less completed this opus magnum what would otherwise have been a much more onerous task. Jean is my goalkeeper, fullback, midfielder and above all else my attacking full-forward line. To her, I owe more than words can express, mo ghrá (love).

“Anois ba mhaith liom bualadh leis

Nuair nach féidir é.

Ó dheas a ghabh sé an mhaidin sin,

Aneas ní thiocfaidh sé.”

From Rian na gCos (Footprints) by the great poet, the late Seán Ó Ríordáin (1917-1977).

To live is to leave traces

Quotation from the German philosopher,

the late Walter Benjamin (1892-1940).


I My Childhood Days

II Attending the Primary School

III Farming and Machine Operator

IV The Defence Forces

V The Salesian College and the Christian Brothers

VI University College, Cork and the Poet, Seán Ó Ríordáin

VII The Ó Mathúna Family in the West-Kerry Gaeltacht

VIII Working and Hurling in America

IX Jean, Myself and Family

X Teaching in the Secondary School

XI Learning Languages while on Pilgrimages with my Family

XII Studying German in University College, Cork and in Berlin

XIII Intensive Study of German in Ireland and in Germany

XIV A Doctorate in Irish and in German

XV Teaching in Mary Immaculate College/University of Limerick

XVI Voluntary work in Africa and in Kolkata, India

XVII Some Observations and Reflections


About the Limerick writers’ Centre


My Childhood Days

Little did I think, when I was growing up in Seskin in the parish of Lisdowney in north Kilkenny, that I would travel a long and arduous journey through life from east to west and west to east. Finally, I work as a volunteer, teaching English to the Street Children and helping the sick and dying in the slums of Lusaka in Africa including the slums of Kolkata in India. We really never know what God has in store for us in life.

The following is my life story: I was born in the year of 1942 during World War II when the Battle of Stalingrad in Russia was at its crucial stage which ultimately determined the outcome of the war. Seskin is a beautiful, picturesque townland with rolling hills that is approximately three kilometres from the village of Lisdowney itself. The village of Lisdowney is situated approximately six kilometres from the village of Ballyragget, seven kilometres from the village of Freshford and twenty-four kilometres from Kilkenny City itself. Lisdowney is a very small village which consists of a church, one public house, a small number of residential properties and a fine hurling pith. The local people do their shopping in the village of Ballyragget or in Kilkenny itself where there is a wider choice of goods.

There is a huge creamery, called Glanbia, situated in the parish of Lisdowney today that employs thousands of people worldwide. The Glanbia sponsorship of the Kilkenny hurling teams is one of the longest running Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) partnerships as well as being one of the most successful to date. Agriculture, which consists of both tillage and dairy farming, is the main source of livelihood for the people in the parish of Lisdowney and its environs. This agricultural and GAA setting had, undoubtedly, a profound influence on my whole outlook on life even to this very day to the extent that I have never forgotten my roots.

Lisdowney, like all other parishes in County Kilkenny, has a long hurling tradition prior to the foundation of the GAA in 1884 in Hayes Hotel in Thurles, County Tipperary. One of the most renowned Kilkenny hurlers ever to play in Croke Park, when I was growing up there, was the late Ted Carroll. Ted, who was a true artist of the game, hurled with the local club and it was a pleasure to watch him play. Ted ticked all the boxes of a hurling superstar and he soon became a household name and legend in the footsteps of the great Lory Meagher from Tullaroan. Ted won many All-Ireland medals with Kilkenny both at minor and at senior level including an All-Ireland Colleges as captain of St. Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. We all admired Ted as he was our idol. He died at a very young age and as a mark of respect to his memory, the GAA erected a new stand in Kilkenny’s Nowlan Park, called the “Ted Carroll Stand.” He had a huge influence on us as hurlers and for that reason we all wanted to emulate his achievements both on and off the field and, finally, in Croke Park someday. Hurling, fishing for eels, hunting rabbits and farm work were our main pastimes. Not only was attending Mass on Sundays part of our Christian duties but it was also a social occasion for the people of the parish to chat among themselves after Mass about farming and hurling. It is generally acknowledged that hurling is part of the DNA of Kilkenny hurlers.

Perhaps, Henry Shefflin was one of the greatest hurlers of the modern game ever to play in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. There was no avoiding hurling when we were growing up as it was part and parcel of our culture. We talked about hurling, morning noon and night, seven days of the week; indeed, we were obsessed with the game. It is said that there are two religions in Kilkenny, Christianity and hurling respectively. There was always a great rivalry between Kilkenny and the great Wexford team in the days of the mighty-Rackard Brothers from Killanne. I well remember John Moran, a friend of mine, telling me many years ago that he was in Croke Park with his cousin, Liam, from Wexford at a Leinster final between Kilkenny and Wexford. Being a great Kilkenny man from Freshford, John asked his cousin from Wexford, “Well Liam”, said John, “Will the Wexford-pike men beat Kilkenny today?” “Ah John,” said Liam, “when we gave the Kilkenny men the pikes in 1798, some of them didn’t used them against the English redcoats.” Wexford people never forgot that historical event.

My father, Joe, and my mother, Margaret, got married in St. Brigid’s Church in the parish of Lisdowney. They lived with my grandfather at first until they acquired a small little house with a patch of land of their own on the Ballagh, overlooking the Lisdowney countryside. This house consisted of only two small rooms and a kitchen with very small windows, so space and light was at a premium. The ordinary people lived in very small houses at that time whereas the landlords lived in their elegant mansions on their elaborate estates. The poor people had no electricity, running water, not to mention central heating. There were five of us in family: John, Noel, Margaret, Breeda and myself. I was the oldest and Breeda was the youngest. Both of my parents passed away many years ago, may God have mercy on their souls. This was certainly the end of an era that I shall never forget.

My parents were only fourteen years old when they themselves left school. Very few children went on to second-level education at that time, not to mention third-level education. They worked with the local farmers to make a living when they completed their primary education as that was the norm at the time. My people had very little property; all the land they possessed was enough grass for a cow and a few goats to provide milk for domestic use. My parents also had poultry and pigs. There was always some misfortune down on them to prevent them from making progress in life. The ordinary people had a tough life at that time as they could not afford any of the modern conveniences at the time.

I can well remember an old-paraffin oil lamp hanging on the side of the wall that gave a glimmer of light to illuminate the small kitchen. The cooking and baking was done on the open fire. Firewood was the main source of fuel to heat the house and there was a black-iron crane hanging over the fire to boil the kettle for the tea and for baking bread and cooking meals for the entire household.

We had cats and dogs around the fire during the long winter nights, particularly during the cold frosty weather. The Jack-Russell terriers were of a belligerent nature and prone to challenging each other for the dominant positions in front of the warm fire in the kitchen. The terriers were very faithful, obedient and good-natured watchdogs but they had ferocious tempers and were a force to be reckoned with at times. We had a great respect for the dogs as they were very useful and skilful at catching the rabbits. We used to go hunting after school in the evenings and on Sundays after Mass for one of our main sources of food. It was not every day that we could afford to purchase meat from the butcher. At that time, the rabbits were very plentiful. I felt pity at times for the poor rabbits when they were being killed by the terriers but as David Attenborough would say, “death to one means life to another.” These are the laws of nature fulfilling its role in the general scheme of things. Our very survival depended on the dogs and on the rabbits. The rabbits made a lovely meal with mashed potatoes, cabbage and a mug of buttermilk, particularly after a long day’s work in the meadow, making hay in the blazing-summer sun or picking potatoes in the autumn after school in the evenings. Most poor people in the country lived on rabbits but the rabbits were almost exterminated in the nineteen fifties by that dreadful disease called the myxomatosis. We had to be more resourceful when the rabbits were exterminated. We kept hens for the eggs and we also fattened and killed a couple of pigs every year. We used to look forward to killing the pigs for the delicious pork steaks. We never had to be told to eat our food because we were very glad to get it. As the saying goes, “hunger is a great sauce.” Since we had no refrigeration in those days, we used to immerse the meat in salt to preserve it for human consumption for the rest of the year.

When I recall those days, we had to work very hard to eke out a frugal existence and to live on the bare minimum. We worked on our patch of land from one end of the year to the other end with very little fruits for our labours. The ordinary poor people, like ourselves, accepted this way of life and trusted in God and hoped for the best. It was our indomitable faith and trust in God that carried us through these tough times. I well remember the end of World War II when the emergency rationing was in force. Each family was only allowed a certain amount of tea and paraffin oil per week. It was extremely difficult to acquire more than your ration unless you were prepared to purchase items away above the odds on the black market but we had no money to make such purchases. There was no class distinction among the poor people themselves during that time. The people helped each other during these difficult times to ensure that everybody had just about enough to eat during and after the war. In short, we had to be realistic and to live very much within our means. We had to cut our cloth according to our measurements. There were no hand-outs from the government of the day; therefore, one had to be resilient and resourceful in every sense of the word.

We had no bicycles and certainly no motor car except a donkey and cart to fetch firewood from the forest and other agricultural produces from the land. The only means of going to Mass or to shop was on foot. It was standard practice at that time to walk to your destinations. People were extremely fit and healthy due to the hard work on the land from morning until night, 365 days in the year. Our health was our wealth. There was no such thing as a five-day week job or, indeed, annual holidays. Such things did not exist. We never hear of such luxuries and there was no need to visit a gymnasium to lose weight nor did we hear of the word gymnasium as it was not part of our daily vocabulary. There was no such thing as obesity in those days whereas today it is a major health problem in our society due to the lack of exercise and proper diet.

We had a different mind-set and we relied very much on our own survival instincts and strategies to get through the difficult times. The people possessed a certain mental toughness due to the harsh, physical and working environment. They exhibited these traits again and again, particularly in times of great adversity. There was no industrial employment during the war years except working on the land growing crops and producing food. Our parents told us that the working and living conditions were far worse in the twenties and thirties after Ireland had secured her political independence from Britain in 1921. These economic problems continued right into the early nineteen sixties.

We saw no cars in those days as we lived approximately three kilometres from the main road to Kilkenny. There were even very few cars or trucks on the main roads in Ireland due to the shortage of fuel during and immediately after the war. This was also the pre-television era when the majority of the rural, peasant population of the country did not even have a radio or “wireless” as it was called at the time.

Hurling was a high profile pastime at the time and it is still to this day. It was, therefore, no surprise that any time when Kilkenny were hurling we used to walk approximately two kilometres across the fields to O’ Mahoney’s house to listen to the late Michael O’ Hehir’s commentaries on the inter-county hurling matches. I can still remember to this day some of the phrases that were part and parcel of Michael’s repertoire on match commentaries such as, “socks down around his ankles,” “he bends, he lifts, he strikes.” “There is a schamozzle in the square” and “the game is still young.” Five of our relations, the Byrne brothers, from the Dicksboro club in Kilkenny, won hurling All-Irelands with Kilkenny which made it all the more interesting to listen to Michael’s wonderful-match broadcasts. Indeed, he had many more such beautiful turn of phrases and the colloquial expressions such as the great “Ringey Boy” of Cork and “The Rattler Byrne” of the great Tipperary team of the forties and fifties.

Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh came on the scene in 1949, commentating in Irish on the Railway Cup finals on St. Patrick’s Day in Croke Park. Micheál spoke in beautiful West-Kerry Irish and I often said to myself that “I wish I could speak fluent Irish like Micheál.” His famous expression during the match commentaries were as follows: “Tá an sliotar ‘mithe thairis a’ trasnán” (the ball has gone over the bar). If there was an off-the-ball incident, Micheál used to say, “Ní fhaca cad a tharla, bhíos ag féachaint ar an sliotar” (I did not see what happened, I was following the sliotar). With regard to the Irish, I became reasonably fluent in the primary school as I had a good Kerry teacher. Those were the innocent days that will never come again.

At that time, there was a wet battery and a dry battery for the radio since there was no rural electrification. It was important to have the batteries charged for the hurling matches. There used to be so many people listening to the matches in O’ Mahoney’s house that some of the people had to sit or stand outside in the yard since there was insufficient space in the kitchen. That was our way of life and we very happy with it.

Since my parents were unable to eke out an existence from the small patch of land they had, my father had to work for a farmer, called Tom Carroll, in the vicinity to make a living. My father was an all-rounder and a good ploughman with horses. Ploughing was an art in itself, hence we have the annual Ploughing Championship today in Ireland in which many people compete with each other for the prestigious prize to progress to the World Ploughing Championship. My father, practically, ran the farm for Tom Carroll. He had years of experience and he was an expert in dealing with livestock to the extent that he had a veterinary knowledge of animal welfare. Farming was a six-day week job from dawn until dark. Sometimes they had to work on Sundays during the harvesting time, especially when there used to be dreadfully wet summers. At that time, the church used to grant special permission to the farmers to work on Sundays to save the harvest when the summers were dreadfully bad. The people were morally obliged to observe the Sabbath Day by abstaining from all unnecessary servile work. Farmers were, of course, always allowed to milk the cows and fodder the livestock on Sundays.

My father was very interest in hurling, politics, traditional music, the Irish language and song. He was not a fluent speaker of the Irish language as the language was not being taught when he was attending the primary school but he was very much in favour of the restoration of the language. He always told us, when we were growing up, that the Irish language would survive if the people and the political powers that be make it their business to revive it as a living language in the same way as the Israelis revived Hebrew as a living language since the foundation of the Jewish State in 1948. A nation without its language is a nation without a soul. He also stressed that the most important things in the life of a nation was to have the political and economic freedom to conduct its own affairs. If a country has not the political freedom to run and control its own political, economic and cultural affairs, then it is not a nation. He was a nationalist to the core and had a great respect for Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Dan Breen and many other leaders in the War of Independence.

He remembered the Black and Tans when he was going to school and the terrible fear and murder that they perpetrated throughout the land during the War of Independence. The Tans frequently searched his parent’s house and terrorised the people in the locality. The local people provided save houses for the Irish volunteers who were on the run and who risked life and limb and sacrificed everything to secure Irish freedom for successive generations. I asked him a question one day as to why the houses in the locality had such small windows. He responded by telling me the following story about the landlords of the locality. The poor people had to live in small houses with thatched roofs and small windows. The windows were so small that very little light entered the houses. If the tenants wished to increase the size of the windows, then the landlords would increase the rent. The poor tenants were in no position to pay higher rent since they could scarcely afford to pay the existing rent. Hence they had to be satisfied with their small windows and remain submissive to their oppressive masters. The landlords, who were aided and abetted by the British establishment, were evicting the tenants out on to the side of the road for non-payment of high rent. Some of these landlords were absentee landlords and they spent most of their time living the high life, banqueting in high society in Britain while the poor Irish tenants were dying of hunger and diseases. Many of the landlords’ corrupt stewards were worse.

My grandfather, who was affectionately known as Jack, told me a story about some of the poor people when he himself was growing up at the end of the nineteenth century. The local landlord evicted the people out on to the roadside one Christmas morning, men, women and children for non-payment of high rent. Many of these poor people died a horrible death during evictions from exposure at the height of the cold-weather conditions during the Great Famine. These unscrupulous landlords implemented unjust British laws for their own advantage to exact the maximum amount of rent at the expense of the poor tenants. It was little wonder that the peasants were revolting against the landlords which became known as the Land War. The landlords had the support of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) to crush any rebellion against their authority and exploitation. When Ireland received her independence under duress from Britain in 1921, many of these landlords fled to Britain because their safety and security could no longer be guaranteed. As you can see, I was learning my history long before I commenced school at all. These history lessons made an indelible mark on me and they had a huge influence on the rest of my life to the extent that the poor people in the Third World today have a special place in my heart. I shall comment on the poor people in the Third World in a later chapter. The reason why my own people were so impoverished, when I was growing up, was the result of repression at the hands of the ruthless landlords. That dark era of our terrible history is behind us now, thank God, and suffice to say that everything has but a time.

My mother, Margaret, had a sad and difficult life when she was growing up. She was only ten years old when her own mother died of kidney failure at the age of thirty-seven years. My mother had two sisters and one brother. Her twin-sister, Bride, also died at the same age of thirty-seven years with kidney failure. This kidney disease was incurable at the time. There were no kidney-dialysis machines to prolong the lives of the suffering patients, with the result that many young people succumbed to this terrible disease. People were not as health conscience about their wellbeing in those days as the people of today but medical science has progressed much further since then. In addition to that, the ordinary people had neither the money nor the resources to attend a consultant for specialised treatment and neither was there much thought given to it. My late aunt, Babs, took good care of us while my mother was working outside the home at times. Jack, my grandfather, told me that people only visited a doctor if there were close to death. My mother was an ardent supporter of camogie, hurling and the Irish language. The Irish language was being taught when she was attending Lisdowney Primary School. She acquired a high standard of Irish during her time at school. My mother and her siblings had to take care of themselves and they had to perform the usual chores both in and outside the house while their father, Jack, was working as a herdsman for Paul Murphy. Jack knew as much as a veterinary surgeon about cattle, sheep, pigs and horses. He would most certainly have been an invaluable asset to any farmer. He also had a small farm of land, adjoining Paul Murphy’s farm, on which he kept cattle and sheep where he also grew vegetables for domestic consumption.

Our parents taught us our prayers and the Catechism with particular emphasis on the belief in Almighty God. This was the bedrock upon which I based my life since then, and no doubt, it has stood the test of time, particularly in times of trials and tribulations. We went to confession once a month and we fasted from Saturday evening until after receiving Holy Communion on Sunday morning. The rosary was recited every night before retiring to bed. These were the religious customs at the time and I shall adhere to them until the day I pass away into the next world.

There is an over emphasis on the material things in the modern-consumer, celebrity culture of today which is leading to isolation, loneliness and high rates of unhappiness, particularly among the very young. Consumerism and materialism will not buy happiness and peace of mind as real happiness can only be found in communion with God. The children of today are exposed to all kinds of pressures from the slave-minded mentality of the consumer-ridden society and certain negative anti-Christian forces in society. There is little doubt that the cultural sanctification of consumerism is creating a deep existential void that cannot be filled, whatever the degree of material indulgence and private gratification. Sadly, the children of today are living in a world of rampant individualism of the “me generation.”

While my parents had only received the most basic education in the primary school, yet they had a very clear concept of what life was all about and, no doubt, they instilled these Christian values in us. One could say that they had practical common sense in that they gave us a good upbringing and a good grounding for life which kept us on the straight and narrow, a lesson that we never forgot. We lived a peaceful existence and helped our neighbours in times of need. It is little wonder that we had peace of mind because we accepted the will of God when dealing with the problems of life, though it was not always easy at times. It is fair to say that life is a constant struggle and we have to carry our cross just like our Lord Jesus Christ has done before us.

We were always kept very busy, sowing the vegetables in the springtime and harvesting them in the autumn. We had to cut the hay with a scythe which used to be backbreaking work on hot-summer days. We transported home firewood from the local forest on the donkey and cart which was our main source of fuel for heating and cooking. There were no bogs in the vicinity to harvest turf. Occasionally, we used to travel to Castlecomer by donkey and cart to fetch some coal where there was a coal mining industry in progress at that time but since 1969 the coalmining industry had ceased. Since I was the eldest in the family, I had to do most of the daily chores in the yard with the animals. I had to fetch the goats from the hills and milk them with my mother before going to school. I also had to walk about three kilometres from the Ballagh across the fields to Seskin to assist my grandfather, Jack, with his work. I used to cut firewood for the fire, milk the cows and feed the calves while he was out on the farm herding and foddering the cattle for Paul Murphy. My grandfather, Jack, worked for Paul Murphy for over sixty-five years right up until his death in 1965. He loved the land and farming.

While life was harsh at that time, yet we had a good time out in the clean, healthy, fresh air working on the land and tending to the animals. When I reflect on my childhood days, we had the world of freedom as children. This same freedom does not exist in today’s world. We were safe in the countryside and free from violence of every kind. We were spared the downside of the internet and television. There was no need to lock our door at night. This was the age of childhood innocence. Hurling, hunting rabbits and fishing were our preoccupations in the precincts of nature and often we used to listen to the waters rolling down from the hill streams with soft inland mummer.

Even though the landscape in the parish of Lisdowney has not changed much since I was growing up there but the mentality and mind-set of the people themselves have changed considerably due to the technological advances and the adverse influence of the mass media of the modern-affluent society. The younger people of today have no concept of the hard, physical work we had to endure and undertake in the nineteen forties when we were growing up. Ireland was emerging at that time from the Economic War that existed between Britain and Ireland since the thirties. Britain refused to import Irish beef due to non-payment of the land annuities owed to them but Ireland responded in kind by imposing tariffs on British coal. However, the Economic War ended in 1938. There was also a shortage of coal during the war years as Ireland’s own production levels at Castlecomer in north Kilkenny and at Ballingarry in north Tipperary were insufficient to meet both industrial and domestic demands. Ireland was very much depended upon British coal for the production of electricity but Britain herself needed all her own coal to produce military hardware for the war effort. Electricity was in short supply in the towns and cities in Ireland but it did not impact on us in the least as we had no rural electrification at that time. The then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil Government, embarked on a policy of making Ireland self-sufficient by harvesting the peat bogs for the production of electricity. The government also introduced compulsory tillage to produce adequate food. The steam trains used turf and logs instead of coal to keep the transport system moving. This government policy paid dividends in the long term that made the country self-sufficient and less depended on imports. The war years were a blessing in disguise in one way for Ireland since Britain baldly needed large imports of beef, agricultural and dairy products including rabbits which Ireland exported in large quantities to save Britain’s starving population. While Ireland was officially neutral, yet she exported large quantities of food to Britain. However, the Irish Government did not show any overt preference for any of the belligerent forces in the war. This is partly because de Valera had to maintain national unity which meant accommodating the large swathe of Irish society that rejected anything to do with the British, some of whom admired the Germans who had supplied arms to “Óglaigh na hÉireann” (The Irish Volunteers) for the Easter Rising of 1916.

I can still remember the year of the big snowfall and the terrible blizzards of 1947 which are very much engraved upon my memory. The snow and the shrieking beast from the east was quite severe. The snow fell intermittently until a blizzard set in with strong, cold winds and extremely low temperatures. The blizzards were driven by an east wind that swept the countryside relentlessly. It paralysed road and rail services and brought traffic and all essential nationwide services to a complete standstill. I can still remember the snowdrifts up to three metres deep in which tens of thousands of animals perished nationwide in this natural disaster. Our local agricultural community was hit the hardest with tremendous losses because the farmers were unable to rescue their animals from the deep snowdrifts. Due to the ferocity of the storm, we had to dig ourselves out of the snow on the Ballagh on numerous occasions since the snow was almost as high as the roof of the house. The snow was so deep that it covered both ditches and fences, giving the impression of a snowy wonderland. The people made every effort to help each other during this crisis but despite their frantic efforts, some old people, who were living alone in remote places and in ill-health, died from the cold.


Attending the Primary School

There was no kindergarten or pre-schooling for the ordinary poor children when I was attending school because they could not afford such a luxury. I commenced school in the year of the big snow in 1947. The primary school in Durrow was three kilometres from the Ballagh while our own parish-primary school in Lisdowney was over four kilometres away. There was no school transport in those days and so the only means of getting there and back was to walk to school. There were very few motorcars on the road, in fact, there was scarcely any fuel for mechanically propelled vehicles at all during World War II and in the immediate aftermath of the war.

My mother accompanied me to school on the first morning to the Presentation-Convent School in Durrow over the border in County Laois. That was my very first trip to the town of Durrow as we always attended Sunday Mass in Lisdowney. In the first week of September, after Kilkenny had won the hurling All-Ireland final against Cork, my mother and I took the short cut down over the hill, as the crow flies, in a northerly direction to the town of Durrow. What a panoramic view that laid before my eyes as we walked along the top of the hill in the beautiful autumn-morning sunshine. If I were a person that could give an accurate description of the rugged, natural beauty of the landscape that I saw, I would certainly have a lot to describe. To the sunny southeast I could see the Blackstairs Mountains in County Wexford; to the east I could see Ballymartin Hill overshadowing the village of Ballyouskill in County Kilkenny; to the northwest I could see the Slieve Bloom Mountains in County Laois and to southwest I could see the Devils Bit in north Tipperary. These were sights to behold. Accordingly as we were descending the Ballagh, I could hear the waters rolling down their rocky streams with soft inland murmur. This idyllic view of faraway mountain ranges were for me emotions recollected in tranquillity in the heart of a rural setting. I asked my mother many questions about the various places on my way to school, she responded to the best of her knowledge and ability to my questions. She showed me the way to school as I had to walk this road from that day forward, regardless of the prevailing weather conditions.

When we reached the town of Durrow at long last, I found the strange environment very challenging and intimidating, with people rushing here and there and to make matters worse, I knew nobody except my mother. This urban setting was in complete contrast to the rural and peaceful environment of the Lisdowney landscape. I felt like a fish out of water. There were houses on both sides of the streets which I never saw previously in my life. As great as my curiosity was, I promise you that I was quite mute now. My eyes darted here and there taking stock of everything in minute detail. I was mesmerised with this new-urban environment that appeared so alien to me. People did not travel far from their own parish in those days. Lisdowney was only a crossroads, really, in comparison with the town of Durrow. I was never in Kilkenny prior to going to school. Cars were in short supply as the war had just ended in 1945. Perhaps, first impressions are lasting.

We reached the Presentation Convent at long last. I held on to my mother’s hand with the grip of a drowning man and my two eyes were as big as saucers with fear and wonder. I was assigned to the junior infant’s class where some of the children were crying. I was not crying if my memory serves me correctly. There were both boys and girls in the junior infant’s class and this was also the first time that I ever saw a nun in my life but I heard mention of them in several dispatches prior to my going to school.

I looked at the nun in our classroom and I said to the late Jim Kenna who was sitting beside me, “who is she”? I asked. “That is Sister Patrick,” he replied. She was a tall, slender woman in her late twenties, God bless her. All the teachers in the convent in those days were all nuns. Sister Patrick was dressed in a black habit and all I could see was her face. I was amazed at this as I had never seen a woman dressed in that fashion before. She was in charge of the junior-infants class, what an excellent teacher she was. It was the custom that we were not allowed to write with biros except with n-pens and ink as they were called in those days. How have times changed since! She had a placid personality with a commanding presence and for that reason she was well liked by all the pupils and parents who came into contact with her. I have to admit that she was very understanding and fair in her dealings with the pupils while at the same time she was more than capable of dealing with unruly pupils. She was above all an excellent motivator in teaching those pupils who were in the least interested in school. Some of us were no angles and we could do with a good disciplinarian, like Sister Patrick. She never used corporal punishment but all she did was to give us a stern look in addition to some extra homework. If we had not the extra homework completed for the following day, she would contact our parents and woe betide us then at home. We were very much afraid of our parents if the teacher complained about us. It is the other extreme today in that public attitudes towards discipline are much too relaxed indeed. This nun had a huge influence on me and she left an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life. God rest her soul.

The following year I graduated to senior infants but the nun in this class had not the same personality as Sister Patrick while at same time she was a brilliant teacher. She worked extremely hard and had a firm grip on the class. She was always stern to view and, invariably, she gave us more homework to complete at night but that was to be expected in senior infants. The homework had to be completed without fail and her famous saying was, “practice makes perfect.” Occasionally, the nuns would reward us with little treats if our written and learning exercises were fully completed according to their demands and expectations. The treats were a great motivating factor in both the teaching and learning process and this in turn produced academic results. Sweets were a treat at that time as we had no money to purchase them. What is seldom is wonderful. It was these little things that mattered a lot to us. There was discipline in the schools in those days and as the saying goes, where there is discipline there is progress. The bit of discipline did us no harm. There is a lack of law and order in modern society today and it is little wonder, therefore, that we have so much violence and lack of respect for people. Like the Christian Brothers, the nuns devoted their entire lives to the service of God in providing education for the poorest of the poor and the marginalised in our society.

Our parents used to help us with our homework as they themselves had a great interest in education. My mother helped us with the Irish spellings and grammar as she had a good grasp of the Irish language which she had acquired from her teacher, the late Mrs. Maher, in Lisdowney School. Our father helped us with the English spellings, history, arithmetic and geography. Mathematics in those days were called “sums.” He had a detailed knowledge of Irish history and he was always telling us stories about the War of Independence which made the subject all the more interesting for us. In fact he was well-read in history, English and geography. Reading was the only form of recreation for adults during the long-winter nights. Both parents help us with the Catechism in the form of questions and answers. We had to learn the Catechism from cover to cover off by heart. That was the method of learning in those days but we understood what we were learning and that greatly facilitated the learning process. Both our parents were very attentive to our schooling and nothing was left to chance. Any word that we could not understand and any problems that we could not unravel or solve, they would explain them in simple, plain language in the context from which they arose in the lesson. Both our parents were also well-read in theological matters.

While they did not do the homework for us, they acted rather as facilitators in the learning process. We had to complete our lessons before retiring to bed. In the winter time, we did our exercises beside the fire during the long, cold nights when the frosty, sharp wind outside used to be howling from the northeast. That bitterly cold north-easterly wind used to come in like a lion at the beginning of January and go out like a lamb at the beginning of April. It was nice to be inside the house, sitting on the floor beside the warm fire doing our homework. The cold, frosty weather was very conductive to study and contributed towards our academic achievements. We used do our homework out in the yard during the mild weather at the end of the springtime and early summer. Periodically, we used to organise spelling and table competitions among ourselves to see who would achieved the highest score. This created a competitive edge to our learning.

The three Rs, which were referred to as reading, writing and arithmetic, was the dominant curriculum at that time which was based on rote learning as well as understanding what exactly we were learning. The nuns explained everything in detailed. In retrospect, I saw nothing wrong with this type of education. We learned most of our subjects through the medium of Irish. The subjects were as follows: Catechism, Irish, English, arithmetic, history, and geography. We acquired a good foundation in these core subjects from the nuns and later on from our lay teachers in the boys’ school and, indeed, from our parents.

We hear a lot of debate today about the New Curriculum and its approach towards the holistic educational development of the child. Unknown to ourselves, we had this type of education when we were attending the primary school in the forties and the fifties. While there was no modern technology involved in the teaching and learning process except chalk and talk and, indeed, hard work in my day, the standard of education was much higher than it is today in the primary school. Rote learning today is not regarded as being educationally fit for purpose, according to the modern education experts. Children rarely learn spellings, vocabulary or tables by rote today because they have spell checks at their disposal on their computers for writing and they are also allowed to use pocket calculators for mathematical and scientific calculations for figures in their examinations. The pupils of today are slaves of the technological age. I am not blaming the children of today for the low standards but I am blaming the New Primary-School Curriculum, which was introduced in 1999, for the debacle of low standards that we have today.

Learning off mathematical formulae are totally ignored now and is considered a thing of the past. The widespread use of technology in the teaching of languages and other subjects today appears to be leading to a decline in educational standards. I can see this for myself from my own teaching experience as a teacher of Irish, English, German and Latin after over forty years of teaching experience. Technology must be regarded only as a teaching aid and not as a complete replacement for the traditional methods of teaching that have stood the test of time down the centuries going back to the Romans and the Greeks.

I must say that the nuns were very enthusiastic about their teaching and were very conscientious of their vocational calling in life. I well remember that they used to give us cups of hot cocoa at lunch time during the long, cold winter months. Indeed we used to enjoy the hot cocoa and sandwiches in those cold days as we used to be very hungry after a long morning’s work in the classroom. A little is very much appreciated. Simplicity is sublime. The nuns lived frugal and holy lives in the convent. They were never allowed outside the convent to visit their own homes or to attend their parents’ funerals after entering the religious life.

Much has changed since then and it is ironical to say that when these stringent rules and regulations were relaxed, there was a sudden decrease in vocations to the priesthood and to the religious life. It is fashionable nowadays to criticise the priests, nuns and the brothers and to say that all of them badly treated the children in schools as stated in some sections of the media. In the mind-set at that time, these were the prevailing and publically accepted teaching methods and parents expected the teachers to discipline their children if they misbehaved in or outside the classroom. If you went home and told your parents that the teacher punished you for some misdemeanour, I can assure you that you would be at the receiving end of twice as much punishment from your parents. The people of today are highly critical of the practices in the educational system of the past. They are looking at a bygone era with different lenses from a modern perspective but they must not be naïve when comparing like with like.

Woe betide any person who would attack or assault a woman or any old person at that time, he or she would be severely punished for their misdemeanour. Such an incident occurred when I was growing up as a child where a blackguard violently attacked and robbed an elderly widow in her own home. Relatives of the victim apprehended the culprit and all I can say is that they took good care of him. He never attacked anybody else to the best of my knowledge. Today with the so-called, political correct agenda, the criminal is rewarded and the victim is punished. Sadly, to say, there are plenty of do-gooders and left wing politicians in high places shouting from the rooftops on behalf of the criminals. In short, people get the type of a society they deserve. We are living in an age where “wrong is right” and the plain people of Ireland who work very hard are paying a high price for this type of a society. We are told to “shut up,” “put up” and “pay up”. This so-called liberal agenda will end in tears yet, when the people will say, “enough is enough.” There seems to be no happy medium!

I made my First Holy Communion while I was attending the convent prior to attending the boys’ school. I felt sad leaving the convent school as I enjoyed the type of education that I received from the nuns. I must say that I am proud to have been educated by the Presentation Sisters. The only fault that I found with the nuns was that there was no hurling being played in the convent. There is no convent there now and all the nuns have returned to Kilkenny to teach in their mother house due to a drop in vocations. It is certainly the end of an era and the convent has since been converted into a hotel, known as the Castle Durrow Hotel. The boys spent three years attending the Convent School and then they attended the boys’ school at the other side of the town that was situated right beside St. Fintan’s Catholic Church.

The boys’ school was a two-teacher school. Mr. Christopher Finnegan taught first, second and third class while Mr. Liam Hassett, the principal, taught fourth, fifth and sixth class. There were approximately sixty pupils attending the school if my memory serves me correctly. I settled into the boys’ school very quickly. Christy Finnegan was over 183 centimetres tall and a wonderful hurler he was. We received a good education in the boys’ school as the standard of teaching and learning was equally as good as the standard of education we received from the nuns. Again most of the subjects were taught through the medium of Irish. Our subjects were Catechism, Irish, English, arithmetic, history and geography but we were not limited to those subjects and, in addition, we studied geometry and algebra.

Hurling was the main pastime at the lunch breaks and it was almost every bit as important as the school subjects themselves. The golden rule was that you had to bring your hurley to school everyday. In those days, we never took any notice of the prevailing inclement weather conditions during the winter when we played in hail, rain and snow in the field behind the school. We participated in school competitions and it was the question of the “survival of the fittest” when the intensity of the game and the herculean clashes were tough and furious. The fullback line was defended with such ferocity that it became known as “Hell’s Kitchen”. The term “Hell’s Kitchen” later became synonymous with that great Tipperary fullback line of the fifties and sixties which was ferociously defended by the late John Doyle, Mike Maher and Kieran Carey. “Thou shall not pass.” The hurling pitch was no place for the faint-hearted individual as there were no helmets in those days when men were men. The third-man-tackle was part and parcel of the game then. In fact this was regarded as good, manly hurling where every player fought and won his own ball. You had to look after yourself or otherwise you would be at the receiving end of hard tackling.

If you sustained a blood injury, you just continued on hurling regardless of the injury unless it was extremely serious. Players did not leave the field of play for minor injuries in those days. That would be regarded as a sign of weakness. The referees were sometimes reluctant to blow the whistle for minor infringements so as not to spoil the flow of the game. There was often clouds of dust in the air when the sliotar (ball) would land in the square, particularly when it used be a closely fought contest.

Our two teachers were ardent nationalists and they had a great interest in hurling and, indeed, in the Irish language. There was keen competition and rivalry at underage hurling between the primary schools. Many of these hurlers went on to play at the highest level in the land; for example, the Late John Alley, who played with the great Eddie Keher of Kilkenny, won an All-Ireland Colleges with St. Kieran’s College, Kilkenny and he also won Fitzgibbon’s medals with University College, Cork. I played with Durrow for a while before I went on to third-level education. We never heard of ligament, cruciate or ham string injuries in our day. Possibly the hard, physical work on the land strengthened our muscles and bone structures in all parts of our bodies. We were always very active, either working or playing hurling which meant we were never a moment idle.

Boxing was another form of an extra-curricular pursuit that boys indulged in on their way home from school in the evenings to ascertain as to who were the best boxers in the area. At that time, there was an active and vibrant boxing club in the town of Durrow. There was no animosity among the boxing participants as it was regarded as a good-manly sport. This was a popular pursuit during the winter months when the weather was unsuitable for hurling and out-door activities. There were various boxing competitions for the youth of the locality to demonstrate their talent for the sport. As for myself, I kept to the hurling, and besides, I was otherwise gainfully employed with the domestic and agricultural chores, not only at home on the Ballagh but also with my grandfather, Jack, in Seskin. According to the old proverb, it is not a good idea to have “too many irons in the fire” at the one time.

It must be said that our two teachers were most encouraging and inspirational in the teaching of the Irish language through the medium of debates and feiseanna (festivals) which were organised by the teachers themselves in collaboration with Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League). While we learned most of our subjects through the medium of Irish just as we did with the nuns in the convent, yet we understood what we were learning off by heart. Anything that was unclear or had abstract ideas and concepts, particularly the complicated mathematical formulae, our teachers were excellent at explaining the problems that we encountered from time to time. Like the nuns, our two lay teachers were strict and firm disciplinarians when necessary in regard to any misdemeanours and unfinished homework. They were always very fair and reasonable at the same time and they gave us credit where credit was due. I can assure you, they taught us manners and etiquette which are in short supply in today’s world. Society in those days demanded law and order as it was the thinking of the time. You had to know your place in the pecking order of society and you would be reminded of it in no uncertain terms. In those days, children were seen and not heard. Our teachers were sensitive to the hardships that we encountered in the aftermath of the war.

There is also much debate today about the use of corporal punishment and the prevailing system of education that was fashionable in my day when I was attending the primary school. It is true to say that some teachers were over strict. There never seems be a happy medium or a common-sense policy. Society seems to operate like a pendulum, it goes from one extreme to the other extreme. It is also true to say that the opposite of law and order is chaos and social instability which is quite evident in today’s crime-ridden society where there is no respect for God or man. Our two teachers were unique and ahead of their time in the field of education and training. Their famous saying was, “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí” (praise youth and it will prosper), how right they were, God rest them.

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