A smouldering, dying turf fire flickered wearily in the grubby, rusty pot-bellied stove at the top of the schoolroom, barely illuminating the dingy room. An enormous fir-framed blackboard towered over the front row of benches. It was coated in a layer of dusty chalk over which an English poem, some Arithmetic and a map of the world had been immaculately scribed by the master.
Well-used, battered slates sat perched in two preca
rious piles on the master’s sturdy desk. Coverless copies rested neatly on various children’s benches; some forlorn and dog-eared, others immaculate and pristine. An array of Grey goose quills nestled in ink-wells hollowed into the wooden benches (made mostly from fir, as it was the cheapest and most accessible wood at that time).
A dreaded sally rod hung menacingly from an ancient rusty hook at the top of the schoolroom. It was used as often as you and I would blink…and a method of discipline favoured by most at that time! Nailed to the floor in rows were straight-backed wooden benches. Despite the fact that the benches were made to accommodate only two pupils, frequently three children were forced to work side by side in this crammed space.
The schoolroom was crawling with vermin. Everything from scrawny rats to grotesque insects scuttled and slithered furtively across the earthy floor. Peeling, white washed walls encased the schoolroom, decorated only by the dark patches of soot and grime that emanated from the countless turf fires that had burned in the room. A large wicker basket that nestled beside the master’s desk was home to even more rodents and creepy crawlies than it was to sods of turf. It was festooned with lacy spider webs and piles of scraps scavenged by the rats. Frayed, leather bound books sat primly in neat piles on a shelf above the master’s desk. A battered attendance book rested on its little podium. A school bell chimed loudly as the children filed noisily into the crowded schoolroom. Those fortunate enough to be wearing boots scraped them clean on the murky, stone steps that led to the schoolroom door. As a payment to the master, each child dropped a sod of turf into the wicker basket at the top of the room. The master pulled back the tattered cloths that covered the murky panes and broad beams of sunlight poured in as the children hung their tweed caps and knitted or crocheted shawls on little rows of rusty hooks. Reaching for a cross woven from reeds, the master led the class in reciting the prayers for the day.
The master then resumed his position on a rush woven chair as the pupils set down their tin pails. One of the older pupils each day was chosen to empty the tin buckets, that had collected the raindrops that had seeped through the ceiling overnight, down the gurgling drain outside.
Out of his top drawer, the master produced a neat pile of blotting paper and proceeded to hand it out, genuflecting as he passed the statue of Our Lady that adorned a tiny shelf above the door. A large wooden clock, complete with swinging pendulum, ticked and chimed to the children’s chanting and reciting. Chanting and reciting from the girls’ schoolroom next door could often be heard reverberating around the crammed room. At times the muffled sound of footsteps could be heard overhead as the master made an attempt to repair the leak in the roof. Upon his return his loud, booming voice could be heard, silencing the class of boys so he could take the attendance. It was the very first day in the ‘new’ school building and the very first name registered for the boys was a fifteen year old farmer’s son named Michael McKenna. Next door in the classroom of girls, the first pupil registered by Mistress Friel was Mary Healy.
As the day drew to a close and the children finished their work, the schoolroom was quiet once more!