Gavin Lang

A gigantic, sooty turf fire blazed brightly in an old cast iron fireplace at the top of the schoolroom. Two huge wooden blackboards leaned proudly against their sturdy easels, taking commanding positions at the front of the class. Clean, gleaming slates rested neatly on each child’s bench, accompanied by small sticks of dusty, white chalk. Uncovered copies sat in a neat pile on the edge of the master’s desk, waiting to be corrected. A clay pot of Grey goose quills perched primly on a corner of the high window-sill beside a tiny, almost-empty glass bottle of ink. The larger reserves of powdered ink were kept locked away in the master’s cabinet, out of sight.

         Rows of varnished, wooden benches gleamed as slivers of bright sunlight filtered through the dark cloths draped across the dusty panes.   A long, narrow cane balanced precariously across a row of hooks at the top of the schoolroom, glaring intently, intimidating every pupil in sight. Expertly-woven, delicate cobwebs filled every nook, crack and crevice in sight as industrious spiders careered and spun merrily, morning, noon and night!

         An ancient, brass, hand-held bell waited silently for the start of the school day when two of the older boys would shuffle in to tend to the onerous task of cleaning out the fine, dusty ashes and lighting the fires in both schoolrooms for the day. An impressive, wooden clock ticked loudly, as its weighted, tarnished pendulum swung from side to side, counting down the last few minutes before classes began. To the left of the sturdy schoolroom door lay a row of curved metal hooks where the children hung their tattered, and frequently muddy, caps, shawls, coats and pails, at the start of the day.

The master took his position at the top of the schoolroom, in front of the fire, and with his finest nipped quill, turned a new page in the roll book and proceeded to tick those present. A fresh, wafer thin sheet of blotting paper rested to his right hand side. The roll book had the digits 6 9 7 in thick black print across the cover. A new day in the schoolroom had dawned! The small attendance board would be filled in and the lessons for the day would begin.

The broad floorboards, swept and polished from the day before, gleamed flawlessly before the children arrived. From the outside, the two-storey, white-washed building looked very impressive and modern with its neatly tiled roof. This was a building that was going to test the tide of the times. Master Friel stood at the entrance, reminding the children to scrape the mud and muck off their shoes before entering the ‘new’ school building.

Michael McKenna, one of the older pupils, bustled past. He was late and, judging by the stern look on the master’s face, he would have to work swiftly. Michael had had to help milk the cows before leaving for school and this had delayed him. Gingerly, he scooped up the ashes in the fire places in both schoolrooms and proceeded to light a fire in each. Fortunately for him, on this occasion, the sun shone brightly and the schoolrooms were already warm and bright.

As he finished sweeping round the hearth in the girls’ schoolroom, Mary Healy, another pupil, entered with a tin pail of fresh water from the pump in the village. This water would used to make cups of tea for Mistress Friel’s during the day. Larger buckets of water, taken from a barrel of rainwater outside the schoolhouse door, would be used to ‘flush’ the ‘dry’ toilets.