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Page 13 of 15
Of Dedicated Teachers

As previously indicated, the two big schools in Ballyshannon were segregated, the girls' run by the Sisters of Mercy, the boys' by the De La Salle Brothers. There was also a technical school for those who finished their primary education and wanted training in carpentry, cabinet making, basic mechanical engineering, bookkeeping, shorthand and typing. It was co-educational, had only lay teachers, and offered night classes for adults.

St. Joseph's was the boys' school. It stood on the Rock, the escarpment that lay on the south bank of the Erne, with the "long straggling street" of the Purt beneath it.

The Rock could be approached from either end of the Purt, by the Wee Rock, a bindy, twisty bit of a roadway leading up to it from the West Port, and by Sweeny's Steps. Sweeny's Steps lay at the back of Bernard Sweeny's Commercial Hotel and were accessed through an arched gateway just steps away from the Bridge End. There were two flights to the Steps, the most popular route to the Rock, but as age and rheumatics took their toll, elderly people were driven to take the longer route up the Wee Rock, even though in itself it was not an easy climb.

There was one other route, but only a few schoolboys used it, and never after dark because it was too dangerous. It began behind Rogan's sweety shop in the West Port. It was a natural rock climb, with no man-made improvements, jutting rocks from the cliff face providing timely foot and hand-holds as one rose higher and higher above a rusted red, tin roofed shed, and finally got one leg above the roadway wall on top, heart pumping from the excitement of the climb.

Rogan's sweet shop sold the smallest, tiniest fruit lozenges or jelly beans I have ever seen. A pennyworth filled a little paper bag and, eaten singly, could be made to last a whole day. For me the preferred road to school lay via Rogan's and the rock climb. But I never did like the same route in reverse. Seeing how far down one could fall tended to quash the spirit of adventure.

Once on top of the Rock the road stretched the length of the school playing field, turned sharp left another hundred yards, past Sheerin's, the taxi driver's, the Rock Hall, the Rock Cemetery, St. Joseph's Church, and, just before the entrance to the old Workhouse, led finally to the school gate at the start of the Higginstown road.

Why we had to walk to the farthest end of the school grounds to get into the school, since a shortcut opposite Sweeny's Steps could have lopped the distance in half, I'll never know, but it was a strict rule that schoolboys shouldn't attempt it, no matter how late they were or even if classes had already started.

The school itself was a two-storey structure, two classrooms on the ground floor, two on the upper floor. Each room held two grades, presided over by one teacher. From a landing on the stairway there ran a common room for the teachers, where they ate their lunches. A walled enclosure at the back held lavatories to the right and the left, whose use was divided by age groupings, the youngest on the left, the oldest on the right.

Inside the schoolrooms boys sat two to a desk, and the teacher occupied a raised desk at the front of the room. But "occupied" was a rare occurrence. With two classes to teach and two blackboards to employ, the teacher was constantly on his feet.

Each desk held two sunken porcelain inkwells which had to be filled on a regular basis with blue-black ink poured from a tin can with a long spout, akin to an oilcan used when lubricating machinery.

All writing was done with dip pens, pencil-slim wooden sticks topped with a metal nib which carried the brand name Waverley. They were somewhat messy, and ink-smudged fingers were badges daily worn by all students.

Few pupils owned fountain pens. They were costly instruments. Biros, or, as they are known in North America, ballpoint pens, had not yet been invented. The first ballpoint I ever saw was proudly displayed to Hugh Daly and myself years later, by Sean D. MacLochlainn, the Donegal County Manager who, at the time, was administering the affairs of the Ballyshannon Town Commissioners. But that is another story, for another time, another volume.

Talking during class was strictly forbidden. As a result, the minute recess or lunchtime came, bedlam broke loose as voices that had been curbed for hours on end were freed to shout, and yell, with many an argument won or lost depending on the respective vocally generated decibels of the participants.

The De La Salle Brothers were quiet, industrious, dedicated men. They lived in a house in College Street on the opposite side of town, and they too had to take the long daily route on foot, twice a day, to and from that far-off gate that served as entrance and exit. They were four in number, Brother Virgilius, Brother Fidelis, Brother Canice, and Brother Naithi. Canice and Naithi were young men, and were in charge of the youngest boys.

My most vivid recollections are of Brother Fidelis and Brother Virgilius.

To our eyes Brother "Fiddlesticks" was a man of middle years, hard pressed in his work, a man from the south of Ireland, who, when he taught Irish, used the southern dialect and idiom, things which in my case in later years drew comment from native Irish speakers in the Donegal Gaeltacht. He was red-cheeked, with great round black eyes and grizzly grey hair. He loved the outdoors, and his great joy was to take off with his dog, hunting rabbits, and accompanied by a group of youngsters. Leaping over ditches or poking around rabbit warrens and badger dens he himself was a youngster again, and his pupils loved him for it.

Contrast the hunter and his dog with the choirmaster attempting to drill twenty or thirty young boys to sing in tune, let alone harmony, when his own voice had long since deserted him! That was his lot, and manfully he faced it, and us, and by sheer determination drilled us into some semblance of a choir, destined to take our place on stage at a concert in the '98 Hall, and later in the year to travel all the way by train to Donegal Town to take part in a Feis Ceoil. We tried his patience severely. We won nothing at the Feis Ceoil, and the concert wasn't that great a success either.

Brother Virgilius was a different man entirely. Lean, sparse, and tall, light blue eyes that could see right through you, lantern jawed, Randolph Scott in a clerical collar, he was, or seemed, younger than Fidelis, yet he was the head brother, the leader of his community, charged with the education of generations of Ballyshannon boys, and of some from Bundoran and other places too.

He taught the older boys, the last two classes before students reached the primary school leaving age of fourteen years. And teach them he did. For whatever love of language, English or Irish, that we came to acquire, it was and is to Brother Virgilius that we were and are indebted. He had that natural gift, so precious, so rare, of instilling in his students a desire to learn, a yearning for knowledge, and a will to work and strive to the best of their talents, to study for the sheer pleasure of discovery and achievement. This he did as much by example as anything else.

Each year he would give the senior class a challenge: "Let me work with you, and, God willing, some of you may make it to college".

To go to college in 1940 was something completely out of reach for the vast majority of Irish primary school students. Cost alone ruled out any prospect, except in those instances where a young boy or girl showed an inclination toward piety and the religious life. Then, somehow, cost became surmountable, no matter what the sacrifice to parents, guardians or custodians. Merchants, doctors, lawyers, and remnants of "the gentry" could take care of their own, but for most parents talk of four or five years to be spent in a boarding school was but wishful thinking aloud.

Brother Virgilius changed that. With boys who were willing to make the effort, he spent himself freely. For them he returned to school, night after night, week after week, through the autumn, into winter, and on through spring, coaching a group of ten, or fewer, as they prepared to take the all-important college entrance examinations that carried with them a chance to win a scholarship that would pay for boarding fees and tuition in the years ahead.

It was hard work for Brother and boys alike, with extra homework to be done, extra homework to be marked, and through it all he gave in full measure to the other boys in his two classes.

Late in the school year there came the examinations, three in all, two for direct scholarships awarded by St. Columb's College, Derry, and St. Eunan's College, Letterkenny, and the third, the most valuable monetarily, a Donegal County Council scholarship tenable at a number of colleges. Thanks to Brother Virgilius one of the latter came my way, and in September 1941, at fourteen years of age, I left Ballyshannon to begin my four years' matriculation course at the all-Irish speaking and teaching college, St. Eunan's, Letterkenny, my first real parting with family, friends, and "the winding banks of Erne".

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