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
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
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
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
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
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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