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A Debt Owed

Sometimes it takes a lifetime to learn the simplest lesson, to see the obvious, to acknowledge a debt that can never be repaid. I know, because it has taken me a lifetime to realize the influence one person had on my various vocations throughout a working life spanning more than fifty years.

The individual in question was a teacher, one Miss Hilda Boyle, who taught commercial classes at the Ballyshannon Technical School back in the 1940s. Subjects included basic bookkeeping, typing, and shorthand. Her students came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were fellow townsfolk, some were farmers' daughters from the surrounding countryside, and a few cycled all the way in from Belleek, Bundoran, Creevy and Rossnowlagh.

In the main, the students were young girls in their late teens, aspiring to work as secretaries or in other office occupations, ambitions focused on escaping to the capital, Dublin, or further afield. One landed in South Africa, another reached Australia, and a few joined earlier family emigrants in New York.

The only boy who remains in memory wasn't a local lad. In the vernacular of the day, he was "an import", a non native, a subspecies inhabitating the rest of the county, indeed the rest of the country. His first name was Rufus, and his bent was reading. Rufus read anything, and he read it everywhere, on the sidewalk, in the stairwells and, to Miss Hilda Boyle's consternation, in the classroom. Even when she was teaching, Rufus had an open book on his knees below desk level, to which his eyes were drawn as if by a magnet in spite of Miss Hilda's declamations.

Declamations. That word alone sums up Miss Hilda. She declaimed. Her great voice rang with authority. She strove to drive her pupils to excellence, to devote all their energies to the tasks at hand, to achieve all that was humanly attainable within the boundaries of the strictly regulated curriculum.

She herself had a presence. To match her voice she had a figure that, if not massive, at least presented a formidable front to those of lesser stature. To the timid she appeared intimidating, but behind that amply endowed exterior there resided a warm heart, kind, generous, devoted to the care of her elderly mother, and anxious to equip her pupils with the very best start in life that she could provide.

Her only recreation was golf, which she played with a passion at the Great Northern Hotel golf course in Bundoran. This was prior to the time when legendary golfer Christy O'Connor first took employment there as the resident professional before being lured away to more lucrative postings at richer clubs, playing in many international tournaments and, in his later years, becoming known to the golfing world simply as "Himself". No greater accolade exists in any field of Irish endeavours, sporting or otherwise. American television golf commentators loved to interview him. They would have loved to interview Miss Hilda Boyle too, had ladies' golf enjoyed the prestige and cachet it does in present times. Unfortunately, her voice was never captured on tape, and lives only in the memories of a dwindling band of former students of whom I am proud to be one.

It was Miss Hilda Boyle who taught me my first shorthand. And it was at my father's urging that I attended her classes. I had finished my college education and had started work on the family newspaper, "The Donegal Vindicator". "To be a good reporter, you need shorthand." That was his advice, so down to the technical school on The Mall I went for two hours a day, to be taught the Gregg system of shorthand by the redoubtable Miss Hilda Boyle. One of my fellow students who also devoted much time to the subject was Mary O'Hanrahan, daughter of District Justice Sean D. O'Hanrahan, mention of whom will be found in Chapter 4 of "The Kindly Spot".

Apparently we showed some aptitude, and therefore our teacher gave us extra attention. This she managed to do by segregating us physically from the main body of the class. This was how I came to practise my shorthand sitting on the top landing of the staircase in the technical school, just Mary and I. Two chairs and a table were dragged out of the classroom, and there we pursued, assiduously, the lessons taught us.

To this day my teacher's voice reverberates as once it did on that top stairwell. Practice, after practice, after practice, and still her voice gave dictation.

Weeks passed in mastering theory. More weeks were spent on writing shorthand outlines, over and over and over again, until fingers and hand moved in union, and copperplate outlines filled line upon line of copybooks. Slowly, brain, hand, finger and pen co-ordination developed and grew.

Then came the first speed barrier successfully hurdled--a surprising sixty words per minute--six hundred words of dictation faithfully recorded within ten minutes, and accurately transcribed.

Another month passed and we reached eighty words per minute. Wowee! A hundred. A hundred and twenty. And all the time to the dictation of Miss Hilda Boyle who encouraged, who cajoled, who--yes--bullied us on to greater efforts.

Shorthand speed grew with practice and, with the passage of time and the acquisition of experience, the very minimum of 200 words per minute needed to get on the first rung of a professional shorthand reporting career was reached.

From those early lessons taught by Miss Hilda Boyle a career was fashioned that took me to Dáil Éireann as an official shorthand reporter, to the Canadian House of Commons as a Hansard reporter, to the United Nations in New York for one memorable Easter session with my good friend Jack Dyer, a fellow Hansard reporter; to Rome, to Geneva, to Whitehorse in the Yukon, to London, to report Popes and Presidents and Prime Ministers, and the passing parade of people testifying in courts, before commissions, at inquiries and inquests, all thanks to Miss Hilda Boyle and the debt I now realize I owe to her.

One of the earliest applications of my shorthand skills came on a rainy night during the 1948 General Election when, under a street lamp in Castle Street, I reported a speech by then Taoiseach, later President, Eamon de Valera. Little did I know that, forty-six years later, on Sunday, August 21, 1994, I would be taking down in shorthand a speech by another Irish President, Mary Robinson, at the Irish Famine grave sites on Grosse Île, in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, Canada. Her speech in three languages, Irish, English, French, was also delivered with the rain pouring down.

Miss Hilda Boyle died many years ago. But, even in my own retirement, the skills she taught me I still find useful, translating shorthand by computer keyboard into text so that I may finally say, "Thank you, Miss Hilda Boyle."

POSTSCRIPT: As this number of "The Friendly Town" is being written, an election campaign to succeed Mary Robinson in the presidency is being waged in Ireland. There are four candidates. All four are women. Should I ever decide to report a speech by the winner, I have learned my lesson. I shall make sure to bring an umbrella!

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