The Moving Finger Writes………Vere Foster

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A man from Collon came to my door. He carried a clip board and a high-altitude-writing-stick. A clip board conveys authority. The high-altitude-writing-stick was invented by Lazlo Biro for use in aeroplanes. It seems that fountain pens become high-altitude-ink-bombs in unpressurised cockpits, as if fighter pilots hadn’t enough to contend with. He was conducting a survey for a joinery firm. I’m not a great joiner, in any sense of the word, so we fell to talking about lighthouses, as you do. There is a lighthouse in his part of the world, many miles from the sea. It was built as a folly by a member of the landed gentry with more money than sense. He could have invested his wealth in something more productive than lighthouses, as many of his class did, like say, opulent houses, majestic gardens, drink, gambling, mistresses and most of all, horses. It is a very fine lighthouse all the same.

A re-branded Eircom van went past. Look at that handwriting. That’s not an r. Write it out correctly, fifty times. Don’t get me started.

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He spoke enthusiastically about another near neighbour, Vere Foster, a great Irishman, whose name has been almost forgotten amid the crowd of political and revolutionary figures of his time. He used his inherited wealth to improve the lot of his poorer fellow Irishmen and women, funding and supervising the needs of emigrants to America in the years following the Great Famine. He travelled frequently on the Famine ships and campaigned tirelessly for better conditions on board and in employment in the destination countries. He entreated those he helped always to value freedom and fairness to others, regardless of gender, race or creed.  His influence on education was immense. He funded more than two thousand rural schools, stipulating that every school should have a roof and a wooden floor, a major advance on the hedge schools of the time. To Foster, education was the only way out of poverty. You probably learned to write ‘joined writing’ from the Vere Foster system of headline copies. So did your great grandparents. We copied proverbs and maxims on pages lined in red and blue: Procrastination is the thief of time. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I have proven the veracity of the statement many times over the years. My handwriting is still the writing I learned to do, tongue moving in synchronicity to the J or Waverley nib, in Mr. Doyle’s class. There were occasional blobs, when I blotted my copybook, a heinous crime. There were bursts of flak when the nib snagged in the coarse post-war paper.  I took care to dot my s, cross my t s and mind my p s and q s. It was much more satisfactory than writing on slate with screechy chalk’ as the poor ‘sucks’ in the junior classes had to do. Fountain pens were not allowed. Biros, when they arrived on the scene, were anathema. The ball-point wanders about, giving no shape to the letters. Ball-points were and are, bad for handwriting. Moreover, they were quite capable of bursting at ground level. We scratched away like the ancient scribes, with not quite the same success, but with a sense of achievement.  I have enjoyed the process ever since.

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Vere Foster was like a lighthouse in a very dark time in Ireland’s history. He never went to war or blew anyone, or anything, up. His name is not pre-eminent among the ranks of Irish patriots. One hundred and fifteen years after his death, in a mean lodging house in Belfast, he is almost forgotten. Spare a thought for him, the next time you take pen in hand and no slovenly writing, if you please.

As for lighthouses, I prefer mine with water.

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Skerries National School about 1947. The wrong end of the stick.

Step together, boldly tread

Firm each footie, wrecked each head.

Let these Cajuns  quick and clear,

Sound like music on the ear.

Steady boys and step together.

Form like deer on mountain heather.

Left, right, left right .

Steady boys and step together.

Left, right. left, right,

Steady boys and step together.national school circa 1947 012

We sang this song while marking time on ‘The Line’, before marching around the yard and back into class. It should have been ‘erect each head’ but that was how I picked it up. ‘Wrecked each head’ makes a kind of sense. There were no Cajuns either. ‘Let each cadence’…whatever that meant. I quite like Cajuns, with their spices and their wild fiddling. A close inspection with a powerful lens, may disclose similarities to the stance of deer on mountain heather.

I recall the day on which this photograph was taken. I can see the photographer setting up his enormous wooden camera. It stood on wooden legs taller than any of us.. The photographer, a small stooped man, stooping being part of the art, went in and out of a black tent, making subtle adjustments. Sometimes he came out front and changed a lens. ‘Don’t move,’ he warned. We froze.It is difficult to hold a pose or an expression. ”Don’t move,’ said the teacher. We trembled. Nobody said ‘Smile,’ on one of the happiest days of our lives. It was an anti-climax, a click and dismissal back to class. ‘Don’t talk,’ said the teacher. We didn’t.

People have remarked on how sad those little boys look. Some are wary, as if anticipating the trials that life was to set them. One or two are almost smiling, ( against regulations.) They are still smiling, cheerful men by nature. I should tag the boys in the picture, by name, but that’s a trick I haven’t learned yet. I will have to ask my grandchildren. So here goes:

Front row, from the left; 1 Gerry Ellis,2 Terry Doyle,3 Don’t know,4 Hugh Canning,5 Eddie Hughes

Second row.  1 George Hand. 2  ? McGealy 3 ? Ellis 4 Paddy Landy 5 Hugh Ryan 6 Jimmy Coleman 7 Harry Loughrey 9 Don’t know

Third row. 1 Paddy Griffin 2 John Grimes 3 Frank Dillon 4 John Tyndall 5 Don’t know 6 Basil Bissett 7 Brian Beggs 8 Johnnie Casey

back row. 1 Denis Ryan 2 Philip Ryan 3 Don’t know 4 Andy Radley

I am open to correction on these names. Put my mistakes down to the passage of time.

The thing is, I do know the boys, whose name have slipped away from me. They were all important people. They brought news every day and arguments. We had fights and hotly contested games of marbles and conkers.  We wore short trousers and shivered when winter came to our badly heated classroom. We wore blue stuff and violet stuff on knees, fingers and toes, for scabs and chilblains. You never see chilblains nowadays. I believe they were the product of inadequate diet. Hugh Canning had a special prayer for success. He said it quietly before a game of marbles. He very generously told it to me, but I had not faith. Deep down I felt that the Lord God of all the Universe, Who daily governs the movements of the heavenly spheres, should have better things to do with His time than weighing in to a game of marbles. Did God really care who had the most mebs, glassiers, taws or steelers? Hugh cleaned me out every time. I wish I could remember that prayer.

Look at the little boy on the left,  in the back row. He was not in our class, but he was let come into the photograph, because he couldn’ t be separated from his older brother. See how he is clutching his brother’s arm.  They lost their father in an air tragedy. They faced a cold and harsh world together. Paddy Landy did not have things easy, but he made a lot of music in his time. I picked spuds with Jimmy (Apple) Coleman. He would always say, ‘That’s a brave day.’ He taught me a lesson. There was a spud fight. Jimmy objected strongly to the waste of food. ‘You’ll folly a crow for a spud some day.’ In later life, Brian Beggs always addressed me as ‘young Ryan.’ I came to appreciate that greatly. Paddy Griffin would drop in over our garden wall, with plans for expeditions to The Cane Wood or the island or for making a soap-box car, or going to the threshing or investigating the Ballast Pit.  Johnnie Casey brought Spanish chestnuts from Argillen. They were green, sour things. I didn’t know that you should roast them. They were exotic, so we ate them anyway.

Yesterday was All Souls’Day. Rain beat upon the window. Dead sycamore leaves whirled about in throngs. They induced melancholy thoughts.  On All Saints’ Day I had attended the funeral of a lady who had devoted her life to God, to the education of deaf children and to music. The church was filled with elderly ladies of a similar vocation. I felt sad for them. In the modern world they see their life’s work denigrated by suspicion and resentment, or mocked  and trivialised by the strident coarseness of the hen-party. I felt winter closing in again. I looked at the photograph. Quite a few of those boys are gone.

Then I remembered the laughs. I heard our voices chanting Tables. Do children today learn tables by heart ? Is it all done by the magic of electronics? I heard the songs we learned from Jack Doyle. Irish songs..Slán go Deo le brón is buairt  Farewell forever to grief and sorrow…..I always wondered who Joe was.  Maidin i mBéara, sung to the tune of Danny Boy. I was prevailed upon to sing an Irish song in a pub full of Welshmen, look you. ‘Sing one of the ones that Jackser taught us.’ I dredged it up from the pit of memory. My voice has cracked. I could never reach that high note near the end. I did my best. The Welshmen smirked. One of them stood up immediately afterwards and sang Danny Boy. He sang it to perfection, in a pure tenor voice, a voice that surely rang through the valleys and in the chapel, see. He hit that high note bang on. He sat down to loud Welsh applause, studiously not looking in my direction. He was very good. Welsh prat.

I remembered the games of Bulls, which entailed chasing and crashing into people and Broken Gates which entailed chasing and crashing into people. I remembered comics, read furtively under the desk and sweets and jokes and all the important things we discussed. Maybe things were not so bad. I taught a good many of their children over the years. I often saw the fathers I had sat beside, in the faces of their sons.

The sun came out. I felt better. I still know my tables. I know a few songs and some shreds of poetry. I’m not great with technology, but there is always someone who can help. My three year old grandson showed me a game on his mother’s i-phone. It was less violent than Bulls.  He knew how to work it. Nobody taught him. ‘I will ring you on Skype’, he said when they were leaving. It’s a brave new world.

A friend took me for a flight in his helicopter. We flew over Wicklow. There they were—deer on mountain heather. They stood tall and proud, just like my classmates in The Nash in 1947.