” If any schoolmaster or clergyman requires a prize for a lad of grit, or a boy who is worth his salt, he can do no better than G.A. Henty.” Indeed not. When I went to secondary school, to The Brothers, I was impressed by one or two things: I had to wear long trousers; the electric lights worked; Brother Malachy gave out books on Saturday mornings.
The trousers were tricky. I was used to short trousers, but the east wind blew around the extremities, too cold even for a lad of grit. Usually corduroy, they had turn-ups– the long trousers, not the extremities. You might find a coin in the turn-up, if you were lucky. It was usually a coin that you had mislaid; one that you had searched for; one that had caused you to look with suspicion, at a sibling, especially if he had the tell-tale signs of toffee about his gob. But there it was, the tanner, the foundation of your fortune! If you were lucky enough to have the use of a bike, you had to gather the turn-ups into your socks or clamp them in a bike clip. Otherwise they caught in the chain, were covered in oil or mangled to shreds.There were small bike clips, that worked on the principle of paper clips, but that meant that you had to imprison four thicknesses of corduroy in a little clip at the far end of your leg. It took some getting used to. I contemplated going back to short trousers but the trials of the adult world had to be faced. You could, of course, roll the trousers up to half mast, but you would look gormless. I noticed though, that when Empire troops occupied the oilfields of the Middle East, they wore shorts. Had the War Office no bike clips, or would you need them on a camel? Anyway, their trousers were safe from all the oil. They looked a bit gormless though, didn’t they?
Brother Malachy knew The Shah when he was in exile in Mauritius. The Shah, that is. Maybe Brother Malachy considered himself in exile in Skerries. He was a cosmopolitan Irish-Scot. He had seen the world. He laughed at our notion that Skerries is the centre of the universe. He quoted an old guide book: Skerries is a small fishing village, about three and a half miles from The Man o’War. Damn cheek! This means war. He laughed at our notion that the Irish are the bravest people in the world. He told a story of travelling by rail in France and how he got talking to a Gascon on this very subject. “Ah,” said the Gascon. “Voila!” He thereupon climbed out of the window of the hurtling train and hung down to knock on the window on the other side. He climbed back and in the window. “Now it is your turn, mon frére.” Brother Malachy declined, yielding the palm to the men of Gascony. He was short and corpulent and would not have got through the window. He gave us The Three Musketeers to underline the point. There were really four of them, if you include D’Artagnan, the fiery Gascon, and they never used muskets.
“Did you never tap The Shah for an oul’ gold-plated Rolls Royce, Brother?” The Brothers took a vow of poverty. A lost opportunity. The Shah had half of the world’s oil. He had medals to beat the band. He wanted to keep the benefit of the oil for his own people. This brought him into frequent conflict with The Empire. Damned foreigner! G. A. Henty would have sorted him out. Send in the knobbly-kneed troops. With Kitchener to Kabul. With Kitchener to Khartoum. With Younghusband to Lhasa. There was always a lad of grit with the army. I wanted to be that lad, but I didn’t want to wear a gormless pill-box hat like Younghusband’s. Had he no Youngwife to keep him at home? I wanted a solar topee, a pith helmet, like a proper imperial soldier. I wanted to live in a world of elephants and punkah-wallahs and orders echoing around a parched frontier parade ground. He gave us Manco, the Peruvian Chief, a story of one brutal empire giving way to another, the romance of conquest and the wonder of Spanish America. There was another one: Discoverers of the Great West, by Francis Parkman. It was largely the story of La Salle and his epic voyage down the Mississippi from Canada to The Gulf of Mexico, two hundred and fifty years before Huckleberry Finn set out on his raft, with the slave, Jim. Now, that’s a great book too. Treasure Island, Ah, Jim, lad. Kidnapped, young Davie Balfour. When la Salle reached the Gulf, he claimed the land for France and gave rise to New Orleans. He didn’t set up bordellos or jazz bands. He and his company sang a Te Deum Laudamus in thanksgiving for their safe arrival. No, he had nothing to do with the De la Salle Brothers.
Malachy taught us to think. He taught us to sing… The ashgrove how graceful…He taught us to look outward. He taught Geography. (New Orleans is about four thousand miles from The Man o’ War.) He taught us to express ourselves. He gave us an exercise in writing descriptive language. I wrote about leading my troops through the forests of the Ozark Mountains. He praised it highly, suggesting that I might have lifted it from Fennimore Cooper. I didn’t, but I took it as a compliment. I made it up, mainly because I have never seen the Ozark Mountains, nor have I led any troops there, or anywhere else, not even Omdurman or Rorke’s Drift, to do battle with foreigners. I would be a sore disappointment to G.A. Henty. (I have eaten some grits. The people of The Ozarks and Appalachia are said to be very fond of grits.) In extenuation, by the time I was old enough to conquer new colonies, the Empire had melted away, like snow off a ditch. They put Dev in prison and Makarios in The Seychelles. They tried the same intervention with Kenyatta. Being imprisoned by the Empire became a badge of honour and a necessary qualification for political life. You can get a medal for it. Idi Amin had more medals than even The Shah.
Brother Malachy hunted monkeys in Mauritius and ate them. “What were they like, Brother?” “They were like babies. heh heh.” “No, what did they taste like?” I forget the answer to that. I hope it wasn’t the same answer. I would remember that. He saw the fishermen drawing fish on long lines from the vast depths of the Indian Ocean. “Their eyes would POP out of their heads.” It had to do with atmospheres and pressure. This was before scuba diving and bathyscaphes and Ballard. Not only is the world a wide place, but it has depths unimaginable to schoolboys in a draughty classroom.
The electricity worked. We had storage heaters. We sat on them during break time, at severe risk of vascular complications in later life. A good job that we wore long trousers. Jack Doyle, a much respected Skerries teacher, used to work in his brother’s pub in Castledermot during the summer. Maybe Jack felt that he was escaping from exile for a few months. He loved the chat in the bar. It was the time of rural electrification and myxomatosis. “Is there any of that oul’ myxomatosis up around your way?” A new word. “I dunno, but they’re puttin’ up poles for somethin’ ” Jack didn’t explain. He was off duty.
We had fluorescent lights. They kept the S.A.D. at bay during the dark winter days, a giant leap forward from National School. Brother Malachy opened some windows for us and pointed to a bright new future. “Tautology!. Don’t be stupid, boy. Of course the future is new.”
Our grandson will be confirmed today. It will encourage him to face the future. I hope he gets a medal. He deserves one already.