Ann Allan: Memories No 3 : School Life

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I went to a Catholic primary school.It was was mixed for the first year and then the boys went to the school down the road. The nuns were strict and preached hell fire and damnation. I remember going home on many occasions unable to sleep after some of the stories I was told. The most frightening one I remember was that at some stage the world would be plunged into darkness and Jesus would descend and pick out those who were good enough to go to heaven. You can imagine what it was like when there was a power cut and there were quite a lot of those in the fifties. For years I hated the dark and needed to sleep with a light. I now understand how the Catholic Church managed to keep us in line, we were terrified.67F06FC1-B6F9-4C84-A9E8-CC662488F856

On one occasion I brought my picture collection of famous ballet dancers into school. I brought pictures of dancers like Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Markova, only to have them confiscated by Sr Paul who deemed them immodest. They were wearing tutus!!! I never got them back and I’m still fuming. The nuns obviously didn’t appreciate ballet. In those days they wore the full regalia, with only their face and hands visible. They had huge rosary beads dangling around their waists and the rattle of the beads warned us kids of a ‘nun incoming’  They were strict on discipline and unlike today’s  children we did not challenge this authority.  My favourite memory of primary school was to do with food. I loved the school dinners  especially the deserts. Different types of steamed puddings served with lashings of hot custard. I can still picture it as the lid was taken of the steel container used to transport it. The other memory was actually cooking. We used to go once a week to a cookery class where we learned the basics. I still make a mean scone. I used to experiment when I went home but the curried eggs were not particularly popular with the rest of the family (or me).

We lived close to the Rostrevor quarry which was behind the Great Northern Hotel. I hated the days when they were blasting. There was always a warning. A loud horn would go off and shortly after a huge explosion. I always had visions of a large rock coming through the roof but thankfully nothing untoward occurred.  There had been stories of ghostly sounds coming from the quarry back in the 1920’s. Apparently heard by many residents of the village. The conclusion was that they were subterranean but I always got a little nervous as I headed up into the forest 🌳 to follow the many beautiful trails that led into the mountain. A quick look behind ensured nobody was following.

When I was about eight my dad bought me a bicycle. It was a BSA blue bicycle. Most evenings after my dad came home from work the two of us would go out cycling sometimes out as far as Killowen. There was little traffic in those days and it was safe to go out cycling on the main road. I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair and the ability to move long distances under my own steam. The freedom my bicycle gave me was liberating. I’d fly up to the village to get messages freewheeling down the hill that crossed the Fairy Glen, getting up a speed to see how far I could get without having to start cycling again.

Playtime consisted of throwing bean bags, hoola hooping, hop scotch and games such as The Farmer Wants a Wife, In and Out of Stocky Bluebells and The Big Ships sailed through the Alley, Alleyo.  We also had a collection of silk worms which we fed and watched to see if they produced any silk! Does anybody keep silkworms anymore. Seems like a strange thing to keep. I never did see any silk! But there were only two and I gather you need thousands to produce a tiny bit.

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As I was approaching my final year at primary school, there was an outbreak of tuberculosis in my class. Those unfortunate fellow students who contracted TB developed large lumps on the knee joints and in the neck. Once diagnosed, at least ten pupils were dispatched to either Purdysburn or Forster Green where they were kept in isolation for at least six months. A frightening situation. Thankfully they all recovered. There were various explanations but I don’t think it was ever ascertained where the outbreak originated. There was a theory that a collection of old books unearthed from a cupboard may have harboured the disease. Those of us who were not affected were under extreme scrutiny for some time. Although I escaped and did not contract the disease I was back in hospital at aged ten following complications from my appendix operation. I ended up having a section of my intestines removed as gangrene had set in. Apparently it was caused my scar tissue attaching itself to the intestine and blocking the bowel. Luckily it was caught in time, Bikinis were definitely not on my shopping list for swim wear. Scars in those days were large and unsightly.

Eleven plus was looming large and I was advised to take the so- called ‘sick exam’. Not sure whether it was considered easier or was just held later to give a chance for complete recovery, but I was determined not to have any concessions and proceeded with the normal exam. It turns out my future husband took the exam in the same room. We were from different schools and would not actually meet for another six years. I passed, he failed. Guess who’s the Professor now?

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Television in the late fifties and early sixties was becoming more varied and more programmes were being broadcast. Programmes like the Billy Cotton show featuring the politically incorrect Black and White minstrels, This is Your Life, Dixon of Dock Green and of course Dr Who which I watched from behind a sofa. My Aunt Alice who quite often looked after us always kept a tea towel handy. When the television Toppers, a troop of dancers in very modest swimsuits appeared, she put the tea towel over the TV set so that us children wouldn’t be corrupted. Aunt Alice was a big busted woman, who wore an angora berry even when indoors, and always had a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. The ash always seemed to collect on her ample bosom. She went to mass every morning and wasn’t too pleased when she met me on her way home going to school. Although strict she was a loving aunt and she survived into her nineties.

When the local priest called, as they did in those days, we could tell it was him. He was deaf as a post and he couldn’t hear the bell so he just kept pressing it until someone answered. This was a signal to turn off the TV in case he saw something that he would consider unsuitable. I was often reminded of the time when I was 7C2D8EB3-4075-48F9-A52C-1A6B030C33D5about three and I announced to him that ‘my mammy drinks wickey’ (whiskey). My mum had a little sip when she wasn’t feeling well. My dad had always believed that when we were sick that a little whiskey with hot water and sugar was the answer. Probably be seen as child abuse in today’s politically correct world but it helped us sleep and we definitely felt better. Thankfully his hearing aid was whistling like a kettle so the remark went unnoticed, or so my mother hoped.

I was a precocious child. Stubborn and outspoken. On another occasion when again having a visit from a local priest, he remarked on the lovely wheaten bread my mum served up. “Did you make that yourself Patricia?” he asked. “I did Father” she said without blinking an eyelid. “No you didn’t mammy” I said, “you bought that in the bakery.” There was an embarrassed silence as both pretended not to hear what had just been said.

My recollection of the weather in the fifties was of warm summers, cold winters and very bad storms. On numerous occasions in the winter, I remember sitting by the fire in the dark as the wind howled around the house, and listening to the sound of the trees across in the meadow crashing to the ground. Electric wires lay exposed across main roads and travel was limited. My father, as part of his duties as Town D52BD930-F77D-4681-9F76-1522CA502237Surveyor, would be called out and we waited until the early hours of the morning for his safe return. I would wait until the lights of his car lit up my bedroom as he pulled into the garage at the back of the house and until then sleep was impossible.

I must have always liked writing. At the age of nine I wrote an essay for a local competition. I think it was for the RSPCA. I won first prize in my age group and my prize was a book. Thinking back I seem to remember a little help from my mum but just a little. I also liked drama and as a child played Mustardseed in A Midsummer Nights Dream.F309B8A1-AD17-4650-A6F0-F76BE5BDFDB2 We took part in the all Ireland Drama festival at Athlone and came in first. The memory of skipping along that huge stage in a beautiful yellow dress in my bare feet still makes me feel happy.  My friends and I used to put on our own concerts for family and friends with 9B41C8DE-35CF-49AC-8FC2-E21D8C424FA8
my Aunt Susie making the costumes and even rigging up a stage with curtains that opened and closed. We sang the songs popular at the time, by artists such as Doris Day, Perry Como, Pat Boone to name few. One of our favourites Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash in 1959.

Although never a football fan I was in bed with chicken pox in February in 1958 when the news of the Munich disaster was broadcast. I was listening on a transistor radio.I knew the names as my dad was a great fan and I remember running downstairs to tell him the sad news. I think it was a Sony transistor and it opened a whole new world as I worked my way down the dial stopping whenever I heard English. That was when I discovered Radio Luxenbourg.

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Towards the end of the fifties, fashion was becoming more important. After the austerity of the post war period, Dior and Chanel were bringing out new styles and though too young to appreciate I can remember my mum always looking smart in her longer length dresses and neat fitted costumes. Watching ‘Call the Midwife ‘ plunges me right back to that era.
In 1960 I started grammar school.  Another stage in my life was beckoning.

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