The threshing days
School days began for me at five years of age. I started to attend the Convent school being taught by Nuns. Boys stayed there until after their First Holy Communion at seven years old. Then they attended the Boys’ National School. My days in the Convent are remembered mostly by a couple of incidents.
I remember my Mother taking me out of the playground and down the hill to Moonteen to Dr Murphy for vaccination. I shall never forget it, he bared my left arm and broke off a thin glass tube, dipped the broken end in some serum put his finger on the other end and scratched my shoulder and released the serum. I remember my arm didn’t heal for ages.
The other incident was when I kicked Sister Bridget for not letting me near the fire one winter’s day. It was the first time anyone saw the Nuns in uproar. I was nearly excommunicated for it.
Then on to the Boys’ school to be taught by a distant relative who used to get me (being family) to go to Durkin’s for two large bottles of stout and hide them under a certain tombstone in the neighbouring cemetery. After about six months he retired and was replaced by another man. He was the only teacher I had throughout my national schooling. As we advanced yearly so was he promoted with us. My class hold that distinction in Thomastown from about 1929 to 1937.
Our new teacher was a great teacher an Irishman. We learned everything, all subjects, as Gaeilge except English, which was half an hour per day.
Our teacher detested everything British and was the epitome of the old saying “burn everything British except her coal”. While he was a great teacher he had no control of his temper and handed out many beatings to his pupils which, on several occasions, resulted in boys’ fathers visiting the school or his home to do battle. Often we stood up at the windows cheering some boys’ father to hammer the teacher. He gave me a bad beating once which my father dealt with the next day and I myself dealt with later as I will recount. All that aside he still produced some great scholars.
His pupils won honours in every Feis in the country. I myself won several. Our school also won the “Carlyle and Blake Premium” an award for the best school in the diocese of Ossory several times during my schooling with him.
Our midday break was spent hurling. The teacher picked a team and the school captain picked a team and played a game every playtime with the teams being changed every week.
When I became school captain and his team played mine he marked me one day and although he was a man I could hurl the head off him (pardon the pun) one day as the ball was dropping from the air as we went for it I saw his bald forehead just under it. At that instant I felt the beating he had given me 12 months before so I pulled about a foot under the ball and caught him on the forehead. He knew because as he got up to go to the doctor he said “I suppose you’re even now Paddy”.
The highlight of each term was the country versus the town hurling match on the day we got our holidays. Those games were the most competitive ever imagined.
Another thing he always did was on Friday afternoons when we came in for our 2pm play he would have a sum on the blackboard dealing with all he taught us during the week. He paid every one who got the sum right half a crown each. That was a lot of money those days and I can tell you we were all ears to what he said. I seldom missed that half-crown.
Our playground was over the rocks in front of the convent gates and in the band room on wet days. The band room was the lower floor of our school where the local band practised. When I think of it now that man taught us 10 books of Euclid logs and antilogs all in Gaelic in a national school. When we sat for our Leaving Cert I remember our class broke all records. I myself got honours in all subjects. He also taught us to be proud of our Irishness.
Of course we had no school dinners those days - we usually brought a couple of cuts of bread or if we were really well off we bought a current puff from Comerford’s for one old penny.
Our trip to school and usually barefooted and on the frosty mornings our feet would be perished so we’d go into the fields and wallop the cattle with our hurls to make them stand up and warm our feet where they lay.
Also we used to visit Maggie Michaels, a little hucksters shop in Logan Street and buy two “Waverly” nibs for our pens for 1d. In first and second class we had slates and slate pencils for our writing and sums then we graduated to copies and pens.
Each desk had three inkwells which were filled daily with Quink ink. Also as well as having a half hour per day religious instruction we had to attend catechism for an hour after 11 o’clock mass in the chapel every Sunday.
For our reading books the teacher chose them every year, different ones every year designed to prevent any hand downs. Some of the classics he chose for us were The Key above the Door, Swordsman of the Brigade and Red. Some of those survive still and I have Swordsman of the Brigade.
The other thing about our school days was our home exercises (homework) which usually comprised of about six sums, some spelling and compositions about some weird subject he would think up. These were the bane of our lives, but my parents that insisted it was done and properly.
When we arrived home from school we had dinner, then we had to cut the sticks. We used to secure a log in the wheel pit and cut off logs about 12 inches long with a crosscut. That meant one at each side of the log and each push and pull the cross cut. This led to countless arguments about who was “leaning” on the saw.
Then I had to split them with the hatchet and bring them into the fuel house. Other evenings we’d have to go for a breasure - a bundle of rotten sticks tied with a rope and carried over the shoulder, used for kindling.
The Fair Day
This was a monthly affair in Thomastown. The first Tuesday of the month it was the monthly sale of farm stock. Cattle were on the fair green and sheep and pigs in Market Street.
The fair consisted of sellers and buyers. The sellers were farmers who drove their stock to the fair or used drovers for the job. When they were bought, the bargain made and sealed by a slap of spittled hands, the drovers took over and drove the cattle to their new abode or to the station for loading on the cattle wagons.
All the smaller animals such as sheep, calves and pigs were in “creels” in Market Street and the buying and selling went on there. The pubs and eating houses did a roaring trade and sure the town would be flooded with Tinkers, travelling musicians and beggars.
When the day’s business was done the craic started with singing and dancing in the pubs. The travelling musicians got all they could drink while they were playing. My father used to say to them “Can you play the Blackbird boy?. Right then play it.” If it was the Blackbird and well played he got all the “Sean Dubh” he could take.
As the evenings wore on the odd ash plant would be used as weapons and a few sore heads would ensue until the Guards came and cleared the town.
Another feature of the fair was how the horse breeders used to parade their stallions at the fair. They were wonderful animals and had their manes and tails plaited with green and red ribbons. It used to be a comical sight to see the stallion bringing his inebriated owner home late in the evening!
The rest of the day the cleanup had to be done, the town would be smothered with dung of all kinds and the streets would have to be brushed and hosed down for hours.
One of the great annual events in rural Ireland in my boyhood was the Thrashings. The Thrashing season lasted about two months in September and October.
It began when the stacks of corn were dry enough to draw in. The sheaves were pitched into the carts and built into a safe load with all the heads in and was drawn into the haggard where they were set out in a rick, again meticulously built with the heads in.
Then when ready the Thrashing engine (called the engine) mill and elevator was booked up. All the neighbours were notified of the Thrashing. Delft was borrowed and pint mugs also - the farmer went to the town for a barrel of beer stout and lemonade. The engine arrived usually at night and had to be set up. Usually a job of great skill manoeuvring the ungainly machines in through narrow lanes and gates and into the haggard and all the gear set up ready to work. Barrels and barrels of had to be drawn and lots of coal.
A couple of blasts of the whistle about 8am signalled to the neighbourhood that all was ready to start. Thus the neighbours arrived and were designated jobs, shave pitchers, cutters and feeder, rick builders for the straw-baggers etc sack up the grain and cart to the barn.
Then came the boys’ jobs, to rake out the chaff from under the mill and carry the buckets of beer round to the men, help wash the spuds. Our reward was all the lemonade we could drink.
The atmosphere of the thrashing was always work and fun. Both mixed well together and I never heard a cross word only when a cutter missed a shave and it went in uncut. There was a loud bang and the belt went all over the place as the mill tried to cope with the tied shave. Then the colourful language “the hoor is as blind as a bat and is putting in tied shaves”.
The thrashing done, the engine was yolked up to the mill and elevator and off to the next one.
Then came the most important event of the day, “the thrashing dance”. Not all farmers had one but a few of our neighbourhood farmers had them and they were famous.
After the day’s work all the boys and girls relaxed, the lads with a few jars and the girls with a drop of port and we danced and sang the whole night through. The lucky fellows got their girls to go out to the rick and had a mighty court in the fresh straw.
If the farmer had a lot of oats he used to give us the oaten straw for all our ticks and bolsters. So the bonus for us from the thrashings was lovely fresh soft oaten straw ticks in our beds and likewise bolsters. By the next thrashing they got quite hard and we began to look forward to the next thrashing.