2014 (ongoing): Notes towards a Memoir

The intentions of section is to display some texts and images from a personal archive that includes personal journals, photographs and other ephemera. I wish to connect these personal images and texts to wider social, cultural and historical themes.

This section will begin with one ‘story’, more stories will be added incrementally and over time.

Chris Reid 18.11.14


Chris Reid 1971.
The photo was taken by an unknown photographer
who visited the Swords Boys National School

When I was five and six years old I attended first class in what was then called Swords Boys National School. My teacher was a woman in her sixties. She seemed very old and formidable with her tweed twinsets and the large black leather handbag she carried. My writing improved over the duration of my one year under her tutelage.

The year was 1970 into 1971. There was about thirty boys in the class. We sat in pairs in ancient desks that had indentations embedded into the surface for a pencil or pen. They also had two inkwells which you were required to keep half full of ink. The pens did not contain ink, you had to dip the nib into the inkwell, and the nib then retained some ink. You had to take care though - if your nib picked up too much ink drops could fall on your paper and desk; too little ink in your nib and your letters would be scratchy and difficult to read. When your pen was ready you would write each letter - careful not to lean too hard on the nib as most of the ink would blob on your page. The letters – they should nether be too wide or too narrow, too short or too tall. The copybook pages were ruled with thin lines of red and blue. The blue lines showed the space for the upper case letters, the lower case letters had to fit under the red line. When you had written a word or two you gently placed a sheet of blotting paper on the freshly rendered letter and words so as to pick up any excess ink. In this teachers class I learned this craft of forming letters.

I suppose I was a little slow at times – to understand and remember the different rules and steps. The teacher, she had methods to aid learning and memory. She had a twelve inch wooden ruler. It was a similar dark brown colour to the wood of the ancient desks we sat in. I got slaps from this ruler on every part of my six year old hands, but especially on my writing hand. I got slapped on the palm, across the knuckles, on the fingers. I got slapped if my letters were too wide, I got slapped if they were squashed together or too high or too low. I got slapped if my sentences strayed from the ruled lines on the page. I got slapped if drops of ink fell on the paper or if I smudged my letters. I learnt to write slowly, each day my hands taking the pain so as to acquire this new expansive skill. But it was not just my hands that took the pain – I felt diminished and smaller from it.

I was glad to leave this teachers class and in September 1971 I moved with the rest of my class and other boys into second class. The teacher in this class. He had longish hair – collar length. He wore a tweed sports jacket, brown bell-bottom slacks and Cuban heeled boots. This get up was considered fashionable around this time. There were no old fashioned desks with inkwells in this new classroom either.

The first week was easy – listening to stories the teacher read out. He would play records with songs like ‘Two little boys’ and ‘Puff the magic dragon’ and ‘Reynard the fox’. This was great! He even had a little party at the end of the week. He bought packets of crisps, lemonade and sweets which were shared out and eaten in class.

Next Monday morning I was looking forward to school. Toward lunch time the teacher told the class to sit up, fold your arms and pay attention. He unlocked one of the cabinets that were at the side of the classroom and out of the children’s reach. There were some thin sticks, all about three foot in length in the cabinet. The teacher took one of the sticks out of the cabinet. He told the class to pay attention as what he was about to say was important. He held up the stick and told us it was bamboo and told us the yellow tape around it was to pad out the cane so that it would not hurt so much when you were hit. However, he continued, it would be painful to get a slap or two slaps, maybe even three on each hand from this cane. You would get slapped if you broke any of the rules. He said the rules were there for a reason and had to be obeyed. He explained that pupils would be slapped with this particular cane for breaking the least serious rules, for not learning your times tables or Comhra or Catechism or not standing in line after a break. He replaced this cane back into the cabinet and drew out another. I remember that when I heard this I thought he was telling another one of his stories – he used the same tone of voice. I smiled, I thought he was trying to be funny, He took out another bamboo stick.

This cane was thinner and had less masking tape wrapped around it. This one, he said, will be used if you do not do all your homework or go to the toilet without permission. He said that this cane would hurt more than the first cane as it was thinner and had less cushioning. He put this cane back into the cabinet and drew out another. This, he said, would be used if any of you break rules that are more serious such as being disruptive within the classroom. He gave example of this, such as talking back to the teacher or moving your desk and also for not doing your homework and for half a dozen of other things which I cannot remember. This cane was placed back into the cabinet and another thinner one taken out – this one with very little masking tape on it – I do not remember anything he said about this one – I think I lost him for a while. I did not understand.

The teacher took out the last cane - the thinnest, it had no tape on it. He said that it was to be used when a pupil broke serious rules such as mitching, or fighting in the school yard or stealing from the school. One of the children asked how many times you would be hit. You could get up to six on one hand or on each hand with it, he said. This cane, he assured us, is the most painful. He demonstrated how he would use it, you would have to raise your hand up and would be slapped on the palm of the hand. He then raised himself up and whipped the air in front of him with the cane – once twice and three times. The cane made a whistling sound.

Within days a few boys were selected for not standing in a straight line in the school yard after break. Each was slapped with the cane that had the most yellow tape on it. I remember them grunting, then holding their hands and shaking them. Soon it was my turn, I think it was for whispering to a class mate. I remember stretching my hand out as far as I could. I was worried the teacher who towered over me might miss and hit me in the face. That day I learnt that I should stretch my palm out as rigidly as I could and if possible to lick my hand before the slap as this took some pain away. After a few weeks I realised the early promises of this new teacher were false and I felt betrayed. At the end of the year I hoped we would pass on to another teacher however for some unknown reason my class had this man for their teacher for the next five years.

There were some subjects when the teacher would not use the cane – Physical education was one such class. Sometimes pupils were given projects to do such as to build a model of a bronze-age settlement or make wall displays on various subjects like aeroplanes and airports. But these were few and far between and eventually stopped altogether. Corporeal punishment was the main method to make boys learn and it is what I most keenly remember now at the age of fifty. I learnt to appear stoic and indifferent whenever I was slapped, except occasionally when I could not help myself. However to cry was a great humiliation in front of thirty of other boys so I learnt to hide my pain and many other feelings. I learnt things about fear and hiding fear. I learnt about rules, about dotting I’s and t’s and conforming. I learnt to read and write.