Early Education in Castlederg



In my post about the late Seamus Heaney, I alluded to some difficulties that I had experienced as a student, arising from a piece which I had written on the quality of local government in Derry during the sixties. Among other things , I was critical of the Nationalist Party’s failure to provide leadership to the majority population and I proposed a socialist alternative. Both ideas were to cause me considerable difficulty when I  graduated and sought work as a teacher in my home city.

By default of the prevailing system,  the only opportunities available to me  were within the Catholic School  system. The then Bishop of Derry, Dr Neil Farren, was ‘de jure’ chairman of the Board of Management of each school in the Diocese. Several new secondary schools had been built and there was a serious shortage of teachers. However, as the end of the summer holidays approached, I had not received a single  reply to a number of job applications. Despite my mother’s entreaties, my refusal to go and see the Bishop, an established, subservient protocul, ,  further compounded   the problem and I was  reconciled to returning to  Belfast where I was more or less guaranteed a teaching  post. I finally succumbed and went to see Farren where it was made plain that he found my political views distasteful. I later learned that the Nationalist Party candidate was traditionally selected at a convention, chaired by the Bishop.

Two days later I was offered and accepted a post in St Eugene’s Secondary School, Castlederg, a distant Tyrone outpost within the Derry Diocese – my Lubyanka.

Castlederg  featured regularly in the news during August because Loyalists were outraged that Republicans were planning to parade through the town; Orangemen feel that it is their sole prerogative to march there in a majority Nationalist area and they exercise that right as often as twenty times a year. Things got so heated that First Minister Robinson reneged on an agreement to build a Peace  and Reconciliation Centre on the site of the Maze Prison.

My memories of the two years that I spent there are of a blissful introduction to work experience, an early education into  rural life. The pupils were generally good mannered, engaging and for the most part hard-working. Unfortunately, certainly in the initial stages, we did not share a common register of communication.

” Sir, I haven’t the homework done,” Charlie informed me one morning.

“Why is that?”, I inquired.

“I had to sit up all night with the sow”.

For the life of me, I couldn’t think why anyone would want to sit up all night with a pig but I suspected that there might be some fundamental, agricultural purpose to this activity and told Charlie  that I would get the exercise  later. When I raised   the issue in the staff room at the interval, I was greeted with derision from mainly local colleagues.

The pupils came from large families, even for the Sixties , and some travelled substantial distances each day to school from outlying areas such as Aghyaran and Urney. Many lived in carefully disguised poverty which I witnessed the first time that  I drove a group home after an extra-curricular activity. Gaelic had been spoken in Aghyaran until a few years earlier. This was reflected in the sentence structure and vocabulary of the pupils:- a splanc   jumped out of the fire –  the Gaelic onomatopoeic word for a spark.

“Here comes I Jack Straw, such a man you never saw! 
Kissed the devil through a riddle, through a rock, through a reel, through an auld spinning wheel.
Through a mill and happer, through a bag o’ pepper, through an auld woman’s false teeth
That was never kissed before…and if you don’t believe me in what I say,
Enter in Beelzebub and he’ll soon clear the way”

This was part of a mummers’ rhyme which many of the more rural pupils had had learned from their parents, a tradition that went back centuries.  These were morality plays where good always triumphed over evil. It was a rich, cultural stream which I had never previously experienced.

I learned much more in Castlederg than I taught.

  1. Brilliant, John. I’ve been in Aghyaran several times in the last few years at funerals of relatives and the sense of community and solidarity was palpable. My father came from that general area and my mother was reare in Lettercran, a bit beyond Pettigo, which isn’t a million miles across the border. When my No 3 son Hugh was at primary school, he played Jack Straw in the school concert, and he did a private performance for my mother when she was in her late 80s. She was able to finish lines in sync with him and it was a total joy to see the distant past touch the young present. It’s funny too how much you remember of your first teaching post. Mine was in Sandymount High School in Dublin, which didn’t get invited to john Charles’s beginning-of-school-year Mass because it wasn’t officially Catholic. Among my pupils was one Charlie Bird who, if you’ve watched RTE over the last thirty years, you must have seen. I can safely say I’ve rarely taught a more charming and illiterate pupil in my life.

  2. Thanks, Jude.
    I remember a great deal about that first job in Castlederg. My appointment was to the English Dept. but the teacher shortage was so chronic that I had to take some classes in Irish and History as well. The former was fine but a brief exposure to the War of the Roses in first year at St Columb’s was about the extent of my knowledge of the latter curriculum. There was no GTC in those days. I could easily have written another 2000 words, enlarging on the crotchety headteacher, bride price -‘ her father gave six of his best heifers with her’ etc. You will recall that I mentioned the hegemony over people’s lives of the Church in St Columb’s; well, I am still disturbed at the treatment I received nearly 50 years ago when seeking employment from an organisation that talked about justice.

    • Ain’t it odd, John, how the hurt inflicted in adolescence stays fresh despite time? I’m the same way although I don’t stop with the clergy. Hughie McGeown is an example and an exception. Hughie ‘taught’ me Irish in second and third year – I was deposited in the back seat (with the late and lovely Johnny Deans) of the dughail (pardon spelling) and he largely ignored us for two years, except when he was feeling a bit off-colour when he’d grill us and slap us. I had a nice big knot of resentment for him (don’t mention O’Flaherty to me) until the day I went to interview him for that St C book. Inside 10 secs all the resentment drained away – he was just an old man in a chair being totally co-operative and kind. I’ve started asking myself the question ‘Was I the ideal student to teach?’ and alas, the answer is no. I could go on but I remember meeting Squeak O’Kelly once and using the word ‘resent’ when talking of something in my job at UU. Squeak, teeth clenched in his usual speaking style, said ‘If you’ll allow an old teacher to advise you: let it go”. He was right. Can’t change the past.

    • John

      ‘bride price -’ her father gave six of his best heifers with her’

      McBreen’s Heifer instantly jumped to mind.

      I shudder to think what the young lady in question looked like,
      If six heifers were required. Though I am sure she had a good and generous nature.

      McBreen had two daughters, and each one in turn
      Was offered in marriage to Jamesy O’Byrne.
      Now Kitty was pretty but Jane she was plain,
      So to make up the differ, McBreen would explain.
      He’d give the best heifer he had on the land,
      As a sort of a bonus with Jane, understand.
      But then Kitty would charrum a bird off a bush,
      And that left the lad in a horrid non-plush.

      The one and only Percy French

      Maybe W. F. Marshall – The Bard of Tyrone had the answer?

      Wee Margit had no fortune,
      But two rosy cheeks wud plaze.
      The farm o lan was Bridget’s,
      But she tuk the pock disayse.
      An Margit she was very wee,
      An Bridget she was stout.
      But her face was like a goal door,
      With the bowlts pult out.

      • Six may be an exaggerated figure, Larry. I well remember the emotions but I wouldn’t bet on the detail.

        • John

          I will estimate 30 years ago, I was drinking with a friend called Brasso in the Hole In The Wall Bar on Belfast’s Antrim Road. About 2:30am Brasso got a bit nostalgic and decided to phone his mother back home in Derrylin Co. Fermanagh.

          I think he told her where he was and how he had felt a bit lonely,
          But all can remember when he returned from the phone is:

          “She said she didn’t think I was sitting up nursing a sick sow”

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