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September 11th 2001

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First Day at School

Scoil an Leinbh Iosa, Killymard with teacher Martina Cunningham. Photo: Conor Sinclair

In keeping with our lead photo, Donegal Times asked some local ‘personalities’ for their memories of their own first day. These are their accounts:

Paddy Meehan remembers: ‘As you get older the brain cells start to die off, but I still have memories, coupled with information from my mother, of my first day at National School. Being four years old and living in the heart of Donegal Town, I suppose I was used to the hustle and bustle of people, and when told that I was going to school, I thought, this is great, off to school - my mammy and daddy with me all day long!! What a mistake!

To a four year old, adults appear huge and Scoil Aodh Rua, out on the Clar Road, seemed miles away, especially when you had to walk from the Diamond out into the countryside. Remember the old school was sited in what is now the Cleary Workshop. Then, the only edifices on that road, from the top of the town, were the hospital, McMullins and Canon Kelly’s parochial house - no other buildings until the old cut stone semi-detached boys/girls school - Scoil Aodh Rua/Nuala Convent.

Walking through the forecourt - a mixture of stones and mud/grass, we climbed the three stone steps into this drab old building, with a stone hallway floor, an old delph sink with only cold running water. We were approached by a giant of man who looked at least ten foot tall, wearing a double breasted suit with several pens in his breast pocket - Master McGovern. I could feel the tears welling up, with finally the deluge of water running down my cheeks. “I want my mammy - I want to go home!”

I was taken into a room filled with other ‘prisoners’ - same age as myself - all blubbering and crying - not eager to serve their ‘sentences’ - craving the comfort of mammy, home and toys.

After what seemed an eternity of lamenting, the school room door opened and in walked this lady with a beautiful smiling face who set us all down at desks. She handed each boy a selection of sweets, telling us not to cry as we are here to play and have fun. Indeed we did play and have fun for the next several weeks under the guidance and comfort of this lady - Nora McGinley N.T. who recently celebrated her 101st birthday. These first few weeks were to give us a grounding for our future education, and for life.

However four years on in 1955, the first day at school did not prove the same for my brother Joel. My mother, along with my uncle Sonny, who had a bread delivery van, took him out the long road and, of course, being Joel, he was of a mind that school was not for him. So when the van stopped at the school gates, out he scarpers to make a quick dash back for Donegal Town, with teachers, my mother and Sonny down the road after him. Oh my, when he was retrieved and taken into the classroom, the ankles of Sister Ethna and poor Miss McGinley suffered for at least two minutes. But Miss McGinley, with her own inimitable style, calmed him down, at least until lunchtime.

That noon my mother came into the kitchen of our house and who was sitting down on his granny’s knee ....? “what are you doing here” Mum asked. “We got the day off” replied Joel. I’m sure you can all picture the hubbub that got up in Scoil Aodh Rua when a certain first day infant went missing at lunchtime!

JR casts his mind back: My recollection of my first day at school was the long walk from Birchill to Clar. I had never been as far away from home and spent most of the day worrying would I ever get home again!

John Joe O’Shea has a Kerry story: ‘Memories of my first day at school are lost somewhere in the midst of my forgotten past youth. However two memories do survive - four of us mitched school one day and having no better plan spent the time in a cattle shed amongst bales of hay. It turned into the longest day I ever spent and provided me with a love of school after all. The other memory recall button that is still active occurred in 1965 - Galway beat Kerry in the All Ireland final - I cried for a full week during my three mile walk to and from school.’

Eamon Harvey remembers: ‘My first day at National School was short and memorable. My late father drove the two miles from our home to Drumnaherk N.S. in an old van. We were met by Principal Mrs. Mary McGroarty at the school gate. Following a short conversation between Mrs. McGroarty and my father the new pupil - yours truly - was commented upon - how quiet I was, my wavy hair etc. (my father told me about these details years later). What I do remember was that Mrs. McGroarty lifted me from the ground and put me standing on top of one of the pillars at the entrance. I started to bawl and swung my right hand - connecting with the good woman’s face knocking her glasses to the ground. I refused to go into the school. My embarrased father had no option but to take me home. It took a week of coaxing and cajoling to get me back inside the front door. Recently retired, Mrs. Annie Faulkner, then Annie O’Donnell, taught infants, 1st and 2nd classes and was responsible for my positive introduction and subsequent fondness of school.’

To Cork with Sr. Stella: ‘The first day at school is a huge milestone in every child’s life. I remember the day my older brother Donal took me, his baby sister, by the hand as we set off for my first day in St. Joseph’s Convent School in Kinsale, Co. Cork. I was happy, excited, yet scared and frightened as I started on my first educational mile. Donal, on the other hand, was as proud as punch, conscious at the same time of the prize that awaited him - two boiled sweets, the reward always given for delivering a new pupil to the school. What happened for the rest of that day is a jumble in my mind, except for the mug of hot cocoa out of the big boiler that tasted truly scrumptious! Little did I think on that far-off day that I would spend my life welcoming, calming and comforting so many four year old first day toddlers and their parents in Donegal Town. It seems like the March to Kinsale in reverse!’

Paul O’Sullivan recalls: ‘Ours must have been one of the last classes enrolled in the old Hugh Roe National School, where the O’Cleary workshop now is on the Ballybofey road. It was Sept. ’63. My brother Sean took me in and left me into Miss McGinleys baby infants class. It was a huge room with a big fireplace and a lovelier person no one could wish for a teacher. There was a line of milk bottles standing in front of the fire to warm the tender bellies of the new toddler recruits.

St. Eunans N.S., Laghey with twins Liam and David McGuinness

The Donegal Times, The Diamond, Donegal Town, Ireland

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