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Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe by Declan Burke - chapter 3


 Damian Mac Con Uladh

Boyhood in 1940/50s Ballinasloe

by Declan Burke

Chapter 3

Ballinasloe seems indebted to St. Grellan for no discernable reason, other than sucking up.

I took the trouble to research the holy man and in my opinion he is less than edifying even if he was a contemporary of St. Patrick.

It seems in those days "(5th Century or thereabouts), a bunch of "outside agitators" came into the East Galway (basically Ballinasloe/Loughrea) area and started plundering and carrying on.

Those residing there were law abiding folk who paid taxes to Grellan, and being no slouches in the warfare department themselves, they quickly captured the son of the invading chieftain, an act that took the wind out of his sails and instilled in his heart the need to parley.

Things got complicated then as the captive made eyes at a resident's wife who reciprocated, the upshot of that was some hurt feelings and a dead lover boy, certainly not something to be desired by the besieged who had thereby lost their trump card.

The invaders again decided to 'take out' the residents (the original Ballinaslovians, as it were) who had to rearm and looked so good in uniform that Grellan called on God to screw them.

It appears that his prayers were answered as our lads got stuck in a newly appearing bog, which inhibited their manoeuvrability considerably, a real military disadvantage.

Anyway, the invaders took over and Grellan became sainted and got his name on my primary school. There was some rámeis ('rubbish' in Irish) about how he helped things along, but basically the place changed hands, no matter how good a face you put on it.

He also got pegged for a local housing estate, through no fault of those who lived there.

Bag Men Wagons

Of course, you could look at the problem from a racist perspective.

Those Original Ballinaslovians were no-good Fir Bolg (Bag Men) and the invaders were fine upstanding Gaels, us'ns two thousand years back.

(These Bag Men survived and in modern times are going about their business still carrying stuff in bags. Nowadays they carry bundles of money from developers to politicians, driving around in their special vehicles, Bag Men Wagons, or BMWs.)

I graduated to St. Grellan's National School from a kindergarten run by the nuns in the convent school, with a wonderfully benign Sister whose name eludes me now (was it Benedict?). I spent two years there, graduating from "Junior Infants" to "Senior Infants".

It was my first experience with "upward mobility".

Anyway, the "New School" as St. Grellan's was called; (to distinguish it from the Old School which my brother Fintan attended in back of the Town Hall, a sort of one-room schoolhouse run by a Mr. Ward) was called after St. Grellan, whose exploits were carefully hidden from the students.

Perhaps he made up for his earlier activities by building a church, not in Ballinasloe but in nearby Kilclooney, or maybe he was the only local candidate with a saint tag who was available to displace the "New School" name with something more official sounding.

I know that in my six years there, St. Grellan as such was never once mentioned. Nor did I ever hear of any mother calling her son after him, but maybe some did since. Grellan is a perfectly respectable name after all. Almost as good as Declan.

The new school, St. Grellans Boys' National School (now co-ed but renamed Scoil an Chroí Naofa) was (and is) a fine building, made of mass concrete and with a façade of 'cut stone', a decorative touch first used by King Herod of first-born-son-topping fame. Significantly, there was a general acceptance of physical punishment with leather straps in the school, it having nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing at all, to do with King Herod.

Of course not.

But if you were on the business end of the leather strap, you mightn't be so sure.

The teachers

We started with a wildly popular Mr. O'Meara as principal but he transferred out and died young. He was a great teacher and a natural leader. He togged out and played football with the lads.

1st Class was taught by Mr. (Tommy) Goggins who did a very reasonable job. A bachelor none of the local maidens ever seemed to capture.

2nd Class was with Eddie Campbell, a fine gentle man and an excellent teacher. (His brother was Principal in St. Joseph's College, Garbally, a secondary school).

3rd Class was taught by Pat Molloy, another fine teacher who hunted with my father.

4th Class had Pat Galvin, a good teacher too but who was clearly harried by his work. His favorite expression of frustration was "Mahogany Gaspipe".

5th and 6th Classes were taught by Pat Carney, principal.

School started at 9.30am and I would run from home on Dunlo Hill, climb over the 'Round Wall', cross the Glebe and climb that wall to start my trot across the Fair Green to school. I was close enough to go home for lunch at 12.30pm, back again for class at 1.00pm.

* * *

Tribute to Dermot Murphy

My classmate through some of those years was Dermot Murphy whose father taught Mathematics in Garbally to first and second years. We sat side by side and played together and lived in each other's homes. The Murphys lived at the top of Brackernagh, a family with three children, and over a period of three or four years, tuberculosis took every last one of them, parents and all. I escaped, which shows you how capricious the disease was, despite my close contact with the family.

I still miss my wonderful companion, Dermot.

* * *

The War's bitter end

As I was coming home from school one day I heard people shouting "The War is Over", which had to be in 1945. There was great cheering and carrying-on. World War Two, the 'Emergency' was ending. The second world-wide conflict of the 20th Century was winding down with an estimated 80 million casualties.

I had an experience related (very indirectly) to the War.

You must remember there was much scarcity in those times. There were no oranges, for instance.

I had been hearing about that wonderful fruit and I was dreaming about the first one I would eat and anticipating the pleasure I would have on that occasion.

Sure enough, one day I saw a basket of yellow-gold fruit in a shop window. I scooted home as fast as my legs would carry me and tackled my piggy bank. (Not a piggy at all but a slotted metal cylinder that could be opened only by the bank. – in theory that is.) Judicious use of a table knife convinced the 'secure' bank to cough up the money and I raced off to purchase my 'orange'.

As soon as I could, I peeled the fruit and bit into ……… my first lemon!

Declan Burke is now a medical doctor and lives in Culpepper, Virginia, USA.

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