Thursday 27 October 2016

Mary Kenny: forever young - a school reunion 55 years later

Reconnecting and reassessing at a school reunion for the class of '61

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Imagine a schoolgirl today, aged 17 or 18, about to do her Leaving Cert next month: now think of her fast-forwarding the years to 2071, and meeting up, once again, with her classmates of 55 years previously.

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That's how it was for us at a recent weekend in Galway: a group of old girls, now, meeting together again, 55 years after we left our convent school in Stephen's Green, Dublin. This was a reunion of the Class of '61, or at least 18 of us, still standing, or still willing to get together as we were in our school days.

It was great fun. Things change immeasurably, and yet, things stay the same. I could see each of my school pals just as they were as fresh-faced teenagers, and as each familiar face zoomed into view, the years dropped away, and the differences in our life-patterns dissolved.

We remembered. We toasted absent friends - those who had departed this world, and those who were living abroad, or couldn't get along for family or health reasons or had somehow lost touch (where are you, Vera Behan? We searched for you). And there would be some who would have no interest in revisiting their school days, for we all have some secret resentment about some episode of school life classroom. "I always felt invisible," said Pauline, who I recall as a diligent girl who always got good marks. She felt her achievements, in Maths, were never highlighted, as more favoured students' were. I was delighted to hear this, as I thought I was the only one who felt chippy and undervalued in the school years.

Yet, on the whole, we appreciated the good things about our education - and the mellowness of age tends to engender a forgiving attitude to those now-dead teachers - while still recalling the negatives. Nuns were prey to petty snobberies, we felt. The doctor's daughter and the high court judge's daughter felt the beam of their esteem. ("The fawning to posh parents!" cried Terry). But still, aspiration will always include some snobbery, and they were probably only doing their best to improve our chances of getting on in the world. But did they know much about the world we were entering?

Memories came flooding back, and situations we hadn't known anything about, at the time, disclosed. One of our number was never visited in school, as a boarder, except the once, and then her mother turned up tight. We didn't know, then, about the disastrous childhood of one of our absent friends, a darling girl now famous.

There were always many pupils called Mary, and the Marys led very different lives. One Mary died young of an unexpected illness. Another Mary tragically killed herself in her 20s: she was clever, funny and highly strung, and now that I look back, I believe the nuns were kind and supportive to her - she would go to pieces when faced with an exam paper, even though she could have answered any question brilliantly. We remembered her fondly.

Another Mary died about 10 years ago: she was single and alone at the time, and died soon after being taken to hospital. Three of the school pals accompanied her hearse back to Co Mayo where she was buried alongside her parents; every year on the anniversary of her death, they met at a Mass and remembered her. What a wonderfully kind thing to do for a deceased classmate.

"What is it that keeps us together?" asked Toinette, from Tipperary, who had been orphaned at 18, but has led a happy and fulfilled life. It could be something of the school spirit, but it is also that one of our number has emerged with outstanding leadership skills - Eileen O'Sullivan (née Ennis), who takes responsibility for keeping everyone in touch.

No, she wasn't the head girl: far from it - Eileen describes herself as having been a "dodger" at lessons. But she's the head old-girl now. And then, for the Galway reunion, Carolyn Shiels (née Hallinan) and Catherine O'Reilly (née Glynn) brought all the zest of the western capital to the arrangements at the lovely Salthill Hotel.

We talked endlessly. Most of us are grandmothers, now, and our perspectives stretch into the brave new world of our grandchildren, as well as into the past.

Discussion about religion and faith schools provided some interesting exchanges. Some noted that their grown offspring eschewed religious ceremonies or faith schools. "Ireland is no longer a Catholic country," commented Rosaleen. Maybe not: yet the Loreto Catholic schools remain over-subscribed, by anxious parents who still want the gold standard in education.

The group are impressively internationalised: offspring in Germany, Canada, Australia, Cyprus, the United States and elsewhere were regularly Skyped. Some emigrated for job reasons but others just found interesting opportunities, or married other nationals. Holiday homes in Continental Europe were casually mentioned.

We remembered our teachers: the good, the bad, and the completely bonkers. My experience of education is that you don't understand what the heck it's all about when young: today, I could gladly sit down with the acid-tongued Miss Blake and discuss coniferous and deciduous trees; but then, it was just a dreary bore.

Knowledge is all about context. When we were young, we didn't grasp the context. But we did grasp the meaning of fellowship, friendship and loyalty and that time would bring, with sweet memory, the light of other days around us. May it happen for the class of 2016.


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