Thursday 14 December 2017

Going far and away for happy schooldays

'The education system had also softened around separation in the decades since my aunt's devastating departure, insisting that students go home once a month.' Stock photo: Depositphotos
'The education system had also softened around separation in the decades since my aunt's devastating departure, insisting that students go home once a month.' Stock photo: Depositphotos

Fiona O'Connell

Maybe it was a result of reading Enid Blyton's The Naughtiest Girl in School series of books, which I won in a competition in national school, but I used to hanker after incarceration in a similarly inspirational institution. Even if the reality didn't match up for my aunt Marie. She grew up in the midlands and was sent off to boarding school at the shockingly young age of six, a traumatic event that she still remembers nearly seven decades later.

But other country girls had more positive experiences, such as Fionnuala Taylor, nee Walsh, of The Salmon Pool in this town. She loved boarding with the Dominicans in Wicklow. The fact that she started there aged 12 probably helped. And she had her sisters, Margaret and Marina, all a year behind each other.

Though family ties could get you into trouble. "Once one of my sisters was accused of letting off a fire ­extinguisher, and I got called in about it and told off too," Fionnuala laughs.

The education system had also softened around separation in the decades since my aunt's devastating departure, insisting that students go home once a month. Which was a win-win situation, since it meant a treasure trove of tuck boxes between visits. "Back then, the pub had a grocers and sweet shop in the front part," Fionnuala remembers, "so we had a perfect set-up!"

Fionnuala also ­remembers her first day - though for reasons that were typical of this county. It was the first Sunday in September - which meant Cork was playing Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling final. Her parents arrived early to watch the match in a nearby pub. Which was where Fionnuala met the girl who was to become her best friend. Her family was doing the same thing - except they were supporting Cork.

They've remained best friends ever since - despite love not blossiming at the debs for Fionnuala's brother, Martin, who accompanied her best friend. Mrs Walsh's closest chum, Peggy, had married her brother. "That's what we kept telling Martin," ­Fionnuala says, "but he wasn't having any of it!"

I wondered how ­Fionnuala found her escort, given she was tucked away in the educational ­equivalent of Rapunzel's tower. But clearly there were no flies on the nuns, who organised social 'home and away' evenings with a few different boys schools. "You had six dances - and hence six opportunities to find someone!"

Fionnuala thinks her debs was far more ­glamorous than the one that her son Callum recently attended. "It was a family occasion and you had to dress in white or off-white - nothing else would do."

Fionnuala's brothers also went to boarding school, though Gerald was on his own by the time it was his turn. Mrs Walsh, who also went to not just boarding school but finishing school in her day, still has the first letter that he sent home. "I have no address," David Copperfield wrote. "I don't know where I am."

But from the sounds of those superlative school days, sure, where would you be going?

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