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The building that housed our National School had a strange history: it began life as a hospital.

Then it became a military barracks, wherein many men saw their last moments. The government said that they were executed. The opposition said that they were murdered. For us small boys -- we were about nine and 10 -- coming up from the Presentation Convent it didn't matter: we were more interested in our own future than the horrible past.

The school had a big yard but nobody dared enter it. The Master arrived in a baby Austin that had probably been one of the first off an assembly line in Cambridge or Coventry or wherever.

He gave the keys to the head boy who opened the gate and then the door of the school. Then there was a mad dash in which several boys broke the record for the 50 yards.

Small boys learned to keep out of the way. The purpose of the race was to get the best seats in sixth class. In the theatre the best seats are those in front. In sixth class the best seats were at the back because there you were safe from the questioning of the Master: you could play fox-and-geese or noughts-and-crosses or swap comics. There were six of those places and they were won not only by mobility but by skullduggery.

The Master didn't mind because he knew that those boys had no interest in education and he rarely bothered them, except when calling the roll. They were called at 9.30am. And then began the real work of the day. The first class was called mental arithmetic but it wasn't that way at all: it was more a testing of general knowledge with mathematics thrown in. The questions were as follows: "A gross and a half of apples at one and half pennies? Three and a half dozen eggs at a hal'penny? How many days between September 1 and October 5? What is the capital of Scotland? What river runs through Paris? Three and three-quarter dozen of oranges at two and three-quarter pence? One thousand and a half bananas at three and a half pence? What river runs through Dublin?"

The lesson ended usually with a difficult question. "If a person was born tomorrow what age would that person be in 1991?" There would be a frantic looking at calendars and then one boy would stand up and say: "Please teacher, is that person a man or a woman?"

Then began the correction of the exercises given the night before. It was mainly long division and questions on decimals.

You might be asked to divide 57 by 15. If you had been well taught it was no bother. Then came decimals. You might be asked to multiply .75 by .57. It was no bother if you followed the ordinary rules.

Then next came the most important 40 minutes of the day. We were taught English grammar: how to recognise the principle clause from a subordinate clause. And then you were asked to divide subordinate clauses into adverbial, adjectival and noun. It wasn't difficult if you remembered the rules.

An adverbial clause told you something about a verb in the main clause. An adjectival clause taught you something about a noun in the main clause. A noun clause was no difficulty: if you could take out the words and put in "something" you had a noun clause. For example: "The hunter said that he had found many wolves in the forest." You can take out all the words after "said" and put in "something".

English grammar would prove to be of enormous importance when we came to study Latin or Greek or any foreign language. We hardly realised it then, but we were being taught the fundamentals of language. Sixth class was upstairs on the right-hand side and, in looking back, I think of it as a centre of higher studies. It was there that I got the foundation in languages and in mathematics.

In the half hour remaining before the break we were taught about area and volume. And we were introduced to a rascal called pi. This would follow us all through our lives, even at University. Pi went back into ancient times.


The old Romans and the Greeks used to buy and sell elephants by their weight. The elephant was put into a pond and eventually taken out. You measured the amount of water in the pond before he went in. Then you measured the amount of water he displaced. You subtracted that from the original.

We couldn't do the same in our school -- we dropped a stone into a cylindrical gallon. We thought this was brilliant. It was called calculus and we were to deal with it all our lives. When that lesson in area and volume was over, we were released for break in the yard. When the survivors came back, they faced a horrible 40 minutes. The Master took down the pointer and it wasn't for pointing, it was for punishing.

Even those of us who loved Irish and were good at it hated it. That tension-filled 40 minutes was because the Master feared the inspectors and he transferred his fear to the boys who were slow.

Many of those left school with a hatred of the language that had once been the spoken language of their country. It was in those classes that the Irish Revival was lost. The aim was to inflict rather than to teach.When it was over, we were relieved. The day finished with history and geography. They were no problem.

Fogra: Congratulations to Mickey Whelan on being awarded his doctorate in DCU. We wish him and his wife well in the future