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Con Houlihan: Memories from the old school

In the '30s in this country you couldn't say there was a recession because a recession means bad times after good -- and it was generations since people had known good times.

The Civil War was over, in theory, but the malady lingered on. The spirit was very low and people were so obsessed with getting by that education counted for little. It was a bad time for the arts. At the time I knew an acclaimed classical conductor who was working with the band in Duffy's Circus.

There were many men and women who had taken degrees, such as the B.A. and the B.Sc and the BComm, who couldn't get jobs. And so a new element came into Irish education -- the lay secondary school. These were founded by teachers who couldn't get jobs.

A remarkable man called Sean Prendiville founded such a school in my home town. He was a man of many parts: he was fluent in Gaelic and Welsh and French and he was a nice player on the uileann pipes. These were admirable skills but they didn't help him much in getting a job. He was very brave in founding a school in an area where the big schools in Listowel and Tralee and Killarney dominated. It was akin to planting trees in the desert.

With two kindred spirits, Redmond Lane and Paddy Wolfe, the school survived for about five years. Then they moved on. They were tired of being poor. And a young man called Tim Kerrisk came in their place. Eventually Sean, too, got tired of being poor and took a teaching job in Dundalk. That seemed to be the end of the school.

A grand young woman called Nora Sheehan, from just across the Cork border, decided to revive the school and with Tim's help she got the show on the road. They advertised for a teacher. Of course, there was a queue. They picked a young man called Jim Lyons. He was tall and spare and erect and had a pale sad face which utterly belied him -- he had a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. They were lucky in their choice and Jim was lucky, too: all three had total integrity and commitment.

Jim was from one of the most famous parishes in Ireland. Knocknagoshel is known in song and story even though it is composed mainly of bog and mountain. It is a country that reminds me of what the Romans said about Sparta -- dura matrix, a stern mother. Jim was typical of his background, he knew the value of hard work and he would sympathise with a famous Latin proverb: 'Nil nisi mango labore dues dedit mortalibus.' This, in rough translation, means you get nothing on this earth unless you work for it.

He was lucky, too, in another respect: he had lodgings with a cousin of mine, May Browne, who, with her husband Joe McCarthy, had a great pub and restaurant and kept a few boarders. She was like a mother to them and he was very happy there until he got married. Again Jim was lucky: he married into the Morrisseys, who were like a royal family. They had a pub in Brosna. They reared a brilliant family. Jim was a great teacher: he was an enthusiast; he loved Latin and English -- above all, he was respected.

"He was kind and if severe in aught,

The love he bore to learning was at fault."

The school prospered, especially when Donogh O'Malley put the yellow buses on the mountain roads. Now, as Colaiste Phadraig, it is a thriving academy.

It was there I did my Leaving in a class of only four. Billy McCarthy qualified as a radio operator and sailed the seven seas and a few skies and returned to retire in Scartaglen, well-to-do and happy. Christy McSweeney went on to become one of the best-known and most successful publicans in Killarney. Our other member, Paddy Brosnan, died after a kick from a horse.

Jim Lyons and I met fairly often even though never by agreement. It just happened that our paths crossed and that we had many common interests -- Gaelic football, of course, and all kinds of literature and fishing and music, especially old folk songs. Indeed, we used to exchange such songs when they were very much out of fashion.

It was the age of the showband, good musicians who popularised bad music. And, of course, there were The Clancys and Tommy Makem who wore bawneens and made a lot of noise and a lot of money. In that same age my heroine, Margaret Barry, could hardly make a living. Some people are born too soon and some people are born too late.

And, of course, we both loved the Irish language but we didn't always speak it in the pubs because we thought that some people might be offended. The old language, then as now, was making slow progress. There had been great enthusiasm for it but the Civil War left behind a spiritual desert.

Castle Island is more or less part of the Sliabh Luachra tradition. The name describes no more than a rushy hillside but its music and song was a moveable feast. We were very friendly with the great fiddle players of the area, especially Patrick Keeffe and Gerry McCarthy and Denis Murphy. We were privileged to be their friends. And so, in a way, the bad times were good times.

We were lucky, too, in that we knew so many exciting Kerry football teams: the county had a great run between 1937 and 1986. Kerry had no greater follower than Jim Lyons. He never missed a final involving the county.

One Friday he was late coming home and his good wife said: "You were out longer than usual tonight. Who were you drinking with?" He said: "Connie Houlihan." And she said: "What were you talking about?" He replied: "Everything -- football and turf and pigs and fishing and so on." And she said: "Wasn't that a strange kind of conversation for educated men . . ." And Jim said: "Woman, that's the way we are and that's the way we'll be."

Fogra: Best wishes go to old friends, Michael Bradley and Eric Elwood, and their Connacht heroes.