My School Days


I started Dreenan Primary School at an early age. My older siblings were already there and I was anxious to join them. I can still remember my first day at school. It was a bright June morning, I was dressed in a pale green dress and black blazer; my mother left me to the door. Miss Mooney bent down to greet me and I was then brought over to sit on a low bench in front of the open hearth. Marie McKee played with me and pretended to let me fall back. I was scared but soon adjusted.

Pupils stayed in Miss Mooney’s room until the end of the second class. Here we were taught the basics of our education - headlines for writing and to learn proverbs, reading, arithmetic [tables] knitting, nature study, drawing, Irish, storytelling and singing. There was a big abacus to help us count. It was positioned to the right of the window in the corner. We sat at low desks with a seat attached and an ink well at the front. Miss Mooney took the opportunity to teach things outside the curriculum. We had a lesson on how to clean a cup using ashes from the fire. This operation was explained slowly and took about 10 minutes. Then there was the grilling of the herring - suspended over the tongs and barbecued over the open fire. Nothing was wasted. The milk bottles had brown cardboard tops with a hole in the middle. They were saved and we spent hours threading different colours of wool through them. The coloured circles were then made into a bag. We started to knit at an early age, boys as well as girls, some using nails as there were not enough needles to go around. Learning to knit was a difficult mechanical task as the wool had to sit at the correct angle across the index finger of the right hand. We learned a rhyme to help us along `In the little bunny hole, round the big tree, up through the bunny hole and off goes she`. The first real thing we knit was a pin cushion - a long strip in plain knitting which was rolled up and stitched to keep in place. Miss Mooney made a long loop so that it could hang on a nail at home. We then graduated to knitting a scarf, a pixie, a ball, toys, slippers, socks and gloves. Some girls were able to `turn a heel` of a sock by the age of 9. I emerged from my primary education at 11+ being able to knit almost anything.

On the wall there was a teddy bear which Miss Mooney used as a visual aid for her story telling. She also had a knit gollywog to tell us that there were people of different colour in the world. We were often given `dabbing cards` to collect money for the `black babies` and on one occasion we had a visit from some nuns with a black doll. We took turns nursing this black baby.

At the end of the table, which was to the right of the door, there was a hook for a small enamel mug. We all used this to drink from a bucket of water fetched daily from Rankins. I took my turn to carry the water, and for several weeks went over with Marie Celine.We crossed the road down the steps, across the field to the house. One of the family filled the bucket and we went into the house. Mary Anne was usually baking bread, the kettle was singing on the range and the house was full, Lizzie, Tommy, Kathleen, Felix. Often we got a treat, in the autumn this was usually an apple from the orchard which stands in front of the house. The bee-hives are long since gone. Felix had the school open in the mornings and in winter the fires were lit before we arrived. The rooms were cosy and warm. We owe a lot to the Rankin family, may they all rest in peace.

Occasionally we had a visit from an inspector. I can recall a Mr Hill, a small man, wearing a grey suit with a shiny bald head. We had to write a story and we all wrote about getting our 1st tooth pulled by Miss Mooney. He was amazed at her ability to do this. It was really quite simple. The tooth was loose, she made a loop with a piece of thread, put the loop over the tooth, gave a sharp tug or two and the tooth was out!

Before we left Miss Mooney’s room we made our 1st communion. This involved long hours of preparation and we made our 1st Confession in her room. Father McGlynn came, sat on a chair, the blackboard was taken off the easel and sat down to provide a sort of `barrier`. We knelt down and confessed our sins. At that time the 3rd Sunday of each month was `Children’s Communion` Sunday so the two priests came to the school for confession on the preceding Friday. Then there was the `priest coming`. This was an annual visit by the E.I. Father Rooney. For weeks and weeks we prepared our catechism and prayers. We learned off and repeated answers eg who is exempt from fasting? `sick people, women with child, nurses, labourers and old persons of languishing constitution - heavy going for an 8 - 9 year old. I couldn’t understand the last two words. I thought languishing was the same as language and the constitution was the name of a weekly paper delivered by the bread man on Saturday nights. Father Rooney once asked a cute sort of question `can a pagan baptise a Christian?` One smart pupil wasn’t tricked - `not necessary` was the answer - `sure a Christian is baptized.` Father Rooney put in his place. New clothes were bought for the visit and in many cases knit. I recall that on one occasion I didn’t get a new skirt and had to wear the same tartan skirt, with a new cardigan. As there were not many changes of good clothes, people did remember.

Life was hard. No central heating, electricity, flush toilets or running water. The outside toilet was cleaned out by two of the boys every evening and as some of my family recollect, there is a fertile spot at the bottom of Tommy Rankin’s garden. We took turns mopping out the porch every evening.

In winter the crates of milk were thawed out beside the fire and we drank this with our `piece` - two thick slices of bread and jam. Some boys and girls had scones and the odd one had nothing. Miss Mooney was very observant and broke off a side of her own bread to give to these children. When we achieved well in our travails we got rewards in the shape of one dolly mixture - a sandwich, a half moon, a star. She tried to weave a story round each one.

A partition separated the two rooms and at the age of 8 we went to Miss Boyle. In this room there was a range at the top and to the right a desk where the rolls were kept. We made incendiary devices! The milk tops were now made of aluminum foil, so we wrapped match heads with this, placed them on top of the hot stove and they `whizzed` around the room - we were not always well behaved.

Miss Boyle excelled at Irish, Geography, History and Literature. She was a fluent Irish speaker and when Father McMenamim CC called they conversed in Irish. She held Irish classes in her home and encouraged pupils to go to the Gaeltacht in Gortahork. Each year we prepared for a visit from Nora O’Kane Draperstown. We were tested in Irish and then got a prize. I still have the Jug I won for dialogue with a doll and other activities. We knew all about the children of Lir as Miss Boyle recounted some of the Irish myths and legends. We stood around a big map of Ireland and learned off the islands. `Rathlin Island to the NE of Antrim, Copeland Islands to the East of Down, Lambey Island and Ireland’s Eye to the east of Dublin etc. we memorized these and pointed them out on the map. It was taken for granted that we knew the names and locations of the 32 counties as well as the Wicklow Mountains - Macgillacuddy’s Reeks etc. Literature had a special place in the curriculum. We learned off parts of the `Merchant of Venice` in our introduction to Shakespeare and poems which we liked but didn’t understand `The burial of Sir John Moore`, `The destruction of Sennacherib`. Art was encouraged and we particularly liked `potato cuts` to do designs. The nib was used to cut a hole in the potato. We also drew complicated designs using compasses. Once a week Miss Mooney took `singing` - she got out the modulator and tried, often, unsuccessfully, to teach the scales.

I walked the mile to school and each step was a nature trail. We knew when to look for frog spawn and poked at drains with sticks. We picked catkins, wild roses and ate wild strawberries. We knew the names of birds, weeds and wild flowers. Some children such as McKees and Morgans crossed over the moss and came down the lane at the `cuttings`. After heavy rainfall their path was too dangerous. Nobody though, had an accident.

We made our own games, skips during the summer at the back of the school and the odd ball game. Most games were passive - such as juggling balls and spinning tops. These were made out of spools - cut in half and often a pencil stuck down the middle. Occasionally the `funny man` a Mr Fernie, paid a passing visit! He performed some tricks which fascinated us for about 1 hour.

Then there was the dreaded Mr Houston - the Attendance Officer. School was compulsory until the age of 14. There was the statutory potato picking week which often extended over the limit. The fair days attracted certain families who thought that a day at Maghera Fair or Kilrea was more beneficial to their education than learning about Hiawatha.

I recall many more memories such as the lint dam just below the school, the lighting of gorse on our way home and running away when we heard the `swish` of the fire, walking home on our bare feet during the summer, watching the movements of the `Granny Greybeards` on the road.

Dear reader, I could go on and on but I will end now by quoting a few lines from `Ulysses` by Tennyson

`I am part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch where thro’

Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margins fades

For ever and for ever when I move`.

We had a great education in Dreenan School.