by Rev. Thomas Finan, Maynooth College
One of my earliest memories of Stokane National School is not within the alma mater itself, but on the road home from it. A white, dusty road between lush verges on a brooding June afternoon, with Summer stillness all round, but inside my head the soporific buzz of a “bee-loud glade”. We had been learning Yeats' “Lake Isle”, and I was drugged by its music..
I will arise and go now and go to lnnisfree
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
It was the start of a long affair, with poetry in general but with Yeats in particular, and with the magic of the region, to which Yeats owes so much of his own magic. It is one of my debts to Stokane, one of those precious “awakenings” on the way into life and the things of beauty its geniuses create.
Mention of life and it’s particularly remembered moments leads us into reflections. And, here again, at the other end of time, Yeats comes to mind. He visited a convent school once, in some sort of official capacity — as “a sixty- years-old smiling public man”. Out of the thoughts that arose in him he made one of his greatest poems, “Among School Children”. “I walk through the long schoolroom questioning ......” The occasion called up epiphanies from his own school years and from all the decisive stages that followed . . . up to the present “comfortable old scarecrow ... with sixty or more Winters on its head”. And the “questioning” turns on the deepest reflections about what he has become, in body and spirit, at the end of the whole strange eventful history.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
(“That shook yeh!” — I can hear the current cant phrase with which Stokane would have put down high-sounding and mysterious ways of saying things....)
Dancing was not one of the accomplishments on the Stokane curriculum, although a lot of it was done at the time, especially in those ballrooms of the only romance people had in those days. And yet not in them alone. One of my memories of Stokane is the regular accounts of house-dances up the road, breathlessly retailed the morning after by one of my pals in the back benches. (I also recall his even more breathless account of a not entirely unrelated “discovery” ... I pass over what it was, but he was an enthusiastic rabbiter and, consequently a ferret-fancier......)
I used to envy my pals those house-dance nights of imagined high life and high kicking — if only over the broomstick. It made me feel I was not quite living it up myself. And truth to tell, I never did master many steps in the terpsichorean art — as my later schooling did enable me to call it. That later schooling, however, while it educated my head did not do the same for my feet. In those days the terpsichorean art was thought to have little to do with the road I took. Fashions change, alas, and very often now I am made to feel once more that I am not quite living it up. The lightest of light fantastic toes I have ever seen have been in the follow-up to, for instance, ordination breakfasts. I have even heard rumours of Parish Priests-Elect taking crash courses in the thing — poor retarded pre-Vatican II creatures like myself trying to catch up with aggiornamento and the signs of the times. Quite right, too. King David danced before the Ark of the Convenant. And in an old end-of-term custom known as a Free Class in the Maynooth that was, a clerical student once danced before myself — enthroned in front of him on the lecture hall rostrum.
But I digress. In Yeats (who also had the thing only in his head, and was tone-deaf to boot), dancer and dance are but metaphors for that human life that takes its first formal steps on the way from childhood to age, from innocence and ignorance to wisdom, within the walls of the primary school. What does that life mean? What has it “blossomed” into — external appearance notwithstanding - by the time it is loaded “with sixty or more Winters on its head”? It has become the inseparable unity of that duality that consists of the “dancer” and his “dance” — what we are in ourselves and what we have managed to “make” out of what we are.
Naturally, that final compound is deeply coloured by our earliest formal educational influence, the primary school. Like so many institutions in Ireland the “National School” began in dark and evil days. But it served well all the generations that trod, unshod, over the roads and the fields to school. That service was compounded for two elements, teachers dedicated to their work, and pupils who well-deserved the Irish term
mic léinn, sons of learning, deep dyed as they were with the traditional Irish rearguard for education and
It is only fidelity to history to recall these things at a time when so many shapers of opinion forget or ignore them in favour of less-generous thoughts. There is the widespread idea that bigger is necessarily better, despite another growing realisation — that “small is beautiful”. There is the newly-fashionable sniping at our traditional educators — alleged cruelty, narrowness, undue Church influence, etc. It is useful to read some less-blinkered history, accounts, for instance, of schooling in England of the same period, so much richer and better served but lacking neither in “cruelty” nor “Church influence”. In fact, it was an English man, a great theorist and historian of education to whom Ireland owes much, who wrote, concerning critics of Church influence that, ultimately, it is thanks to the Church’s contribution to education that its critics can speak or write coherently at all. I refer, of course, to Cardinal Newman, as saintly as he was scholarly — shades of our island past.
To illustrate from my own case, when I left Stokane I could use the Irish language. (How I would love now to recover those school readers that had the illustrations by Jack B. Yeats). I knew grammar and syntax, parsing and analysis. Years later, when I set a question on parsing and analysis in a Christmas examination in Maynooth, I made several pages of notes from the result. As a New Year entertainment I devoted a lecture to reading them out to the authors. They were rolling in the aisles as they heard the play-back of their own performance. I once discovered a degree student of mathematics who had never heard of Euclid. I still recall another moment of “awakening” in Stokane, when I suddenly tumbled to what the deuce it really meant that the sum of the angles made by a vertical on a horizontal line equalled one-hundred-and-eighty degrees (or words to that effect at this distance). And let us not forget Christian Doctrine. How well we were taught the Catechism in those pre-Vatican II days. And not just by rote but its meaning as well. In recall it’s clear language and rhythmic cadences still fall so pleasingly on the inner ear, unlike so much that we have had to read since.
Recalling the things we learned we recall the teachers who taught them, and gave us not only particular knowledge but also the foundations of general order in our minds. Their images float back out of the past . . . Miss Maye and Master Rouse, retired before my time, but still respected as dignified and appropriately magisterial figures. Mrs. Rouse (the Master’s wife), my first teacher, who appeared to me (in the poet’s phrase that I did not know then), “old and grey....and nodding by the fire”, but in reality was all alert and quick to rebuke any disorder or slacking with an expression peculiar to her that I have never heard again: “Suff on you!”
Mrs. Rouse had high hopes of myself. One illustration amuses me still. I went to night-school in woodwork at one stage in my “dance”. One Summer evening I was setting out on my bicycle from the front gate when she and the Master came down the road in their pony and trap. She stopped to make talk with my mother, and enquired about my doings. Her shock was elegant when she discovered where I was going. “I thought you’d be a doctor or a lawyer....or something like that!” In the event I became neither, nor much of a woodworker, for that matter. But I like the pungent aroma of sawn timber, and I consider it not a mean part of education to have learned something about the art of using tools for their proper purposes, and of sawing timber. .. “straight and true to the face edge”. And come to think of it, there is that astonishment of the natives when Christ came back to Nazareth and preached so well: “Surely this is the carpenter, the son of Mary. ..? A lecture by her introduced me to some of the history and antiquities of Castleconnor.
Then there was Miss Hanlon — only recently gone to her reward. Fresh from the mint she came. Bright and elegant, polite and timid and tip-toeing. As well as her interest and dedication she brought a touch of the exotic into our small world — pronouncing Irish after the Munster fashion.
And lastly, but mostly, there was John Murphy, only survivor now of my Stokane mentors, enjoying a long, ripe retirement into otium cum dignitate. John Murphy is the image of all images that embody the dedication of those teachers to their work. During the War years there was the petrol shortage. Day in, day out, Master Murphy pedalled the miles from Easkey to Stokane and back. Consequently, one of my fixed images of him has him astride his bicycle, wrapped in oilskins, arriving on time, flushed with pushing against wind and water.
John was dynamic and devoted, orderly and disciplined, and a fear ann féin. He, too, had expectations of me, and did not readily forgive my disappointing him at one stage by my performance in some examination or other. When I turned in a better one on a later occasion I can still see and hear him read out the resulis and snap: “Bhi sé in am duit, a Thomais!” Years later, after I had become neither doctor nor lawyer, nor carpenter but (from the bread-earning angle), another pedagogue, differing only in degrees from himself, he wondered what crime I had committed in some previous existence I begin to see his point. But, once more with feeling, “how can we know the dancer from the dance
As well as the good teachers one remembers also the good compapions. And in these liberated feminist times it is nice to be able to recall that they included lassies” as well as “lads”. We did not know it then — nor Stokane itself for that matter — but Stokane, like every other similar place, was ahead of its time in regard to “de-segregated” education! That jargon was to come later. The only real segregation was between the two school yards and that not always complete when it came to such occasional snatched pleasures as ring-a ring-of-roses. In our own corral at lunch-time we, males, extracted the morning packed collation from our satchelsand ingested such delicacies as the brown bread-and-butter that had a taste and aroma such as it never had on sea or land since then. On the strength of that there was the brief possibility of some athletic prowess before the bell rang again. The high jump was easier then — do bhi me luath a’s ta mé mall: Back in the classroom “segregatn diminished. The “quicker” could be designated occasionally to help the “slower” without exception of persons. But that often served to reveal the tutor’s own exceptions. And there goes poor old Yeats again: —
thereupon my heart is driven wild,
She stands before me as a living child?
The heart stirs at one particular way in which some of the girls widened our male horizons. They went to town on Saturdays for their music lessons. In that way coloured “transfers” were discovered and became all the rage. The discovery led to a weekly import order — and out into the enchanted world of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood and Maid Marion et al. As I write I learn that their story is currently the subject of two new Hollyrood films. Plus car change...
Outside that we had, of course, the normal blend — the ducklings and the daughters of swans, the placid and the fiery, the bright-eyed extroverts and the dark-pooled contemplatives with their shadows deep, the teases that teased and the Goldilocks that glistened. They come back in images — sloe-back eyes in an oval face framed in raven tresses, or the slow silver timbre of a reading voice.
All that, too, was education and “awakening”. Often awakenings that, in later years of higher education, would give the key to some of the greatest things in literature. I think of Dante. Far from him we were reared in Stokane, but when wider horizons brought one to the greatest scholars of Dante have never got that far — they never had benefit of the idylls of Stokane!
But the time passed and we all moved on and went our different ways. Our teachers grew old and passed on. Some of our companions passed on, too — some in the flower of youth, some in rich maturity, and one just as I write. But their memory and images have stayed, as permanent Presences, Presences, to revert to Yeats in his schoolroom...
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise...
Congratulations to Stokane School on its Centenary.
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