Entry 63: Hold Me Love Me– I was appointed as a teacher at Ballymena Academy in January 1980. It was a bit of a change from the multicultural, behavioural and academic mix that was Warrawong High School in NSW where I had worked for six years. The Academy was selective, taking the top 10% of students sorted by an exam at age 11. It was almost exclusively white and Christian- mostly Protestant although a few of the wealthier Catholic families sent their kids there. 95% of the kids wore their uniform neatly, did their homework without complaint and were attentive and cooperative in class. The polished, civilised, veneer of middle-class respectability shone out- for most of the time.
Not an adverse criticism- we need our veneers to cover the less sightly aspects of our souls and to protect us against damaging elements. Towards the end of the academic year, in early June, we were shocked in the Glens (I was back living in Cushendall, again) by the news that John Turnley, the area’s biggest landowner, had been assassinated on his way to a council meeting by three members of the UDA, the biggest Protestant paramilitary group. Although a scion of the Protestant ascendency, he had been drawn to the nationalist side of politics and, as a recent member of the Irish Independence Party, was agitating for recognition of political status for Republican prisoners in the H-Block.
In my senior classroom shortly after, I remarked on the savagery of this murderous attack on a husband and father. Silence. No one actually said he deserved it because no one said anything, but the silence was eloquent: he was a turncoat, a lundy. The latter word is a Northern Irish colloquialism which is derived from the name of the governor of Derry in the 18th century, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Lundy, who was suspected of Catholic sympathies by the Protestant community.
Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem Punishment recognises the reciprocal nature of this silent response where he compares the 2000 year-old killing of a young female adulterer exhumed from a German bog with the treatment of Catholic girls who consorted with British soldiers in Northern Ireland: they were chained to railings, their hair was shaved off and hot tar was poured over them. Thinking of the bog girl he admits,
I almost love you/but would have cast, I know, /the stones of silence… I who have stood dumb/when your betraying sisters,/ cauled in tar,/wept by the railings. Like my students a few years later, he understands the exact and tribal… revenge.
When I attended a performance of Brian Friel’s acclaimed drama, Translations a few months later, I understood much better the theme of failure to communicate which underpins the play which is set in a remote rural settlement in 1833 as two British officers come to map the area for the Ordnance survey. In making a map, of course, the maker gets to name (or rename) all the places and notate the roads, bridges, forests, hills, settlements and other strategic elements that form the necessary preparation for the consolidation of imperial rule.
They are accompanied by Owen, the son of the alcoholic teacher of the local hedge school- an Irish institution of which Irish writer, William Carelton, provided the following contemporaneous account to amuse his English reading audience,
On once asking an Irish peasant, why he sent his children to a school master who was notoriously addicted to spirituous liquors, rather than to a man of sober habits who taught in the same neighbourhood, “Why do I send them to Mat Meegan, is it?” he replied – “and do you think, Sir,” said he, “that I’d send them to that dry-headed dunce, Mr. Frazher, with his black coat upon him, and his caroline hat, and him wouldn’t take a glass of poteen wanst in seven years? Mat, Sir, likes it, and teaches the boys ten times betther whin he’s dhrunk nor when he’s sober; and you’ll never find a good tacher, Sir, but’s fond of it.
The Catholic hierarchy were pleased when the British Government introduced National Schools in the 1830s because, as the bishop of Kildare wrote to his priests in 1831, he approved of the rule which requires that all the teachers are henceforth to be employed be provided…with a certificate of their competency, that will aid us in a work of great difficulty, to wit, that of suppressing hedge schools, and placing youths under the direction of competent teachers, and of those only. That is, only those of whom the hierarchy approved would get a position.
The best hedge schools (which were held in barns or cabins rather than hedges) taught a range of subjects, including Greek and Latin as well as a curriculum geared to local needs. Where, oh where, are they now? The song which follows maps three different scenarios of imposing one’s will.