Why I’m a graduate of the old school

An Irishman’s Diary in praise of outdoor education

 “I’m fairly sure none of my paternal ancestors ever had need of a mortarboard hat (an actual mortarboard is another matter). No. If they walked the groves of academe, it was in the strictly arboreal sense. The “college” they were named for, located on the family holding, was a hedge school.”

“I’m fairly sure none of my paternal ancestors ever had need of a mortarboard hat (an actual mortarboard is another matter). No. If they walked the groves of academe, it was in the strictly arboreal sense. The “college” they were named for, located on the family holding, was a hedge school.”

Wed, Jun 4, 2014, 10:07

In the part of Monaghan from which my father’s ancestors emanated, there was a severe glut of families called McNally. So, to keep track, they all had to be given nicknames. This was a haphazard process, and a family could be unlucky in its subtitle. But my forefathers did well in the lottery. As a result, to this day, their offspring are known as the “College” McNallys.

Grand as this may sound, it does not imply an ancestral tradition of third-level education. I’m fairly sure none of my paternal ancestors ever had need of a mortarboard hat (an actual mortarboard is another matter). No. If they walked the groves of academe, it was in the strictly arboreal sense. The “college” they were named for, located on the family holding, was a hedge school.

The Irish family nickname system mirrors to some extent the old Gaelic chieftain tradition. Thus, while he was still alive, my father was always known as “The” College. As one of his sons, I was sometimes “Young” College. But collectively, the children were all just “the Colleges”.

And I suppose that should have an apostrophe, although it works both ways. Without the apostrophe, we could be considered constituent Colleges, all seven of us, of the main body. In which context, my father was a more extensive institution than the National University of Ireland.

I presume that, when he died, I as elder son technically became “The” College. But like a youthful Hugh O’Neill, I was exiled in the Pale by then, where the old titles weren’t recognised. But perhaps I too will go native again, eventually – getting sworn in in the ancient manner and the retreating to the woods to harry Saxons.

Hedge schools did not always involve hedges. They were often held indoors, in barns, even halls occasionally. And although synonymous with the impoverished Catholic poor of the 18th and 19th centuries, they weren’t always poor, or Catholic.

For one thing, the school master usually had to be funded by local parents, so the schools were essentially fee-paying establishments – albeit that, in the more humble versions, the “voluntary contribution” might be a sod of turf for the fire.

The name aside, our ancestral hedge-school has long vanished, so I don’t know whether it was indoors or out. But I prefer to picture it being under a broad chestnut tree. And I like to think some vestige of its outdoor enlightenment may explain my troubled relationship with the State education system, all of which happened in stuffy classrooms.

My academic record is certainly eccentric. I am the owner, for example, of an MA, but not of a BA for which the kindly admissions department of Dublin City University accepted 10 years of life experience – the modern equivalent of turf – as alternative. Even then, this was part of a pattern. Because, before that, I had a Leaving Certificate – two in fact – but not an Inter Cert.

That last part, at least, was not my fault. You grew up fast in 1970s Ireland. And in the January of Inter Cert year, myself and an equally blameless classmate called Colm Smyth found ourselves to be still only 13, which was apparently against the law. You had to be 14 at the start of the calendar year to sit the Inter. Even so, were told to keep studying and maybe the school would secure an exemption.

It didn’t. So in the end, we had the worst of both worlds. On the first day of the exams, and all subsequent days, the underage misfits were sent to an empty classroom to await the release of papers from the actual hall. There was a time-delay, for security purposes. Then we just pretended to sit the Inter Cert, under supervision.

I have a vague recollection of being threatened – unconvincingly – with professional marking of the papers. In the event, that didn’t happen either. But as bad luck would have it, this shortfall was more than made up for two years later when my Leaving Cert papers were marked by Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, herself. What a rude awakening that was.

Still, it has all ended well, belatedly. Earlier today, in a private ceremony, I retrospectively awarded myself nine honours in the Inter Cert, and signed it “The College”. In a similar capacity, I hereby wish the best of luck to all students starting exams this morning. I hope that any enlightenment you experience is internal, and not just from the sun, cruelly shining on you through the windows of indoor educational establishments.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com