Nobody believed I saw de Valera driving through our council estate

Family Fortunes: I saw him for a second. It was the huge black car I noticed first

Attending the Michael Collins memorial mass in The Church of The Most Holy Trinity, Dublin Castle, in June 1969, were (right) President Éamon de Valera and Mr Sean Lemass FF TD. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

Attending the Michael Collins memorial mass in The Church of The Most Holy Trinity, Dublin Castle, in June 1969, were (right) President Éamon de Valera and Mr Sean Lemass FF TD. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

 

Walking to school along slushy streets; wet-cornflake-like leaves, slick underfoot. It always seemed to be raining; probably because it always was. We had no school uniform but uniformity was everywhere.

Our house was on a council estate and every boy who came from there wore the same drab clothes. Wellingtons in wintertime, grey short pants, duffle coats and woollen balaclavas. Balaclavas – I vividly remember being lashed across the face by one that had been soaked under the tap in the school playground – blinded and stung, unable to open my numbed eyelids.

Numbness was a familiar feeling. The stocky Christian Brother raised himself on his toes, straining as he positioned the leather strap as far as he could behind his arching back. If you moved you received another lash as punishment. Red welts formed immediately; such was the severity of pain there were very few boys who didn’t cry. All would seek comfort in the cold metal of the school desk. The school itself was located on affluent St Michael’s Road, not far from working-class St Michaels Avenue; socially and economically, they were miles apart.

Everybody was talking about it next day at school

It happened on a Sunday afternoon in the mid-1960s; the privet hedge hadn’t yet grown high enough to obscure the view of the road – the “main road” as we called it, between Tipperary and Cashel. I saw him for a split second. It was the huge black car that I noticed first. Cars were a rarity then, allowing us to play “goals to goals” from our railings to the ones directly across the road. He looked like any other old man – dark-clothed and serious of face. I knew immediately that he was different. He was de Valera, president of Ireland.

The most exasperating part was that no one believed me. “It couldn’t be. What would he be doing passing our front gate, and how would you know who he was anyway?” So, that was it. They thought I was too young to recognise the famous man in the back seat.

Everybody was talking about it next day at school. It seems that “The Long Fellow” was tired and needed to find some place where he could rest a while. I’m sure his driver never considered stopping in St Michael’s Avenue. A classmate, whose dad was a vet, lived a short distance from the town; theirs was a pleasant house – safe and set back from the road. It was there that Dev had his afternoon nap. I was vindicated.

Martin Nugent

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