Remembered: my first day at school
Starting primary school can be a scary business, which is why that first day can linger in the memory many decades later. Ten very different people look back at their first day in “big school”
Minister for Education and Skills
The Minister has strong memories of his first day at St Michael’s in Dublin. “I started ‘big school’ after the Easter holidays of 1952. St Michael’s was a small school in those days, with fewer than 130 pupils. On my first day, my father brought me in at around 11am after the school day had started. We walked through the connecting corridor of rooms in the garden basement of that fine old house that still stands on the corner of Ailesbury Road and Merrion Road. I remember the smell of Jeyes fluid from the brushed timber floors.
“We were greeted by Fr Maguire, the school principal. After a few words, my father left. Fr Maguire tapped on the window of the door of the junior classroom and the teacher welcomed me into a room with about six twin desks. I was given a slate and a piece of chalk and asked to sit beside Tim Crowe. I remember the smell of mala or plasticine and Tim’s friendly greeting and sniffy nose. He remains a friend of mine to this day.”
“All I can remember of my first day is being terrified, absolutely terrified, and finding it a very alien place,” says the former minister for education, who went to school in Athlone. Part of the terror came from the intimidating Mercy nuns: “They were in full regalia with great long veils and starched wimples and great breastplates of white, starched again. They scared the life out of me.”
But O’Rourke was also scared by the sheer noise of so many children in one place. “We had a big gravel school yard and the din on the first day was terrible. I vividly remember the shouts and roars, and how everyone seemed to have a pal but I didn’t seem to have one.”
She wasn’t used to being left to fend for herself. “I was the youngest [in my family] so I suppose I was a bit petted.” But there was salvation at the end of the day when her mother appeared to take her away on her bicycle. “She had a little seat on the back for me and I can still feel myself holding on to her jacket. There’d be no safety straps. I remember seeing her face looking through the railings. And then I was rescued, and away off with me.”
Mary O’Rourke’s autobiography Just Mary will be published by Gill Macmillan in October
Writer and director
By the time John Butler started primary school, he’d already survived a first-day trauma when he began Montessori school the previous year. “On that day, mum had wrapped digestive biscuits in cling film and a jam sandwich and I ate it straight after breakfast. I’d have spent all the time with mum up until that point, so eating the food was probably me acting out, trying to rebel.”
There was no secretive biscuit eating when he started primary school. Instead, his new school opened the young Butler’s eyes. “There were so many kids, about 180 in each year. Growing up is about accepting that the scale of things is constantly increasing, and [starting school] is the equivalent of going away to another country and realising the world is a huge place. You realise that these kids, they’ve all got parents, all got families, and you think, wow, we live in a big, big world. I loved it. I didn’t have much trauma about primary – my back was broken by play school. I’d already been taken to a strange building and left there by my mother.” John Butler’s novel The Tenderloin is published by Picador.
Singer and composer
Julie Feeney has a strong visual memory of her first day in what she describes as “a beautiful country school beside a forest” in Abbeyknockmoy, Co Galway. “I remember sitting in the little red chair, with its red seat and back, and yellow tubes. Tiny little chairs. I remember that very well. And I had an old-fashioned wooden desk. We had a thing called Teach Róisín – a little wooden house in the classroom. You could go into it and there was a little kitchen in it. Maybe three or four children could fit, and it was magical for us.”