Brian Leyden: I was a pioneer of free education, a protégé of Donogh O’Malley

A wonderment. Changed. Knowledgeable. Fortunate – writer captures what it felt like when free secondary education was introduced 49 years ago in September 1967

We were the children of farmers and coalminers, factory workers and labourers; the horny-handed sons of the soil and daughters of the daub. And we burst like a landslide through the front door of the nearest Vocational School thanks to Donogh O’Malley’s pre-emptive announcement in 1966 that all schools up to Intermediate Certificate level were to be free and that free buses would bring students from rural areas to the nearest school.

At the time, the biggest gatherings of young people happened after Mass on Sundays. Weekdays were passed in a brutalised daze in the three-room National School. Now and then a visiting magician showed up; and once a year we dipped our plastic combs under the tap, cat-licked and smartened ourselves up for the school photographer.

The Vocational School looked and felt different. Bisected by a central entrance, the main building had a long corridor where the girls kept to the kitchen, science room, shorthand and commerce side of the building and the boys occupied the opposite woodwork and metalwork room end. As soon as we were settled the Principal gave us a pep talk and told us “A good education is easily carried”.

The metalwork room reeked of the green Swarfega soap we used to clean our hands that, miraculously, survived the industrial lathes and metal shears we learned to operate in the workshop. Our maths teacher hauled us over Pythagoras’s theorem, which she called the bridge of asses. Ireland’s chief exports were “shoes, grass and molasses”.


Then there was the English class, full of long-faced lads of 14, already able cattle and sheep dealers, and girls only waiting to get nursing or find a job in the bank, ploughing through adverbs and pronouns while having their lunches stolen, their flasks broken and their bags smuggled out the window.

At lunchtime the gable end of the metalwork room allowed for endless games of handball and wet days meant queues for table tennis if the ball wasn’t lost or dented. Our school was big on volleyball with football relegated to a swampy field at a distance from the school where I was taught to use surveyor’s poles and chains to measure for the umpteenth time that sodden spratty acre that passed for a playing field.

The number of students increased and even the additional wooden prefabs surrounding the practical rooms of the main building became heavily over-crowded. The search for chairs at the start of every class was a well-tried stalling tactic. Other hand-me-down traditions of the free education system included countless hours spent sitting on the storage heaters, copying homework on the bus, filling the religion teacher’s hat with chalk dust, getting someone to look up the hood on the forge in the metalwork room and then hitting it to blacken them with soot.

If for some reason I ever found myself on the outside in the silent grounds of the school for misbehaviour while everyone else was at work indoors, it made me feel strange, uncomfortably removed and conscious of my own absence from the true purpose of the place.

The highlight of every year was the school tour to the Spring Show in the RDS. And just as there was no joy in being at large in the school grounds with the teachers and pupils alike busily at work, so it was always better to be on the annual school tour rather than take the day off.

A can or two of shandy might get shared around the bus in the dark on the way home, in the same spirit of transgression that saw couples pairing off at the back of the bus to engage in hand-holding under a coat or sweet first kisses and light petting on the return journey in the dark.

No such intimacy was allowed on the big yellow 45-seater school buses that took us round the country on the twice-daily journey to and from the Tech. Nicknamed “purgatory on four wheels”, on dark and filthy wet winter mornings the radio on the school bus mocked us with inducements to “Join the JWT set” on Joe Walsh package tour holidays to the sun.

In the evenings on the back seat, bouncing over the bog roads for hours at a stretch, the school bus passed the farmsteads and the laneways, the roadside homes and the county council cottages, the birthplaces and the stomping grounds of my friends and classmates. Generation upon generation of scholars collected and dropped off throughout the vocational school year, each at their own particular crossroads; each with a green Coras Iompair Éireann free transport ticket like a passport, coming home to parents who looked on proudly at their school-going sons and daughters and saw us as O’Malley’s protégés. A wonderment. Changed. Knowledgeable. Fortunate.

Brian Leyden lives in Sligo. His new novel is Summer of ’63 (Lepus Print)