Some amazing things have happened to me since publication of Growing up so High, the story of a Liberties childhood. My book, to my surprise, became a number one bestseller and the correspondence between some of the readers and myself has brought me great joy and contentment. In fact, in the paperback edition of the book just launched, I have put my email address on the cover to encourage readers to write.
However, the nicest thing that happened was the renewal of acquaintance with my old primary school, Francis Street CBS, which I first attended in 1945. I needed to go back there last year to check that my recollection of the school was accurate. Were there really 63 boys in my class? Was Casimir Kane the name of that boy whose face I so well remembered? Would I be able to find the roll book of the old class with my name inscribed? The answer was yes in every case.
I was given a great welcome by the principal, Fiona Collins, and the secretary, Catherine Cole, not to mention the teachers, with whom I developed a pleasant relationship over the last year. The warmth and mutual respect fostered in the school gives it a remarkable ethos of learning and decent social behaviour. However, the highlight of my year was when Brendan Goggin, the teacher of 6th class (the last year of the primary school course), adopted my book as a class reader and identified themes in it which he felt could be explored by the class and myself, with his help.
His idea was that the boys, having read the material, could have a session of questions and answers with me, comparing our different experiences, to be followed by a short walking tour to relive some of the activities of the old days as set out in my book. I was delighted to accept and two weeks ago Brendan, the class and myself went on the trail of Growing up so High in the Francis Street area of the Liberties.
First stop was the bell tower area of St Nicholas of Myra Church adjacent to the school. This is normally locked up as the old side entrance is sealed, but Tom Reilly from the presbytery had left it open by arrangement for us. Brendan read that the blue stone floor of the porch to the side entrance was pitted and hollowed and the beautiful curved staircase led up to the bell tower and the children tried to imagine how many people must have passed over the flagstones to cause this wear. We held a moment of silence when we ascended the stairs and stood together in the bell-ringer’s room in a centuries-old atmosphere. One adventurous boy was all for going up the few wooden steps to the platform where the bell rope was hung in a very inviting way but ringing the bell at 10.45am was not really desirable from any point of view.
Our next stop was on the steps of the derelict Iveagh Market, opposite the Tivoli, where I showed them where my friend Tom Byrne, in the first chapter of my book, had been explaining to his cousin that the carved face on the second arch on the front of the market was Cochise, the Apache chief, and the boys all agreed that such a mistake was possible as the figure represented in the carving on the keystone of the arch was definitely wearing a tribal headdress.
Then it was time to re-enact the race from the steps of the market! Brendan read: “That race was from the steps of the Market to the corner of the old city wall in Lamb Alley and back. With ‘Ready, steady and go’, there was a wild rush past Grogan’s house beside the market and up Francis Street. The class stood poised for action.
“Then it was Lamberts pub, jostling for position before we hit O’Connor’s Hardware and Miss Phelan’s little clothes shop. The corrugated iron frontage to Handkerchief Alley came next and then we flew past our shop to Johnny Reas next door, with startled pedestrians getting out of our way as we went. We could hear the noise of budgies as we fled past O’Horas before we were engulfed by the whiff of fresh brown bread coming out of the Hazelhatch Dairy. Mushatts busy little chemists was the signal for getting into a good position before skidding around Moran’s pub on the corner…”
Then we walked the route. The sun was shining and the clamour of the boys with me reminded me of the lads of my own class so long ago. We crossed the street to the Tivoli Cinema side to touch the date, 1886, on the granite slab at the Baker Wardell factory entrance for luck, which I always did, and the boys of 2014 ceremonially repeated my childhood rite with great fervour.
Then it was around the corner into Thomas Street, getting ready to jump across the break in the footpath at the entrance to Madden’s Court at Rosie Flynn’s chandlers shop. I had been trying to leap that gap since I was first let out to play on the street. Today, the boys jumped the gap with ease, and we gaped into the alleyway that had once been a ferment of people, now deserted.
Brendan read: “Soon after, we had one of those periods of sunny weather that fill childhood summer memories. I was running everywhere in bare feet, taking the leap across Madden’s Court in one jump, or racing Olly down the forty steps in High Street. St Audoen’s Park, opposite the entrance to the church, was haunted by the Green Lady, so we stood under a tree and called on her to show herself. Green lady! Green lady! Come down to us, and appear to us if you’re here!”
So our class of 2014 checked out that there were still the exact number of 40 steps on a careful count and they all called down the Green Lady again in precisely the same incantation but with the cheerful disbelief of the modern schoolboy.
Then it was over to the ice-cream shop, where the boys made their choice and then sat in the sun on the steps of the Iveagh Market before heading back to school. We had only travelled a short distance on our trail, but we had disturbed the dust of centuries and Brendan and I agreed that it had been a successful outing. The boys could take pride in their local area and have a better idea of their own importance in maintaining continuity of tradition. As for me, it was a joyous tour in the best of company in a place I love, the Liberties of Dublin.
Sean O'Connor is author of Growing up so High: A Liberties Boyhood, which is out now in paperback. He will give a performance reading from it at Dalkey Book Festival at 4.30pm this Saturday, June 21st, in the Masonic Hall with an introduction by his son Joseph.