‘The day I became fourth toughest boy in fifth class’: Irish Times writers’ school days

Fintan O’Toole, Frank McNally, Rosita Boland and others on their school memories

Fintan O'Toole

The Head Brother was a fierce and imposing man. He patrolled the corridors, fixing miscreants in his baleful glare, keeping at bay the anarchy he knew to be seething beneath the surface.

He had us cowed. Most of us were, as I was, from families where no one had gone to secondary school. We were willing to accept the bargain of conformity in the Catholic Ireland of the early 1970s. We would keep our feral natures in check in return for some notion of advancement.

Then came a day when the Head Brother was walking slowly past the open door of the classroom, where we were waiting for the teacher to arrive for class. Something flew through the air and hit him on the head.

It was a small, silvery packet with the word Durex printed on it. It was doubly unbelievable. It was impossible for such an object to exist among us, and utterly beyond credibility that someone had the gall to throw it at the Head Brother.


His own incredulity released itself in a volcanic outburst of rage. He erupted into the classroom, roaring the question he could barely articulate: “Who threw this?”

He kept repeating it while every one of us cowered and looked away, terrified lest we catch his eye and reveal the guilt that now clung to us collectively.

Since no one answered, he turned on the boy who was indeed by far the most likely candidate, the class messer: “It was you, wasn’t it?”

Johnny looked both stricken and offended by the accusation. “No sir, it wasn’t me. I’ve got mine in my pocket.” And he pulled it out as proof of his innocence.

I have never seen a man deflate so rapidly. The Head Brother shrank before our eyes. He could not speak. He shook his head three or four times and slunk away, utterly defeated.

Patrick Freyne

I have had many academic honours, but the highest accolade I have ever received was being designated fourth toughest in fifth class in my local national school in Co Kildare. Having moved around a lot between schools in my youth I was very aware of the political cross currents in the school yard and knew that I was still finding my feet socially. Most of my social cues were taken from the television programme the A-Team in which I idolised mental-health pioneer “Howling Mad” Murdock. I could see some of my classmates making their way in the world as the strongest, the cleverest or the best looking. All of these avenues were shut to me. From the life of “Howling Mad” Murdock, however, I learned that every gang needed a crazy “wild card” character. Looking around at my classmates, I was pretty sure I had an edge here.

And so it would turn out to be when eventually a sort of Battle Royale broke out in the school yard and the hierarchies of “toughest boy” in the class were up for grabs once more. Who was the arbiter of such things? That would be the unanimously accepted First Toughest Boy. His name was Dodo, nicknamed inexplicably after an extinct bird, who regularly looked across his puny classmates with disdain and rejigged the hierarchy once more. I was a runner (in so far as I usually ran away) not a fighter but on this day of random child violence I decided to channel my hero “Howling Mad” Murdock and allow the Second Toughest boy, Robert, to punch me repeatedly in the face. I didn’t cry. I think I might even have smiled. So Robert started to cry because he was tired from the punching and sadism loses its edge with masochists. Everyone was very impressed. Dodo bumped me all the way up to Fourth Toughest boy, leapfrogging several violent young thugs along the way. It may have been the proudest moment of my life. I’ve a memory of getting a certificate and everything but I can’t find it so that bit could have been a dream.

Rosita Boland

In my sixth and final year at boarding school, our common room was adjacent to a tiny room under the back stairs; a stairs which led to the nuns' private quarters. This room was the sole domain of Madame Clemence, the oldest nun in the community. Her tasks were to open the front door – only formal visitors arrived at the front door, everyone else came in the side doors – and to prepare breakfast for the priest who said Mass each morning at 7.30am in our chapel.

This breakfast was cooked hot daily, and served up by Madame Clemence in a parlour where there was a harp and a large, permanently unlit fireplace. Each evening, she prepared the breakfast tray in the tiny room under the stairs. When we snooped, as of course we did, we saw unfamiliar china; delicate cups and plates with flowers. Our refectory china was heavy white institutional type stuff. Here was a lace traycloth, and china so thin we could see through it when holding it up to the light.

There was a little kitchen area in our common room, where we made hot drinks. Milk was delivered to the fridge once a day, but we had usually run out by evening. So when we discovered that Madame Clemence’s breakfast tray preparations for the priest included filling a jug with milk the evening before, we helped ourselves. To make sure the milk level did not fall, we cunningly topped up the jug with water and carefully replaced the crochet-edged doily that sat atop it.

One evening a couple of weeks after we had begun our nightly milk heist, the Reverend Mother called all the boarders to a special assembly. This usually only happened when serious crimes had occurred. We were agog, wondering who had been caught smoking now, or who had gone out of bounds, or who had been found with something banned, such as the radios we all had, but kept hidden.

“Girls,” she began. “Madame Clemence, the most senior member of our community, is very upset. Someone has been stealing the priest’s breakfast milk. Theft is unacceptable in this school.”

There was a titter among our huddled masses. I exchanged incredulous glances with my classmates, all of whom were trying not to roar laughing. Busted! But how?

We owned up, trying very hard to look repentant. We were ordered to apologise in person to Madame Clemence. I was one of the group selected to carry out this task. At the end of our grovelling, I asked her: “How did you know?”

"I knew," she said, "because the milk jug was always topped with cream for the priest's tea. And when I poured it for him in the morning, there was no cream." And thus it was that Madame Clemence Holmes discovered our nightly dairy-pilfering crime.

Frank McNally

I spent a few Septembers of my school years in dread of “ducking”: an initiation ceremony that involved having your head held under a tap. At least I think that’s what it involved. I don’t know because somehow this ritual baptism, which was dying out then and is unknown to my children, never actually happened to me.

Even if it had, I would have got off lightly compared with some schoolboys of the past. Patrick Campbell, an Irishman's Diarist of the 1940s, recalled attending a preparatory school on Dublin's Stephen's Green where two bullies held his head down a toilet bowl every day, and flushed, to punish him for having a stammer.

Ours was a more enlightened era, or the dawn of one anyway. The Patrician Brothers Carrickmacross were like a Christian Brothers' political wing, committed to achieving education through peaceful means, if possible. Most of the students were non-violent too.

The best prank we ever played was a literary one. It arose from the visit of a female French exchange student who may or may not have been romantically involved with one of our classmates. The Sunday World’s agony aunt later received and gratefully printed a letter detailing their supposed night of passion in a coal-shed, and the resultant fears of teenage pregnancy. Strange to say, neither the group composition nor its success in national media impressed Mr O’Brien, our English teacher.

My preferred newspaper was of course The Irish Times. This led to an apocalyptic scene one morning when I was holding it open in front of me, for maximum ostentation, no doubt reading about the latest crisis in Afghanistan. Suddenly, never mind Kabul, the paper itself was in flames. No, it wasn't an omen. It was Gerard Martin, who had set fire to it with a lighter.

A few years earlier, the same arsonist needed to be rushed to a Dublin hospital one afternoon after a classroom frolic in which a tennis ball nearly took his eye out. The event might be forgotten now except it coincided with one of the worst days of the Troubles, rumbling away across our nearby border. Approaching the city that evening, en route to the Eye & Ear, they heard a loud bang in the background. It was 17th May 1974. The first of the Dublin and Monaghan bombs had just gone off.

Malachy Clerkin

I have one party trick. I can make myself sneeze. Okay, it’s a crap party trick. I haven’t actually done it at a party. If there was ever a big demand for it – and there wasn’t – it’s fair to say that the post-Covid party scene won’t exactly be crying out for it either. But the fact remains: I can do it. And the reason I can is that Marty McCormilla broke my nose playing football at lunchtime in 1996.

I went for a header. He went for an overhead kick. I got the ball. He got my nasal bone. We both got drenched in a Niagara of blood.

Ordinarily, that would have been that. St Macartan’s College in Monaghan had about 600 boys in it at the time. A bloody nose didn’t get you too high up the triage ranking in normal circumstances. So it must have been pointing in a fairly exotic direction for a teacher to take one look at it and grab his car keys. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll bring you to the hospital.”

Somehow, three of my classmates were able to feign enough concern to get in on the trip. Marty, on account of being the culprit. Neal and Mickey, on account of being prepared to do basically anything to get out of going to class.

It should have been less than a 10-minute drive. I had my head back so I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going. But after a bit, I realised that we had stopped somewhere that definitely wasn’t the hospital. Instead, we had pulled up outside a car garage.

To the howling delight of the three apes in the back of the car, our man put aside his concern for the student who now looked like a Tarantino extra and went in to see a man about a rattle the car was making. It wasn’t something that had just arisen on the trip into town or anything – he had been meaning to get it looked at for ages.

The four of us were light-headed by this stage. Me, with the rapidly draining haemoglobin. The other three, buckled with the giggles. Accounts differ as to whether he actually came back or just left the three of them to walk me to the hospital. Either way, my broken nose – and presumably, concussion – was put in its true perspective. Second fiddle to a wheezing old Ford Sierra.

Consequently, there’s an indent in my nose to this day, about three-quarters of the way up. And if the mood takes me, I can press on it and make myself sneeze.

I haven’t yet come across the precise scenario in which it will be of true use to me. But life is a journey.