Reading, writing and errands – school in rural Tipperary in the 1960s

An Irishman’s Diary

Recently, I received an invitation to write a piece for a journal honouring my old primary school, which is situated in deeply rural Boherlahan, Co Tipperary.

So, I am feeling rather chuffed presently, for it is gratifying to be remembered more than 50 years on by one’s first alma mater; a comforting affirmation that you haven’t been totally forgotten.

Mulling over what I am going to write has set me thinking about past life in rural Ireland and reminiscing about the 1960s when I made my way to school through the bucolic meadows of the Premier County.

Not that we knew it then, but I attended Boherlahan National School during the rapid opening up of Irish society that began in the early 1960s. It was at this time that Ireland commenced moving tentatively from protecting its inefficient industries with high tariffs, and began instead welcoming foreign direct investment. Soon the country was experiencing an unprecedented wave of prosperity; yet in much of rural Ireland, it was hardly noticeable.


Here, the pace of social change remained glacially slow, with spare cash an extremely scarce commodity.

The fact that the fortunes of the local community were inextricably linked to the land was the principal culprit. There were few trickle-down effects for rural Ireland since it was still hugely dependent on agricultural exports to the British market, where cheap food policies held sway. It was a time of low prices for farmers and an ever-broadening gap between agricultural incomes and earnings in wider society.

All this went over our childish heads, of course – the great thing about being young is that you blissfully accept things the way they are. One name that did seep into our consciousness, however, was that of local-born hero of TJ Maher. We greatly admired how he stood up for farmers' rights by camping with others on the steps of the Department of Agriculture to the discomfort of the minister, Charles Haughey, who had refused to meet them. TJ would go on to become the first president of the Irish Farmers' Association and play a key role in Ireland's campaign for admission to the EEC. This was destined to change the face of rural Ireland forever.

But that was in the future; for the moment the rhythms of country life ambled serenely along, much as they had always done. Childhood obesity was unheard of because of the simple but nourishing diet and also since almost everyone walked to school from surrounding townlands such as Toberadora, Regaile, Castlemoyle and Synone.

The school itself was an old, yellow-washed building with just two classrooms and cracked windowpanes. In the eight years I was there, I never remember a penny being spent in maintaining or improving it. The desks, tables, chairs and blackboards were the same ones when I finished as when I started. Money was scarce, and whatever tasks needed to be done were undertaken by the schoolchildren.

A much-prized job in winter, which meant about 20 minutes out of class, was finding fuel for the classroom stove. Goodness knows what child safety experts would make of this today, since the task required kids going off unsupervised to collect firewood in nearby fields. Other classroom escaping endeavours involved running errands to O’Dwyer’s shop or Flynn’s post office and – for boys only – serving at funeral or wedding masses in the church across the road.

It is sometimes said of education that it is not the hardware, but the software that counts. And so it was, that despite the many privations, educational standards were high. Everyone who left Boherlanan NS was fully literate. Many would already have made a good stab at the Intermediate Certificate, which was the initial State exam for secondary school students at the time.

Eventually, the new prosperity did seep into rural Ireland. For the first time, there was money to spend, and the result was free second-level education and costless school transport. This sowed the seeds for the educated workforce that would later create the Celtic Tiger.

The pace of change accelerated rapidly after I left the school. The crumbling old building was demolished and replaced by the spanking new St Isidore’s NS. And when I paid a return visit to my first alma mater this year, I was amazed to find a full-size Astroturf pitch out the back. Ireland had come a long way since we kicked football on the hard, unforgiving, gravel yard and the girls played ring-a-ring-a-rosies on a patch of muddy grass.