On the open turf fire inside the house a large pot of potatoes and a small skillet of meat hang from the crane, cooking; other small pots sit in the heat of the fire. On the table is a large bowl of cold potatoes, a smaller one with pieces of cooked pork and cups of water. The returning children grab the food and stand around the table eating.
“Take something quickly and then get your jobs done. I’ve to start salting the sides of bacon.” says Ena’s mother Annie lifting the lid on the potatoes.
“Oh, yes! I’ve good news for ye all! ” she says brightly.
“You’re going to a new school, Mastersons. We’ll have a donkey and cart next week and I have made ye new clothes.” she continues.
“What!” exclaims Ena, “Leave our School? Why?”
Phyllis is now listening intently, watching her big sister. Herbie and Reco have gone outside to bury the pig’s guts and waste.
“Enough of that, Ena. Books and desks with ink, and the school is very well kept. There’s too much Irish in Mullaghduff, it’s wastin your time.” says her mother.
“But I like Irish! The Master says that if I keep working at it, I’ll get a medal.” Ena is shocked.
“Don’t cross me now, girl. We’ve our minds made up. You’ll all be starting next week. You’ll know many of them there too.”
“If I spoke to me mother like that, I’d feel the lash of the birch afore the words fell from me mouth. The Divil’s standing up in her.” scolded her Aunt coming into the house.
“But how will we get to school. Walk? It’s over 3 miles?” says Ena ignoring her aunt.
“I told you already we’ll have an ass and cart by the weekend, and Herbie will take you all there and back.” counters Annie.
“Herbie? He goes to school too.” Ena says, now realising that Herbie and Reco already know about this.
“No, he’s finished, he’s needed around here.”
“But Mammy …”
“Stop it now! Before I do reach for the birch.” her mother says firmly.
“Ena, see if Jack needs changed. And get the bissim to these floors, then give them a wash. Phyllis! Water from the well! And take Cecil with you.”
The table is quieter than usual despite the tasty meal.
“Have you heard the news yet? A new school next week, you’re all off to Mastersons, at last!” says their father breaking the silence.
Ena nods and looks at him blankly.
“Ye’re not excited girl?”
“No. I’ll miss my friends.” she says quietly.
“Your friends will still live in the same place. And you’ll make new ones. What did you learn in that place anyway?”
“Irish, Daddy, and”
“Irish!” he cuts across her.
“Nothing! That’s what you’ve learned. Could any of you could tell me when to plant the spuds or set the cabbage plants, or sow the turnips? No! I have to teach ye that myself. The Irish won’t fill your belly, girl. You’ll do better in Mastersons. You’ll see, you’ll like it.” And he continues his eating.
They eat in silence until Ena points and quietly asks,
They all look up. Her father stops eating, puts his fork down, pauses and laughs. He shakes his head and passes her the milk. Uncle Alec winks at her, as her Mother and Aunt scowls across the small table. She knows her father well.
1. Ena got her medal for achievement in Irish.
2. The story is set in 1934, when Herbie would have been 14, Reco 13, Ena 11, Cecil 10, Phyllis 8, Wallace 7 and Alf 5.
3. Thanks to Padraig Fitzpatrick for his review of the story details and his confirmation that the arrival of the ass and cart was key to the change to Masterson National School, and of my Grandfather and Grandmother’s attitude to the Mullaghduff school.
4. Reference: The Deserted School Houses of Ireland Book by Enda O’Flaherty from The Collins Press – September 2018. There is a wealth of information on schools such as Mullaghduff, on the authors website and blog. Thanks to Etta Kerr (nee Gillmor, Boihy House, Dromahair) for the pointing me to this book. https://endaoflaherty.com/2016/11/04/drumreilly-national-school-drumreilly-townland-co-leitrim/