Girls can be cruel. In 1921 Walter Macken was six years old, and in middle babies at the Presentation Convent school. ‘Middle Babies’ had to be a challenge for any six year old boy (who already saw himself as a pilot ‘flying’ through the lanes around St Joseph’s Avenue where he lived ). Today the Pres has a thriving national school, in Walter’s time it was predominatly a renowned ‘Girls’ school. It did offer places to boys to a very junior level (you started in infants, then middle babies, and then first class ), before the boys moved off to ‘The Bish’ or ‘The Jes’, Mary’s, or Endas.
To add to his misery, in Walter’s time boys at the Pres were as rare as hen’s teeth. The only other boy in his class was Jo Jo Keenan. Sister Ursula “who could wither a class with a look, and yet impress her personality on you so that you would never forget her, and think of her with fondness”, had licked her class into little saints ready for Holy Communion.
On the Big Day the whole class assembled in the classroom for a final inspection before the church. Sister Ursula, with other nuns, gathered to look at the children. Walter’s mother had already ‘rubbed the face’ off him the previous night. He must have glowed with cleanliness. I have written before in praise of the huge effort teachers put into their children’s First Communion and Confirmation days. Not only are the children prepared but the church is decorated and every effort is made to ensure that it is a memorable day.
After the inspection by the nuns, they marched over to St Joseph’s Church. Walter was dressed in the traditional costume of the time: The compulsory ‘grey flannel suit, white socks and new shoes that creak like hinges on a door that needs oil; the white rosette in the boy’s lapel with a Holy Communion medal hanging from it, and a little white prayer book and a pair of white rosary beads’.
After the service, they came back to the classroom . It appeared that Sister Ursula had waved a magic wand and changed the dreary room into a ‘feasting hall’. “ The desks were transformed into tables holding sweets and fruits and biscuits, leaving you with the thought that if only the classroom was like this all the time, what a pleasant place school would be.”
Broke her heart
I am taking all this from a new book Walter Macken, Dreams on Paper* a personal memoir by his son Ultan about Galway’s popular writer who captured the essence of the city in many of his novels, notably Rain on the Wind. The Mackens were very much products of their time, who struggled with adversity. Walter’s father and mother were happily employed on the Ashford Castle estate. The father was a forester and carpenter, while the mother worked as a cook. The job came with a house; but tragedy struck when Walter sr died suddenly, and the widow and her four boys and six girls were evicted. For a few years they lived locally in poverty. Then the children were taken into care. The girls were sent to the Sisters of Mercy in Clifden, while the boys went to Letterfrack reformatory.
Walter’s father, however, came into the city when he was 16 years of age, and worked as a carpenter with Emerson Builders. He later married Agnes Brady, from Ballinasloe. They had three children, two girls, Eileen and Noreen, and the writer Walter sr who was born in May 1915. World War I was raging at the time. When Walter was made redundant, he took the King’s shilling, and joined the Royal Fusiliers. The book contains a number of interesting letters written from the Front, about day to day concerns, and always looking for news about the children.
Agnes kept all those letters, giving them, tied in a neat parcel, to the author on her death bed. It contained, she said, the one letter that broke her heart. It was a brief note from the regimental chaplain saying that Pt W Macken was killed on March 28, ‘He met his death doing his duty..’
Blame the canon
Like many war widows in Galway at the time, Agnes survived as best she could taking enormous pride in her three children. The two girls and Walter went to the Pres. All the children who made their Holy Communion were obliged to march out to St Joseph’s church for confession in preparation for the Children’s Sodality on the following Sunday. It was a time the boys dreaded. There were only two small boys to ‘about 100 girls’. Every time the nun turned her back on the class waiting for confession, the girls ‘would make catapults with their fingers and a piece of elastic and whing missiles at us from all sides.’ ‘That wasn’t the end of it. As we walked to the church, there was still only two of us against so many. We got many a pinch, many a push, many a hair-pulling...’ The boys suffered it all as patiently as they could knowing that soon, they would be going to an all boys’ school and, they imagined, peace and respect.
But there was still plenty of childhood to enjoy. Jo Jo Keenan and Walter with minutes to spare, with arms outstretched, would ‘fly’ to school up the back of St John’s Terrace, across the canal bridge, down New Road and around the corner like an aeroplane, sometimes crashing into Canon Davis. The boys would stand before him explaining why they were in a hurry. He would rebuke them for running so fast, and when that was over, off to the classroom to arrive out of breath, using him as an excuse, saying; “The Canon kept us”.
More next week
*Walter Macken - Dreams on Paper, by Ultan Macken , published Mercier Biography on sale hardback at €29.99