Perhaps only Ladies Day at the races causes a similar frenzy to all the upset and commotion that heralds ‘Back to School’ at the end of August or beginning of September. It is the biggest event in the social year. After the long summer holiday children are in a daze as their parents lead them, often dressed in new clothes top to toe, forward into the yard. If it is their first day at school, mum or dad will linger for a while in the classroom, intimidated by the confidence of the young múinteoir, the small tables and chairs, the 57 varieties of slippers, and the smell of pencils and paint. They leave consumed by their own memories.
It effects practically everybody. Even if you have no school-going child, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends know who in the family is back at school; and even if you are still in the clear, there is an immediate impact on traffic.
There is a feeling that the year has shifted into a different gear. Shove off summer, autumn is on its way!
Padhraic Faherty, a local historian, tells me that in the 19th century there were no fewer than three schools in Barna, and the population was only a fraction to what it is today. Barna Chapel, Barna House and Furbough. The Barna school was free as it was run by the Misses Lynch, daughters of the landlord. Later a girls’ school was built on the site of the present school, which in 1937, merged with the boys’ school, then located opposite the church. It has evolved into its present busy hub on the edge of the village.
Heating in Padhraic’s childhood was an open fire in the classroom. Children brought a sod of turf every morning to keep the fire going. Some families delivered an ass-cart of turf instead. Mr and Mrs Jack Moroney, from Co Clare, and Miss Mag Faherty were the teachers. Mag was a kindly soul and lived to be 100 at her cottage on ‘Mag’s Boreen’ named in her honour. Her daily mantra was: “ Súil amach go mall, réidh socair.”
The patrons of the original schools were the landlords, the Lynches of Barna, and the Blakes of Furbo. A strange thing happened with the Lynches. In 1900 the Lynch heir was killed in the Boer War. His batman, or valet, called Osmund Kisani, returned in his place, and caused something of a stir. He was certainly the first blackman to come to the village, and was known as ‘Blackeen Bhéarna.’ He developed a crush on a young, local girl, Padhraic’s relative; but she did not return his advances. She eventually left for California. Poor Osmund became depressed and sad, and died young in Ballinasloe asylum.
In the 1920s there was another strange sequence of events which became part of Barna schoolchildren’s folklore. There was a deadly rivalry between the old boys’ school principal, Patrick W Joyce, and Micheál Ó Droighneáin, principal of the nearby Furbo school. Ó Droighneáin was head of the South Connemara IRA brigade, while Joyce was also a peace commissioner, who felt it his duty to report that young men in the village were being drilled and trained by the Volunteers. He wrote his report to Dublin Castle which was intercepted by a Volunteer in the Galway post office. He passed it on to the IRA. On October 15 1920, Joyce was taken from his home in the village, and shot. His body was dumped in the bogs behind the village, and was not discovered until 1998.
The repercussions led to a vicious sequence of revenge and murder. The Back and Tans went on a rampage looking for Joyce. Ó Droighneáin’s house, and others, were raided and burnt. He went on the run. On November 14 Fr Michael Griffin was taken from his house at Sea Road, and shot dead. His body was later found in a shallow grave, near Barna. The killing of a priest caused an international outcry; and although no culprits were found, it became clear later that the Black and Tans had shot Fr Griffen while interrogating him at Lenaboy Castle.
A mischievous boy
But Padhraic’s schooldays were spent in happier times. School children were expected to help out with school maintenance, and were often sent on messages for the teachers. Boys would mow the lawn, and do odd jobs. The only boy who refused to help with any jobs around the school was Joe Pilkington, who later played the part of Eamon in the popular The Riordans TV series. Joe just refused to help, and got away with it.
One morning the school gate lock would not open. The master sent Kevin Curran and Padhraic to Willie Hickey’s garage for oil, and told them to fiil the can he gave them. It was an old round oil can with a long spout. But Hickey had no oil at the time. Kevin had a brainwave, as only a mischievous boy would. He carefully unscrewed the lid, and even more carefully filled the can with his pee. Desperately trying to keep a straight face he handed the can back to the teacher, who applied the ‘oil’ liberally to the lock. Amazingly the lock sprang opened. “Wow!” said the teacher, “that oil is great stuff.”
The boys could hardly contain themselves from bursting out laughing. “And tell me Curran,” sad the teacher, “Was that Willie Hickey’s oil?”
“No Sir”, said Curran. “He was out of it. I remembered we had some at home. I ran off and got it?”
“Did you Curran? Aren’t you the smart lad. So it’s your oil is it? Do you know I never thought you had any brains in you, but I think you’d be suited for the oil business.”
He handed back the oil can to Kevin, and gave his ear a sudden twist.
“Now Curran, you take that can back to Willie Hickey, and do not come back to school until its full of Hickey’s Mobil oil. Have you got that Curran?”
He caught Padhraic’s ear as well, and gave them both another painful twist. The boys ran off not sure whether to laugh or cry.