Although St Kieran’s College was only 10 miles from the Kilroy’s home at Callan, Tom Kilroy and his four brothers were educated there as boarders. In those days, early 1950s, any journey beyond that of a pony and trap was an adventure.You had to take Tom Nolan’s bus to get from Callan to Kilkenny. The school buildings were a mixture of carved balconies, and entrance steps in neo-Gothic riot. Behind its extravagant exterior, lay a new Catholic church, proudly testifying the various Emancipation Bills in the previous century, which gave Catholics the freedoms to practice. St Kiernans’ was a typical diocesan college of the Diocese of Ossory. An important function was the education of young men to be priests.
There was at least one misnomer however in a school that despite its austere surroundings enjoyed its share of humanity, and that was the motto of the school, from the Song of Solomon: Hiems transit, ‘Winter has passed.’
Nothing could be further from the truth. From the moment the boys arrived on that grey September afternoon, they blew on their frozen fingers, and held their icy feet under their blanket at night. Winter seemed to last for at least half of the school year. Food was scarce. Parents were encouraged to send their children food. There were other forms of winter too. There were fierce beatings. Some victims would be given a choice of being beaten hard by either the cane, or the strap.
One dreadful bully (Tom is too decent to name him ) who’d call out ‘What’s the record now lads?’ The class would call back ‘Two hundred father,’ (this being the number of slaps delivered in the preceding week ). ‘We will beat that record, lads, this week, so we will.’ And beat it he did on a regular basis.
Long wet days
One thing that suited Thomas perfectly was the school’s obsession with hurling. Fennessy’s Field, behind the school sharing a wall with the nearby Smithwick’s brewery, was the boys’ testing ground. The hurling trainer was a diminutive priest with a high quiff of greying hair falling to one side of his broad forehead. Fr John Joe Reidy enjoyed another distinction before the boys: his brother Liam played for the Kilkenny senior hurling team.
With a hurling stick on one hand and a lit cigarette in one corner of his mouth, Fr Reidy ran up and down the sidelines yelling instructions to the boys on the field. He was an exacting trainer, but clearly had a great passion for the game and an empathy with the boys.
To help lift the tedium of long wet days Fr Reidy encouraged them to bring their stamp collections, or other hobbies, from home, which had the effect of bringing something homely into the grim school buildings. Boys crowded around to see what each boy brought.
He showed the boys how to make model aeroplanes, Spitfires and Messerschmidts, from balsa wood. They were then taken outdoors, fitted with propellers driven by tightly wound rubber bands, and launched into the sky. The best ones rising to heights, and gliding back down again to the appreciation of all.
Galway has consistently fielded good hurlers, and we are fairly modest about it. But when the average Kilkenny man starts to extol the unique virtues of the Kilkenny player as you watch them win yet another All Ireland, he tends to become lyrical. ‘The Kilkenny style’, he says (in a poet’s voice ) ‘was never based upon brawn and muscle but upon the delicacy and sped of the players, who were characteristically light and small. Lifting the ball from the grass with the sharp edge of the butt of the stick, tossing it into the air, and striking it cleanly without once touching the ball with the hand, a graceful movement of arms and hips...’
It is all a bit of a bore to a Galway man. Yes Kilkenny in its time has produced some fine players, including Walsh, Delaney, Fitzpatrick, Shefflin, Brennan, and a reasonably good coach in Brian Cody, so there was no pressure when in 1952 Fr Reidy asked Tom to captain the school’s senior hurling team.
It was going to be a big year for St Kierans’. For four successive years it had won the coveted Leinster Championship. It had to hold on to the cup for at least a fifth year. Tom was good on the hurling pitch: he was a sprinter and could reach the ball before many others. He could hook his marker’s hurling stick from behind , or charge it down from the front. He could solo with the ball balanced or bouncing on the butt of his hurley, and could catch an incoming with his hand, but he wondered if these were all the skills necessary to win the Leinster Championship.
In the event Roscrea slaughtered St Kieran’s and sent them flying out of the championship. After the match Fr Reidy just smiled and made no further comment. Later Tom realised that the decision to give him that position of responsibility was to boost his self-esteem, which was never great in his boyhood. Winning the match was secondary.
Years later when Tom Kilroy was a successful playwright, he used his play Christ deliver us! to show some scenes from St Kieran’s. It opened at the Abbey Theatre 2010. One scene came directly from Roy’s experience at school. This is the scene where the boys are marched in pairs and given a lesson how to waltz by the prefect-in-charge with the aid of a gramophone. It was a source of incredulous laughter in the Abbey. Tom still wonders to this day who thought this one up. There was certainly no question of inviting the girls from the local convent school to come along and take part in the dance lesson.
Next Week: The biggest surprise of all...
NOTES: I am leaning heavily of Tom Kilroy’s autobioghraphy, Over the Backyard Wall, just published by The Lilliput Press, and on sale15 euros. Tom is one of Ireland’s leading novelists and playwrigts. He has won numerous awards, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1972, and a honorary Fellow of TCD in 2011
He is professor emeritus of Modern English at NUI Galway.