Liam Coffey: Going to School, 1940s

LIAM COFFEY’S MEMORIES: Going to school.


Eddie, my older brother, was instructed to hold my hand and bring me to Sr Ligouri’s class in the infant school. It was August 1943 and I was starting school today. As soon as we were out of sight of my mother (she was standing at the door looking after us), he let go of my hand and headed off with his friends. I followed at a distance and found myself in the assembly hall of the school. There was a bewildering amount of activity and noise in the hall which was full of children, nuns and some mothers. After a while the older children had moved to their classes and there remained a small number of new kids. Sr Veronica spotted me and asked me who I was. Having been identified I was brought to Sr Ligouri’s class. Sr Veronica ceremoniously handed me over. I was shown to my place by Sr Ligouri. She checked her Roll Book and introduced us to each other one by one. I was lucky because several of my friends started at the same time: Eric Doody, Maurice Moran, Billy Gamble, Dony O’Brien, all from the Barracks, and Larry Johnson from Rowan Terrace. We all settled in very easily and were introduced to the joys of playing with ‘marla’ plasticine, varnished beech nuts, singing and storytelling. The classroom was bright and airy and we were allowed to move freely between our desks.

When it was necessary to go to the toilet, you raised your hand and said ‘An bhuil cead agam dul amach’. We were escorted by an older pupil from 1st class. It is difficult to say now what my reaction to starting school was, but on reflection I think it fair to say there were no negatives that I can remember. As we progressed through the infant school I have fond memories of very kind nuns who knew exactly how to guide us through those years. There was no such thing as ‘corporal punishment’ (that would come later up the line) and good behaviour was encouraged by a system of rewards. There was a ‘magic hen’ who could miraculously lay sweets and, occasionally, a toffee bar. ‘Mol an oige agus tiochaid siad’ was very much the ethos.

Prayers and hymns in the hall on Feast Days were a great way to enjoy our religion, as well as the whole school attending devotions and benediction in St Conleth’s Church on First Fridays and special events. Classes were placed in ascending order in the main body of the Church, starting with the first year infants in front and the senior 14 year olds at the back. There was a Holy Family nun or a Patrician brother at the end of the pew of the last row of the respective classes. This ensured an orderly entrance and exit and proper participation in the ceremonies. I think everyone has fond memories of these gatherings, the combined singing literally raising the roof, the aroma of incense slow burning in the thurible, the candlelight on the altar, the feeling of belonging and then the banter and camaraderie afterwards.

Between Halloween and Christmas, the school year passed quickly and pleasantly. School was a place to play, to sing, to show off and to tell tall stories. In the long, glorious summer holidays we were preoccupied playing Cowboys and Indians, copying everything the older boys did, paddling in the Liffey at the watering gates but staying within the confines of the Barracks. We enjoyed complete freedom. In my second year I remember moving into Sr Michael’s class, and a year after that, 1946, progressing into Sr Rose’s First Class. This was an important year – we made our First Confession and First Communion the following May. By now we were big boys and were growing up fast. Everyone could read, write, spell and do sums, and we had a smattering of Irish. Each class brought its own challenges as we progressed, but the process was seamless and so well orchestrated that we learned without any great effort.

In First Class there was a small element of competition introduced because at the end of the year Sr Rose produced an array of toys from which each pupil was given a present. I suppose it was the nuns’ way of saying good-bye and that we would leave with pleasant memories. I don’t know who provided the presents, whether it was the nuns or some benefactor. On reflection, it seems likely the Holy Family Order paid for these little gifts which would become lovely memories, and in a child’s development that’s priceless. The best in the class was given first pick. After third prize it became a random selection. Needless to say, everyone thought their own prize was the best. I won’t say who got first pick, but Colm Ruffly was second, and Larry Johnson was third. I was delighted with my carpenter’s set, and after all these years I still look back at that little event as one of the proudest moments of my life.


Liam Coffey (C) 2008.