5 Other Things To Believe In
5 OTHER THINGS TO BELIEVE IN
Brother Codd’s enlightened approach guaranteed my place in the highest of the six streamed first year classes at the Christian Brothers boys’ secondary school on Parnell Road.
The school was still under construction when September 1971 arrived and it remained very much like a building site for most of my years there. However, one very major difference was that class numbers at secondary school were much smaller, leaving just thirty five students in the class rather than over sixty at primary level.
Apart from the more mature Christian brothers, the lay teachers, who were in the majority, were young and enthusiastic. Ireland had just joined the EEC and there was a growing optimism concerning opportunities for young people with language skills and a good level of education.
It was an exciting time to be alive. Ireland was on the brink of more financial independence and the prospect of millions from the common agricultural policy (CAP) and investment in infrastructure.
The status of being in the best class in secondary school set another barrier with the local boys. They had no great interest in school and spent a great deal of their time hanging around the street corner. Shaun’s ambition forced him to take homework more seriously. While the other boys dreamt of becoming professional footballers, Shaun’s thoughts focused on teaching as a career. Dad’s regrets were all concerned with the lack of opportunity due to failing qualifications and Shaun was determined that his story would be different.
The first Valentine’s card told me that I was on the radar of some girl in the neighbourhood and that came as a pleasant surprise. However, the horizons of the girls I knew were no higher than the boys.
Fifteen was when most teenagers left school. Shaun had seen a major reduction in the number of students in his year after the Inter. Cert. The six first year classes were reduced to just two at the end of the third year. Three of the brightest boys had left. Pressure from parents had forced them to accept jobs with An Post or Telecom Eireann.
Granny’s attitude to staying on after the Inter was
mixed. Shaun’s siblings had left school at fourteen to start apprenticeships as mechanics and Granny saw no reason why he shouldn’t follow their example. Dad’s support was more verbal than tangible. He hadn’t got the conscience to stand against me, but I would have to take on Granny by myself.
“There are perfectly good jobs in the Civil Service for the asking once you have your Leaving Cert,” she stressed, making it clear that secondary school was the limit. Dad just didn’t have a lot to say on the subject.
As I progressed through school, skill at sport was relegated to second place to chatting-up girls and the ability to present your successes with the appropriate lad banter.
One of the first girls Shaun got to know was at a house party at the other end of Drimnagh. Helen was a year or two older and they got on straight away. She stayed after their first dance ended and Shaun experienced his first real kiss. Though he certainly wasn’t going to let Helen know it.
“Can I walk you home?” he asked tentatively.
“Sure you can,” she answered enthusiastically, putting him at ease.
Walking hand in hand towards her street, he could have believed that girls were a lot easier than he had always imagined. As they got to the side gate of the church she stopped and pulled him towards her, before he had time to react.
Her arms wrapped tightly around him and he managed to kiss her without their noses getting in the way, as they had done earlier. He felt the warmth of her body through his shirt and the rise and fall of her breasts. He had imagined this so often, but the reality was so much better. His body was tingling all over and it took him all his willpower to stop shaking. He felt her hand feeling its way under his shirt. It was warm and soft and it felt special that a girl was as interested in his body as he was in hers. What it did for his confidence was at least as important as the actual sensation of skin against skin. His head was spinning with excitement. The experience was so intense that he didn’t want it to stop.
He knew that this was a milestone of sorts and that the experience would be unlikely to ever feel as fresh and alive the next time..
The failure to achieve acceptance from the boys on his street was relegated in one stroke to the past. There were much higher stakes to aim for now.
She loosened her grip and looked into his eyes with a pure, o honest smile.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” he ventured hopefully, fearing what was coming.
“We’ll see each other around” she answered, pecking him on the cheek. It was the sweetest let-down any girl could give.
I walked home alone, with my heart still racing. She was a few stages beyond me, but she had the empathy to let me down gently. I was sure at that stage that I would soon catch up, but the women I have found most worth pursuing in life have always been more than a few steps ahead.
Shaun realised that even if he saved every penny he received it would never be enough to pay university fees and he would need to have money if he ever hoped to meet girls with broader horizons than the ones who lived around him. The only answer was to start looking for a part-time job. The initial success with gardening came to an end when the generous neighbour with the good pension moved back to England.
After that he took on a pool’s round, which took several hours each Friday evening collecting the weekly subscription for a prize draw. The takings less ten percent had to be paid in by twelve the next day at a shabby office on the third floor of a rundown tenement building on Capel Street.
The stairs creaked under his footsteps and the patches of bare brick increased on the stairway each week as the damp forced the plaster from the walls. The bony old man who collected the money would have been ideal in the role of Scrooge. His wrinkled skin, together with the long bony finger nails, were totally suited to his surroundings.
The council estate on the far side of the Crumlin Road wasn’t the safest place to collect money. He would have been a mugger’s dream with coins weighing him down. The vicious dogs marking out their territory in the many uncared for gardens posed another danger.
“Don’t worry son he won’t touch you,” wasn’t very convincing when a smelly mongrel was snapping at you.
An old man kept once kept me in conversation for far too long on his doorstep. Something felt odd about the way he eyed me up and down, as he stood far too close. Finally, he offered me gardening work at too good a price. I was almost ready to discount my discomfort when I felt a wrinkled hand grabbing my youthful rear end, as I turned to go. I must have run the whole way home. I scrubbed myself hard in the bathwater and succeeded in ridding myself of the feeling which made my skin crawl.
Several weeks later I started the first real job packing shelves in Dunnes Stores on Georges Street. It occupied my time two evenings each week and all day on Saturday. This felt more like a proper job for a number of reasons. First of all, one had to clock in, and wear a packer’s uniform which consisted of a short grey polyester shop-coat. The weekly pay came in a brown envelope.
Packers kept their distance from the young trainee managers who were quick to try out their limited power. Shaun had accepted the leather at primary school, but being abused by managers who enjoyed humiliating junior employees filled him with fury. He was only working part-time, but others were dependant on this job. Like his friends, Shaun came to associate rural accents with authority figures. They were the Christian brothers, the teachers, the policemen and the shop managers. Shaun’s prejudices against them grew as he witnessed the general manager handing a full-time packer called Charlie a dishcloth and ordering him, in his thick Kerry accent, to unblock the filthy drain. Charlie stood motionless over the hole we regularly used to relieve ourselves into.
“Charlie,” he ordered again, rolling the name on his tongue in his thick accent,
“Get the lead out then, put your hand down and unblock that drain.”
The look of defeat and resignation on Charlie’s face was my motivation to fight my way out of a council estate no matter what it took. The sound of the manager’s Kerry accent was enough to make my blood boil, but suffering it brought me closer to having my first year’s university fees . Nearly every penny was put secretly into the building society to increase until it was needed.