I suppose that it would be pretty obvious since I have been able to actually write these memoirs that I must have gotten at least a very basic education. To be fair, I would readily concede that there is a lot to the world that I remain ignorant of. But the path to realisation that I know so little has to have begun when I was young.
I started my learning, in fact did most of my learning, with my granddad while I was still learning to walk and talk. He was a big fan of reading and an even bigger fan of reading out loud to whoever he could capture long enough. Most of my aunts must have had to go through the same process day after day, but since I was the youngest I was the read-to guy during my formative years.
Granddad would read pretty much anything to me, from the racing section of the newspaper to the pamphlets that those fellas with the crazy eyes would hand out on O’Connell street. The thing we used to enjoy reading the most though had to be the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Granddad had bought a second-hand edition in the Dandelion market before I was born. He told me that he had just bought the first volume, the A’s and B’s, but he had gotten so engrossed reading it that when he finished it he went straight and bought the next part. In the end the man at the stall knew Granddad to see, he told me that he gave him the last volume, X to Z, for free. “Sure no one would buy that part anyways” Granddad said he told him.
Together me and Granddad read that encyclopedia from cover to cover. As we read we would talk about all of the wonderful things and places that were included within those leatherclad pages. Like my grandfather, I was fascinated by the parts about machines. The parts about particular steam engine would cause Granddad to wax lyrical about the what he had heard about how it handled from me men who drove it. I suppose it is possible that he did really know them, not that there is a club or something but who am I to criticise what a man tells to his grandson.
As a result of these daily readings, by the time of my 5th birthday I was a fairly proficient reader, had memorized the encyclopedia and was coming along nicely with maths. It was then that two serious looking men from the department of education came to the door and announced without any explanation or chance for anyone to intervene, that I was to attend the school on the East Wall Road on the following monday morning or someone was going to go up in front of a judge.
So that morning, wearing a blazer, short pants and a good pair of boots, I walked into my first day of school. It was like walking into a different world. Surprisingly, there were many of people from my previous world there, many of the children from my road went to this school. That was nice. After the hiding I had given most of them over the years, they still gave me a wide berth. They also, thoughtfully, warned their friends that had never heard of me to also stay on my good side. As we waited to go inside I was starting to think that I might get on alright here. Any thoughts of that were quickly dissuaded when I walked through the door.
Saint Joseph’s in East Wall was a reconstructed parish hall consisting of three classrooms, and a little office for the principal/parish priest. There was no toilets, sinks and only the most rudimentary heating. “Wear more layers” was the common advice given during winter. We sat on rickety long desks twenty to a room, two classes to a teacher. When he was teaching one class the other just had to shut up and write quietly.
Used as I was to vigorous intellectual debate with my granddad. I was somewhat shocked to find that that was not how school worked. All of the teachers in Saint Joseph’s were priests, that means they worked in the church, that means they reported to the pope, and the pope was infallible, that means that they were infallible. It meant that any questioning of them was a direct attack on the validity of the church. It wasn’t like things they are now, all softly softly. Back then, punishment was quick and harsh. A clip around the ear for minor offences, ten of the best with a cane or leather strap for more heavy stuff. As you can well imagine, questioning the teacher was high up there. I lasted all of ten minutes.
Father Brendan Quirke was listing through the names of all the class when I came up “And it looks like we have a new boy here! How do you pronounce this? Eeeeenrickooo?” “It’s Enrique!” “Enrique what?” “Excuse me” “Enrique what?” At which point he gave me a clip on the ear “Listen here! When you speak to me, you end every sentence with Father. Do you understand me boy?” “Yes father!” I learned quickly.
Of course we weren’t done there. “What kind of a name is Enrique anyway? Did your parents not like you?” I was, and still am, very proud of my name, and I felt my latin pride starting to swell “It’s Argentinian Father!” “Argewhat?” “Argentinian Father from South America Father.” I then went on to recite the encyclopedia entry on the country. Buenos Aries, main exports, the Pampas, climate, language, the works.
For a man who had probably never been further away than Maynooth in his entire life, the idea of such a knowledgeable five year old was probably too much to bear. “Enough of your Lip O’Brien! Come up here!” Not knowing what was about to happening I didn’t hesitate to come up, only slowing when I noticed the look of horror on the rest of lads faces. When I reached the top of the class Father Quirke reached into his desk and said to me “Stick out your palms.” I did so before noticing the leather strap he had taken out.
Whack! Whack! a single smack on each hand, getting off lightly apparently, and I was sent back to my desk. It stung like a bastard. Not that I was going to complain. Even if I told my family, it would only mean that I got in trouble at school, with a priest no less and I would just get a smack from them as well. So I stayed quiet, I learned quickly.
Over the next week, I got on the wrong side of Father Quirke a few more times. It was the worst when he found out that my primary source was the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Priest was about as Anti-British as you could get. He had a relative who had died on Vinegar Hill and he often boasted with pride about how he had sheltered one of Dev’s men in the vestry after the assault on the customs house. “If there is any more mention of that Book” he told me, his words dripping with menace “I will knock you into next week. Is that understood O’Brien?” What more could you say?I learned quickly.
After that I realised that it was better just to keep quiet and not try to be smart. I did all of the homework I was given and did well enough on the tests. But I kept so below the radar that I might as well have not been there. Most of what we did there was kind of beneath me anyway. I kept up studying with Granddad, we had started reading a series of pocket novels from the Reader’s Digest, going through the classics. It was what I looked forward to after a hard day not being noticed.
That wasn’t to say that I found school completely useless. During the breaks, while many of the lads would go home, I would stay and talk to the lads who hung out behind the bike shed. They were the oldest kids in the school, some nearly twelve and they knew everything. They taught me about, how the world worked, how to get by, the talked about girls, about drinking. One or two even had cigarettes sometimes, I remember my first drag, I nearly died. They said that I had turned green from it, nearly got sick. But taking the odd puff soon became a regular thing.
That was how things went for the next six years, me learning more at home and behind the bike sheds than I ever did in the classrooms. In the end I came to be one of the lads behind the shed, dispensing advice and the occasional smoke. Thus the circle turned.
When the time came for us to sit the primary certificate, the results proved a little confusing and embarrassing for all concerned. Not only did the highest results in the whole class, the whole of North Dublin even, not belong to the know-all Swots. But instead to the boy who never seemed to apply himself, that piece of deadwood at the back of the class, Enrique Ivan Hamish O’Brien.
Needless to say there was a bit of a stir in the parish and Father James O’Malley, our principal, and confessor, who until that time had never even acknowledged my existence, made it a point to visit my home that very evening.
“An education is a great gift” he told us, saying nothing we didn’t already know “And the opportunity to extend that education is not something to be turned down lightly. With little Enrique’s excellent cert and a glowing letter of representation from me I would have little doubt that he would be readily accepted into the Christian Brothers college in Clontarf. I could well imagine this intelligent boy going on to great things for him in the future, a civil service or a clerks job, perhaps even further study, perhaps a vocation.”
We were all interested in the possibilities that had been laid before us and very tempted until Father O’Malley mentioned that, while he had every confidence that a scholarship would be made available for me, an advanced payment would have to be made. That was really the deal-breaker. Times had been tough for us, what was more Mother had caught a dose of the clap from some Swedish Sailor and was neither earning and eating into our savings for hospital fees. In the end we had to send Father O’Malley on his way.
It was in that week, at the start of May 1941, that I ended my flirtation with formal education. I am happy to say that I have never lost my love of books and I still consider them a valuable investment. With my nights still spent with reading it was time for my days to change, to enter the great big world of work. This, of course, is the next part of my story.