A few of Many

Joe Rafferty A Memoir 1971

They cut down most of the damson trees since. What a pity. What a sight to greet one on his first visit to the orchard country on 26th March 1939, accompanied by that saintly generous curate Fr. Donnelly, , Stonebridge; he was helping me in my search for digs. On 19th March, I had visited Father Macken at Mullavilly to apply for the job of principal of Ballyhegan School, 52 on roll. Like now, jobs were hard to come by. I found Father Macken kneeling in the front seat of the little chapel in Mullavilly and that ever gracious man received me kindly, told me of my rivals and offered me the job, on condition that I took charge of the choir at Stonebridge. I must have been less of a coward then than I am now. I got the job and digs in the Tavern, Loughgall. They sell antiques there now – I should have stayed! On Sunday, 2nd April, I visited the school. How standards have changed. It was a one roomed white washed building, with a porch, unlocked by a number twelve keV which wrought havoc with my pockets. I was inside. Two long wobbly desks, capable of seating six and ten in an emergency, faced the mistress.  Generations of children had left their mark on these formidable objects. There were two small four or five seaters for infants – my arms still ache when I think of dragging them to and fro to allow children to sweep up after school. A similar arrangement of three six seaters faced the master: But what impressed me most were the open hearth, the pile of sweepings on the floor, the ash pit on the “street” and the shed, a lean-to below the mistress’s window. The shed had a pad-lock but the door was only one of the many ways of gaining entrance. Yet, none of the orange juice and cod liver oil for babies and expectant mothers, which was stored there during the war, ever disappeared as a result. But not to worry. Father Macken had assurred me that, by Easter 1940, I’d be in a new school at the “foot of the hill” on a site kindly donated by a. Protestant neighbour. Third September 1939, and few will forget that date, put paid to the building of a new school: but we were free to talk about it and look forward to the: end of the war, when building would surely recommence.

There was a Charity Sermon in Stonebridge in the early forties and something like £1200 was realised. After Mass one man showed me two envelopes, one containing £20, the other £40. He didn’t want to give more than so and so, and was taking no chances. So and so gave £40, the other, the envelope containing £30. My life savings had gone into my envelope and I’d be ashamed to tell you how little it was. That was the time when a box of apples meant as much to a farmer round these parts as a reindeer to an Eskimo! Grenadiers fetched a pound a box and no questions asked about what the bottom layer was like. What a glorious time to have a charity sermon. There was money, money, money and you couldn’t spend it on petrol, or food or clothes. I started in Ballyhegan on 3rd April, cycling from the Tavern, and my landmark for turning right up the school lane was a mound of earth, the relic of a former lime-kiln. The landmark has gone and the entrance to the school is now impressive. I can remember the three rows of six seaters packed with boys and girls that faced me the first morning. Odd that I cannot recall the face of one girl. I must have known that trouble, if any, would most likely come from the male section of the spectators who, no doubt, summed me up more quickly than I did them. I could tell so many stories that would recall some happy or bitter memories for past pupils, but since the characters are still living, the telling must wait! The following Sunday was Easter Sunday. The Ceilidhe in the school, billed to commence at 8p.m. sharp, lasted from 11p.m. till 4 in the morning. On my way to Keady through Armagh, I was pulled up by police who possibly thought the suspicious character was heading to the border to remove it. They didn’t search my bicycle or they might have found hidden in the saddlebag, a pound box of chocolates, which I had won in a raffle at the Ceilidhe. I had a week to recuperate. During the past thirty years we have had a number of curates: They stay with us for a short time only and are then considered fit for duty in the best parishes in the diocese. A chapter could be-devoted to each but they are all modest men and would certainly be embarrassed at the praise that one could lavish on them — seriously. Therefore I shall mention only those who had an impact on the school building.

In October ’39 Father Donnelly moved from Stonebridge on his appointment as parish priest of Moneymore and Father Mahon, long since dead and certainly long since enjoying his reward, came to Stonebridge as his successor. His parents taught in separate schools down south and he insisted on referring to the room-cum-porch as “the schools”. He had occasion to refer often to the schools for that was the era of committee meetings, guest teas and American teas when Portadown flitted out to the country for the day. Open air whist drives on which the sun always seemed to shine, plays, where porter barrels from the pub up the road were the foundation for the stage, planks and six-inch nails completing the illusion. One stepped off the stage through a window, from which the glass had been removed, on to council property. And though we had the nerve to travel, we had the good sense to choose our audiences with care. All this activity had the object of raising money for the new school which was to crop up in conversation for the next 30 years. Father Johnston, a man apart, came with a vision – a vision of crowds flocking to the “Hall”, – he would refer to the school as a Hall and he was proved right, for off came his coat and with help from here and there and one builder, he extended the school. Whereas, before the extension, I had taught in the townland of Ballyhegan, after it, the senior room there were then three rooms with two movable partitions — was across the drain and in Annahugh. The school had a permanent stage, a full lighting system, dimmers and all and boy did he make use of that stage. I made use of it too; the front was closed in by four panels 10 feet by 4 feet painted black and this I used as a blackboard. There was no room for an easel anyhow. How many of us can ever look back without nostalgia to that era — the pageant where I had the doubtful honour to sit astride a big fat mare – you only realise the width of a horse from above – and direct “my men” to evict the miserable peasants and burn down their humble homes. To look back to the “pictures” on Friday and Sunday nights, where for two shillings, ten pence to you, you sat on a bus seat and got nowhere, to the snowball whist drives which, unfortunately, melted away all too soon, to the plays, The Down Express Love and Land, Birds in a Cage, Grogan and the Ferret etc., to the sports where “the next event” seemed never to come. Father McManus gave the school a rest I gave a sigh of relief – but he tackled the problem of “the new school” from a different angle. This was the time of the Carnival craze and the gold rush was on.

In Father Sweeney’s time the weekly, there are those who say weakly, envelope era began and the ‘silver Sunday’ and weekly pool disappeared. Now the money came pouring in. The stage was removed; we had room to breathe and the new schools in Portadown were being talked about Our P.P. Father O’Connor met an untimely death. I always feel it’s so unnecessary to pray for the repose of his soul. He was replaced by Father Donaghy who took an immediate interest in the schools equipment, but that is another story, repairs, heating, painting, water supply etc. All were attended to and for the first time in thirty years fires were lit on arrival at the school. He too, talked about the new school. But I had heard all that before. It turned out that the talk this time was accompanied by action. Moves were made Father Watson aiding and abetting behind the scenes – the ball started to roll and pressure was applied until just a few weeks ago – surprise of surprises tenders for the building of a new school to replace the old one were sought. The seemingly impossible had been achieved; I know it’s true for I saw it in the paper! But it hasn’t registered yet. I shall be sorry leaving the old building if and when it comes to pass for in spite of the drawbacks and inconveniences, it has nothing but happy memories for me. Nature has obligingly wiped out memories of difficulties and battles long ago – sure there must have been some. I look forward; too, to the new building for the children of Ballyhegan deserve it.