Mister Moynihan was too old to be a teacher. There was no doubt about it. Even at seven years and eight months of age I was sure of that. It was the first Wednesday of July and I, like all the boys in First Class in the convent in Weaver Square, had been marched in rows of two the ten minute walk to Scoil Treasa in Donore Avenue.
We were shepherded by Sister Rose, the only woman of her age I ever knew not to have a single wrinkle, and Miss Dixon, a large folder tucked under her ample arms containing the list of names of the ‘convent’s finest’ as she often referred to us in a tone which clearly indicated she didn’t mean a word of it.
The fear of the unknown is a very powerful fear indeed and its shadow hung over us like a thunder cloud on that gloriously sunny summer day as we made our silent way to the ‘Big School’. All the nervous excitement of the previous days when we had shared the common dream of leaving the ‘Little School’ behind had evaporated and had been replaced with stomach tightening apprehension.
This feeling was only ratcheted up when we were met at the high iron gates of the school by one of the senior boys, neat as a pin in his crisp maroon coloured school uniform with its yellow piping, his brylcreemed hair plastered to his head. Smirking gleefully, and looking us up and down with cold black eyes, we were led to the line. Here about twenty boys were already assembled at the lower door of the large grey two-storied school building. We swelled their ranks by thirty or so, a disparate group both in physical appearance and dress. Some were already proudly wearing their new uniforms, hair neatly combed and cheeks glowing.
Others, myself included, wore our usual clothes for a school day – knitted jumpers or cardigans, thinned or worse at the elbows, short trousers held high above our waists by the ubiquitous ‘S’ belts of that era, and shoes scuffed on the toes and heels, and in my own case flapping loosely at the sole so that I had to concentrate hard while walking so as not to trip.
Standing at the head of the line, thumbs pushed into waistcoat pockets, was a man about one hundred years old. Sternly he peered at us through small round rimless glasses which perched perilously close to the end of his large bulbous nose. His suit, ill-fitting, one button tightly encompassing a rounded midriff, had a distinct shine on the shoulders and lapels.
“Moynihan”, breathed my best friend Paddy Farrell through lips that scarcely moved. That’s Mister Moynihan”, he explained, “My brother had him last year.” Paddy was smaller than I was with a head that was all curls and teeth that normally seemed too large for his mouth. He had been my friend forever. We stood in line a further ten minutes, still silent and cowed by the whole experience.
It felt much longer. We were eventually joined by a dozen other boys. They arrived, not as we had as a long herded flock from the convent, but in small clutches with mothers, grannies and what I assumed were in some cases Big Sisters. As each was put into his place he was kissed, or had his nose wiped, or in the case of those blessed with Big Sisters, pucked in the ribs and told to “Stand up straight and don’t make a holy show of me’”
As the line in front of Mister Moynihan grew and we shifted from foot to foot to relieve both the tension and the stiffness in our legs, the old man lifted his head and in an accent I had never heard before barked, “Ciúnas!” At exactly the same moment two huge shovel hands clapped together causing some of us to jump several inches into the air.
The line fell even more silent if such were possible.
Mister Moynihan dipped two tobacco stained fingers into his right hand waistcoat pocket and slowly withdrew a large silver pocket watch. With a sharp flick of his wrist he sprung it open. He held it lovingly in his hand for a moment, peered at it over his glasses, and smiling replaced it in his pocket which he tapped twice in a very satisfied way. Turning on the spot where he stood and glancing over his left shoulder he again barked, “Siúlaigí!”
In total terror his new flock followed him through the heavy green double doors and into the “Big School”.