The school I attended before emigrating to Slough was called St. Enda’s, or to give it it’s correct Gaelic title, Ard Scoil Eanna ( High School of St. Enda ). Coincidentally, Eanna is also the Irish word for Learning.
It was quite an unusual school, in fact I believe it to be unique, insofar as it was privately owned and run by a family called O’Byrne, with Ms. Reiltin O’Byrne as head teacher and it was a fee paying school until one reached secondary level, after which no fees were required. St. Enda’s was opened by Professor Seamus O’Byrne in 1939 ( I hope to attend the 70th. Anniversary reunion next year ) and was called after a school in which Irish Patriot Patrick Pearse had taught, prior to his execution in Dublin after the Easter Rising in 1916. In fact many of the desks at which we sat came from that original school. Amazingly, Miss O’Byrne ( as she preferred to be called ) only recently passed away at the age of ninety-two and the O’Byrne clan still run that same school.
The famous stage and screen actor, Gabriel Byrne
( ‘Miller’s Crossing’, ’Into The West’, ‘The Usual Suspects’, etc. ), was a teacher there in the seventies before taking up a more lucrative career in film-making. Born In 1946 in Dublin I lived most of my childhood in my maternal grandmother’s house in Drimnagh, close to my first school, as my father had emigrated to England in the mid-fifties along with hundreds of thousands of other Irish exiles.
My parents did not enjoy a happy marriage, to say the least, with many estrangements due to the fact that both were what I would term ‘Highly strung’, with the inevitable periodic break-ups and reconciliations. As a child I did not mind the break-ups. It was the reconcilliations that frightened the bejaysez out of me for I knew it was only a matter of time before all hell broke loose again.
In 1959 my parents decided to attempt yet another tryst, this time in that town of which the Poet Laureate once wrote, “ Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough”.
My mother and I found ourselves sailing from Dunleary (Dun Laoghaire) to Holyhead on the dreaded ‘Princess Maud’, which for anyone who did not have the experience of boarding will never know just how horrendous a transportation it was and it would be futile for me to attempt to describe it here.
Slough was then called ‘Slough Safety Town’, a misnomer if ever there was one as it had the distinction of being the most dangerous place for road traffic accidents in the whole of Buckinghamshire. I clearly remember a public sign placed at The Crown Corner informing the public of how many fatalities had occurred on a weekly basis. A red lamp over the sign signified a death. A green light meant someone was merely maimed, with the exhortation to ’Keep Slough Safe’.
We lived in a flat above a shop which sold ladies gowns at 220A High Street. This proved very convenient for my Dad’s place of work, which was a Barber’s shop. There was also the added bonus of numerous pubs and Bookies nearby. My Dad was an avid contributor to the Turf Accountant’s Benevolent Fund, when he wasn’t busy drinking Slough dry. Within a year or two we were housed by Slough Council in No.2 Howard Avenue, Manor Park, which was a typical working class housing estate in Slough.
In September of 1959, my father brought me to St. Joseph’s Catholic Secondary Modern School in
Shaggy Calf Lane to meet Mr. Connor, who I think was Assistant Head Teacher at the time, to enrol me in 3C with other boys and girls, many of whom shared Irish ancestry and the one true faith. I was placed beside a friendly young girl called Philomena Fullam who asked me what team I supported. When I told her it was Shamrock Rovers she beamed as she informed me that her Dad had played for that great Dublin soccer team.
I did not believe her story as I considered myself something of a Shamrock Rovers aficionado who knew everything worth knowing about my heroes. When I got home after my first day at my new school I mentioned this to my Dad, who also followed the ‘Hoops’. My Dad proudly informed me that he was a personal friend and a cutter of hair of the legendary Bob Fullam who not only played for Shamrock Rovers but who had also represented his country, Eire. I have since learned that Bob Fullam possessed such a fierce shot that it once resulted in an Italian goalkeeper being hospitalized with numerous fractured ribs.
When I arrived at St. Joseph’s nobody in my class could understand a word I said. Quite apart from the fact that I was extremely shy I tended to mumble when speaking, which infuriated Mrs. Smith who made little allowance for my situation, indeed, on more than one occasion she actually made fun of my pronunciation of certain words which started with TH, as in ‘thirty-three’, which is a nightmare for a Dublin person to pronounce correctly.
After some weeks of dis I decided to try harder. One day Mrs. Smith called upon me to read something from a text book. This was my chance to show HER. I put aside my bashfulness for once and spoke very clearly, ensuring to pronounce all the THis, THats and THe oTHers perfectly. All went well until I came to the word ‘Thames’ which I pronounced as THames, as in shames.
To my great chagrin the entire class erupted in laughter. I was dumbfounded. “It’s TEMS, Phelan.
The river is called the TEMS”, Mrs. Smith bellowed, as the rest of the class descended into ecstatic micturition. This was very confusing to me as well as embarrassing. I was mortified. Just then one of my classmates, Keith Hegarty, rounded on the rest of the class and told them in no uncertain terms to “Shut your cake-holes”. When Hegarty gave an order everyone obeyed, not that he was a bully or anything like that. Hegarty was ‘hard’, but decent.
I was only a few months at school when my Mother and I had to return to Ireland for my grannie’s funeral. On my return some weeks later, Stephen Reid told me that Mrs. Smith, who wrongly assumed that I had left for good, cleared out my desk and found my copybook in which I had written some poems, whereupon she was overheard to remark, ”A strange boy, that Phelan. Fancy, writing poetry about Ireland all the time. Homesick before he had time to be seasick”.
I replied something to the effect that the remark was, in a way, quite witty, coming from Smitty. Reid looked me square in the eye and said, rather earnestly, “Nobody laughed”. Any prejudice I may have harboured against the English or had inculcated into me by my upbringing and education in Ireland completely evaporated there and then.
Mrs. Smith’s attitude to me was in marked contrast to that of Mr. McKechnie, that noble Scotsman, who encouraged such endeavours, no matter how feeble the effort towards literary creativity. I often wonder what he might have thought to discover that the sentimental, homesick pocket Paddy would within half a century compose almost a thousand original songs, words and music, many of which relate to the place of my birth. I like to think he would have been proud of me.
With the passing of time I regret that I have forgotten many of the names of my old school friends. Some of the ones I recall with great affection are: Joseph Leitold, Eileen Renison, Kay O’Brien, Keith Ridd, Potter, Michael Cleere, Dowling, Pusey, the Sullivan’s, as well as friends from other classes such as: Stephen Fahy, Gordon ‘Gaffer’ Gale, Dave Harwood, Christine Gaizier ( a beautiful
Polish girl whom I never spoke to but fancied from afar ), Karen Green and John Cooney,
apart from the ones mentioned earlier in this story.
Looking back to my time at St. Joseph’s I can honestly say it was a privilege to have known so
many truly wonderful people from an era of innocence. Because of my unhappy domestic circumstances, school became an oasis for me where I could escape the tensions and rows at
home. I may have been the only boy in St. Joseph’s who looked forward to Monday mornings.
I should like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to the memory of Mr. Mc Kechnie, a teacher of great integrity and a friend. Also to Mrs. Smith who taught me more than she could comprehend. There were other fine teachers whose names I cannot remember, one who taught Art and Science and our PE teacher, Mr. Atkins. May God bless all of those who were and still are involved in this school in any capacity. May Saint Joseph watch over Slough and make it a safety town where no bombs rain down
( Up yours, Betjeman ) and may Saint Jude make Slough happy.
Brendan Phelan 1998