When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Leo Cullen

Journey to School

My father, who was never quite sure of dates, always being far too busy, told me I started school in September 1952. Because of that I’ve always believed that in January 1955 – when a most important event in my life occurred – I was in first class at the Brothers, taught by kindly Brother Skehan from Antrim from whom we learned ‘The Green Glens of Antrim.’ But wrong, I now know, having recently looked up the school attendance book, that it was June of the following year. And so the day my mother died – for that was the important event – I was still in senior infants, loudly singing with my heavenly soprano convent classmates the songs of our teacher, Sister Annunciata.

Everything now makes sense: Of course that first day Mama led me by the hand to school was the bright June day of my memory, the sun already high in the morning sky and not getting up sensibly as in September, and of course the bunch of flowers I remember she gave me for the nuns were lupins from our garden – no lupins would have hung around until September, not in Templemore anyway: only old hydrangeas powdered Templemore gardens in September! And as we passed up wide Main Street and into the narrow choke of Mary Street and she tugged my hand a little and I looked at my shoes, of course they were new Clarks sandals with windows in them to let the cooling breezes through. All the things I so clearly remembered were correct if my first day in school was June 1953!

Leo on a pony as a child, with his mother.

And what did she say that day: ‘Laddie, you’re such a big boy now that you’re going to school; and your sister still only little and the twins only babies.’ And she sang ‘Hello Patsy Fagan’. And we got to the playground railings and we both looked in and I never saw such a crowd of children running around and shoving one another with thin knobbly arms and all wearing sandals like me.

But by the time we got to the doors – and it was the brightest building of high windows and ceilings I’d ever seen – I noticed that the tug of Mama’s hand was pulling me away from school rather than towards it. And she looked at me and said, ‘No you’re not ready for there,’ and we turned for home and I kept my head up in case children would think I was afraid.

I was not afraid either on my second day. Dada said, ‘Mama you have to let him go otherwise he’ll be a dunce.’ Oh it was another glorious day thanks bit of God, as I heard grownups say while we walked along. By Mary Street corner, school glinting before us again, I felt her hand wavering again and I knew I was going to have to do something or she’d be taking me home again and I’d end up a dunce all my days.

‘We’ll sing our song Mama,’ I said, – Mama had always wanted me, much against my wishes, to sing ‘our’ song, so here I was, doing her a big favour, to keep her calm: ‘Hello Patsy Fagan,’ I sang. And once I got her a bit happy I said, ‘Go home now Mama.’ Then I let go her hand. But I held hands with girls all that day. They were the tallest girls I’d ever seen. The girls in Sixth Class. Their heads swam away up in the air, up to the tops of the doors, but not up as high as the nuns. The nuns were impossibly high; their faces borne about in what I took to be skylights.

Leo and his siblings after his mother’s passing.

‘Musha silly laddie,’ Mama said when I had to relay all the events of the day to her later, ‘Those are wimples around their heads, not skylights.’

After that I learned many things about nuns and boys and girls and chanting addition tables. And now I believe for sure that my memories were correct: that all on that June day it was indeed glorious weather and lupins were in the flower beds and Sister Annunciata was of good voice and my mother, while she needed rest and quiet, was sad to see me go from her. And she was dead before I left that convent school and ever since I’ve been sad to see her go from me. And though of course we all miss our mothers when they die, sometimes also we know the first time we missed them while they were alive; as on a peerless morning like the one on which I told mine to go home and be about her business.

Leo Cullen is an Irish writer and poet. Published poetry, short stories ‘New Irish Writing’ Irish Press (1984- 1989) Sunday Independent, Irish Times. A book of short stories: “Clocking Ninety on the Road to Cloughjordan” (1994); novel Let’s Twist Again (2001); both Blackstaff Press. Work in numerous literary magazines, anthologies, Ireland UK Canada. Broadcasts: RTE ‘Quiet Quarter’ and ‘Sunday Miscellany’ BBC Radio 4.

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us.

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By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish writer, curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.