Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Matty: The Early Years

The following is part of Matty's account of her life pre-school and in infant class. In it she writes about her terrifying teacher Miss Wade and her efforts to ensure that Matty wrote with the 'right' hand. By todays standards that sounds so inhumane.

It's hard to believe that teachers could treat little children like that. Miss Wade also features towards the end of this extract when she makes Matty sit outside on the cold step because of her mistaken belief that the child was suffering from a contagious condition. Even after the passage of more than seventy years Matty has keen memories of this cruel woman.


Martha before she started school

I was born in the townland of Leitrim about two miles from Randalstown on the 28th July 1926 and christened Martha after my Daddy’s mother.

My earliest memories are from when I was three and are of my playmate Malachy Cunningham, whose family lived close to us, playing with me on a heap of sand at the end of our house and of Arthur O’Neill, who did some gardening for us, wheeling Malachy and me about in a barrow. Arthur would make up poems about us but I cannot really remember them. Malachy and I were both too young to go to school but we had great fun playing together.

When I saw my three older sisters Kathleen, Josephine and Sadie getting ready for school I wanted to go too but I was four years old before Mammy allowed it. It was about three miles to walk and sometimes two of the big girls who lived out our way would give me a lift on their bicycles. At school the big girls would fuss over me and carry me about. I am told I was a chubby little thing with blonde curly hair. Master McNamee was leaving Creggan School about the time I started and he cut off one of my curls to take with him. I can tell you I was not pleased.

When I started school first I would sometimes be very tired so I would put my head down on the desk and have a little sleep. No one bothered me, as I was still too young to be doing lessons. We had two goats at home called Betty and Daisy so I had a bottle of goat’s milk to take with my sandwiches at lunchtime.

About a year later I discovered that school was not the great place I thought it was. Miss Wade was teaching me to write and she found out that I was left-handed. She was determined to make me use my right hand. She would put the pencil in my right hand and walk away. I would start writing with my left hand again and she would slip up and beat me hard on my knuckles. As a last resort she tied my left hand behind my back and eventually, after a time, she got me to use my right hand. During that time I used to wake up screaming at night and Mammy thought I was having bad dreams. In those days children never talked much about how they were treated at school.

Reading came very easily to me. I was not always able to pronounce some of the words I read but that did not stop me reading my only problem was I could not be kept up in books. I would read the same books over and over again until they were in tatters. Sadie and I used to borrow books from our landlord Johnny Haire. He had a bookcase filled with books that he and his sister had won as prizes at Sunday School. Johnny told us that if we took good care of them we could borrow his books anytime. We did as he asked and really enjoyed reading them, as they were all well written children’s stories.

There were places near our school that we liked to visit. On winter mornings we would go across to the blacksmith’s shop to get our hands warmed before school started. I can still remember the smell of burning hooves when the horses were getting shod.

At lunchtime we would go to McAteer’s shop and if we had a penny we could buy ten chocolate caramels or a pennyworth of broken biscuits or a couple of pencils at a halfpenny each. Across the road from the shop was where Pat McAteer and Tommy lived. Pat was a shoe mender and we liked to watch him cutting out the shapes of soles and heels in brown paper before he cut them in leather. He was a little man and he always wore a black bowler hat.

Tommy was a very fussy person and he was always warning us about jumping off old wallsteads. He said we would finish up, when we got older, with pains in our legs. If we bought cough sweets he would tell us not to eat too many or we would go to sleep and not wake up. He warned us not to go near the quarry hole at the back of our house. It was filled with water and was supposed to be so deep that three men could stand in it one on top of the other. The only time we ever went near it was in springtime when it was full of frogs and we would listen to them croaking and wonder how they could make so much noise. Tommy had lovely gooseberries growing in his garden but he would not let us have any until after the twelfth of July. He said they would not be properly ripened until then.

One day at school Miss Wade noticed a sore on my leg. She said it was ringworm and sent me to sit on the cold step outside until home time when my sisters would bring me home. I was glad when the time came for I was cold and miserable.


Ronni said...

I am loving Matty's stories!

Grannymar said...

Another great story from Matty.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant story Mary & Matty. Thanks for sharing - I was hoping there would be another soon!

dermod said...

Extraordinary to arrive at this site. My mother was Martha Cunningham and one of her younger brothers was Malachy. They lived in Leitrim in a small house which is now derelect and went to Creggan School, which still exists, where the master was Mr McNamee. The McAteer shop was nearby. I know these places myself, but only from summer holidays in Cranfield, on the lough shore in the 1950s. My mother later moved to America, then back to NI, finally to London where many of her family settled, including Malachy, a life long enthusiast of folk song and dance. Small world.

Nelly said...

How lovely to hear from you Dermod. My mother would have been thrilled to hear that a nephew of Malachy's was in touch. Sad to say she is no longer with us as she died a few months back.

Colin 'Arthur Pewtey' Cunningham said...

What an incredible find. My name is Colin Cunningham and I am one of Malachy Cunningham's sons. Dermod Hill is our cousin and his mother Martha was known to us as Aunt Molly. Dad (Malachy) came to England in the 1950s and married our mother (Meg) in 1955. They had five sons and one daughter and we were all raised in Wood Green, North London. Sadly Dad passed away suddenly in 1989 at the age of 62 and is still missed by us all. It is incredible to find this little snapshot description of Dad in his childhood. I have passed the link to this blog around the family, they will all be fascinated to read your late Mother's words. I wonder what Dad would think to know he has been the subject of a blog - I expect he would be very happy indeed. Kindest regards, Colin Cunningham

Nelly said...

We used to have a picture of Mum and Malachy together, both curly-tops, probably about three years old. Mum always spoke very fondly of your father. Good to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

Hi - hope I can contact Colin Cunningham through this blog. I am keen to know whether Malachy's father was Lawrence/Laurence Cunningham who left Malachy and another child in Ireland when he went off to Liverpool and married again. All I know is that rumour had it that he left at least 2 children in Ireland possibly Newry, one by the name of Malachy. My email is I am married to the grandson of Laurence and have been looking forever!

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous:

I'm Colin's brother Matthew - and the answer to your question is no. Malachy's parents (James and Elizabeth) stayed married and together. He dies in 1954. She died in 1957. Good luck with your search.