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.