I had a surprise visitor last Sunday evening. He had travelled all the way from Beijing in China and yet looked as un-Chinese as you might expect of someone who had spent his school days in the Christian Brothers school in Athy. My visitor was Seamus Ryan, now a Doctor in charge of a Medical Centre in China’s capital, in which city he has been a resident for a number of years. We have kept in touch in recent years through the extraordinary agency of the internet. Indeed the genius of the system allows one to communicate at once with several persons, all receiving the same message with the press of a button. So it is that Seamus Ryan in China and Mike Robinson in Australia can be kept up-to-date with the local Athy news. It all depends however on their old school mate raising his energy levels to a sufficient height to make use of the latest electronic wizardry.
Unexpected as it was, Seamus Ryan’s visit presented an opportunity for a get-together with some of his old school friends which was speedily arranged. Later that Sunday night eight former pupils of the St. John’s Lane Academy of Excellence met to renew acquaintances and chin-wag their way through years of absence. George Robinson travelled from Athlone at short notice to attend and journeyed back there later that same night to prepare for a journey the following morning to Galway. George, as ever, was in scintillating form, reminding us of many forgotten episodes in our school lives which ended forty years ago. On such occasions the ageing youths of yesteryear belie their age and life experiences and indulge in youthful dreams of what seems like another age.
Times have certainly changed since as young lads we bounded up the metal stairs of the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane to take our place behind the school benches which even then carried the crudely carved marks of generations long gone to their maker. It was indeed an old school with a history stretching back to 1862 when the Christian Brothers first arrived in Athy.
Last Sunday night as eight past pupils gathered for a chat and a drink the talk was of what seemed like another age. We talked of Brother Brett, noted without any dissenting voice as a gentleman and his colleague Brother Kehoe, better known to all his pupils as Johnny Boris. How or where he got the name I do not know but Boris [now long dead] still raises controversy amongst his former pupils.
We could all recall the horrific beatings which three of our school mates received at his hands during our secondary school days. Nowadays such physical beatings would merit possible legal action but in those days, now over forty years ago, little was thought of the sometimes ritual head-banging and leather slapping antics of school teachers. It is remarkable how incidents such as these had different effects on the young onlookers of the time, some of whom still feel, after so many years, a revulsion which finds expression in the condemnation of such callous behaviour. Others regard the occasional brutality of those days as a symptom of the times in which we lived and push the unpleasantness to the backs of minds where it remains submerged by the good memories.
No such condemnation was aired in relation to the two lay teachers who during the second half of the 1950’s laboured sometimes in vain to inculcate a modicum of learning into our unreceptive minds. Bill Ryan whom we had as a teacher for our entire secondary school life and Bill Riordan, our teacher for a few short years, were and still are, fondly recalled and remembered. Bill Ryan was a particularly good teacher who shared his experiences and his knowledge in a way and a manner which engaged his youthful charges. Thus encouraged they worked harder at his subjects than any others and in some cases maintained a life-long interest in the subjects which Bill Ryan taught with such success.
When we came together on Sunday night it was as a bunch of young fellows clothed in the garb of middle-aged men and burdened with the accumulated knowledge of 57 years. Pat Flinter, Ted Wynne and Teddy Kelly see much of each other every week day, working as they do within the confines of the Tegral industrial complex. Billy Browne and Frank English are two more of the locals who never left their home town, unlike Seamus Ryan, George Robinson and even myself who spent 20 years out of Athy in the 1960’s and 1970’s. We hadn’t previously got together in this way and Seamus Ryan’s unexpected visit gave us both the opportunity and the reason to indulge ourselves.
I marvel at the ability of some of my school pals to recall names and events of over 40 years ago with unerring accuracy. It is when faced with the encyclopaedic knowledge of local life and lore by somebody like Teddy Kelly that I wonder how it is that I ever get the courage to write of times past, especially when there are so many events and people I cannot remember any longer. One man whom I do remember passed away last week. He was Paddy Flanagan, a great cyclist and a native of County Kildare who was my first sporting hero. I can still recall the excitement experienced as I read in the late 1950’s of Paddy’s exploits in Ras Tailteann. He excelled at his sport at a time when sporting heroes were scarce enough and Irish sporting heroes virtually unheard of. In those pre-television days sporting excellence received its quota of coverage within the pages of the National newspapers and the Irish Independent was then my eyeglass on the world of sport. Nothing else interested me in the Newspapers those days other than the sport pages and for many summers the name of Paddy Flanagan and his brother were writ large on those same pages. Paddy was a Kildare man and gave us a pride in the County at a time when the sporting pages of the National Press had little cause to extol the achievements of the County footballers.
How sad to think that he passed away at such a relatively young age. Paddy Flanagan will always be, for me, one of the great sporting heroes of my schooldays.
When the school pals of 40 years ago broke up on Monday morning it was with the promise to have a class reunion next year with as many of our class mates as can be gathered together from all corners of the world. The Christian Brothers’ boys have still more stories to share and enjoy.