A Good Shaking
My love affair with books began in a rather inauspicious way. When I was six years of age my family came to Dublin from the quiet of the country town of Roscrea. Not alone was I in awe of the new city in which I was now resident, but I was a really scared little boy at sea in my new surroundings, and very much frightened by my new school, St. Agatha's Junior School, North William Street, not too far from the inner city. I can to this day still recall the shaking a wicked old witch of a nun, named Sr. Lucy, gave me when I had failed to read the Irish textbook she had pushed into my hands. I had managed the preceding English text quite readily. "No, you're not suitable for first class," declared the frustrated teacher, "you can go into Miss Byrne straight away."
I was duly consigned to repeat the senior infants' year. My abiding memory of that class was plenty of play, much drawing of pictures, the constant rolling of marla - the sixties' equivalent of modern play-dough - and plenty of enjoyment. I was happy under Miss Byrne's tutelage, saving the sharp nail of her right index finger, which she had the wont to stick into the head of any inattentive child.
Yet Sr Lucy's challenge was always a spur to me - to want to read better, and especially be good at Irish. I wanted to master the puzzle of words she had pushed under my nose. In short I was enchanted by the magic of the unknown stories that wove their mysterious patterns on the page in front of me. At home I loved opening my school books and doing my homework. I especially enjoyed reading my Irish and English texts aloud, a habit I still occasionally find hard to avoid. I can yet recall vividly a small boy kneeling at a chair with a book opened in front of him. That enchantment with books would never leave me.
As I grew there were presents of books before I was able to save the money to buy them. In third and fourth classes I came first place in my exams, and the books I received as prizes were Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn. Needless to say, my brothers, my friends and I read practically everything written by Enid Blyton. I also developed a love for the adventures of Biggles, The First World War pilot, written by Captain W.E. Johns. Reading had opened the realms of the imagination for a young boy living in the working class area of the North Strand in the Dublin of the nineteen sixties.
By the time I had finished my Leaving Cert. I had accumulated a fairly substantial library, having always been reluctant to get rid of books. There then followed third level education, courses at three different colleges and a teaching career. Now I have an extensive library and wide reading tastes ranging from English, Irish and French literature to general science, philosophy and theology. I have also been known to pen a word or two, and to have several pieces published in academic publications. All this from the acorn of a frightened little country boy, trembling before a fierce frustrated nun in the early nineteen sixties. Looking back at it, that shaking did me a power of good. It woke me up to the vast realm of the imagination, to the magic of words, and to reading as the key, not alone to the world of everyday life and work, but to the inner chambers of the human heart. Thank you, Sr. Lucy, little did you know what good you had done, what powers you had disturbed, what seeds you had sown in the heart of a frightened little six year old boy.
One end of my attic study, January 2006