John O'Byrne, class '49
first visit back in 40 years!
John O'Byrne abroad in Mayo
In August this year on a warm afternoon, I drove back once more to Castleknock - past the granite gate lodge - down the winding avenue - past the hill on the right - and on down to the sweep of gravel before the buildings. And there it was once more - all just the same - the front of the College clothed in it its apparel of Virginia creeper, now turning to blushing red in the last days of Summer.
In the car with me were my two sons, Aidan and Kevin - each of them older than I was the first time I drove down that same avenue all those long years ago. It was September 1943. The war - rationing - no petrol - the taxi that took me to Castleknock with my elder brother, Paddy - Looking more like a weapon of war than a taxi, with an object like a barrage balloon on the roof, and a sort of stove at the back, which the driver had to stoke up even now and then, with cinders and clinkers falling out onto the road.
Now, as I stopped the car and got out, memories came flooding back to me. This was almost the first time I had come back since I walked away one blazing Summer day in 1949. Then I had just finished my last examination for my Matriculation - I think it was Spanish - and I found that at long last I was free to go home. I had had to stay back with the rest of my class after the school had broken up, to do the Matriculation. And then as an added delay I had had to wait an extra few days for the Spanish examination. I was the only boy in Castleknock that year doing Spanish in the Matriculation, so that when I eventually set for it, even other boy in the school had gone home for the Summer holidays. When I finally finished writing my Spanish, I put my official number on the papers; put it into the envelope and handed it to the examiner in charge of the hall. He took it, smiled and said good-bye to me. Suddenly I found I was no longer a school boy.
I remember walking through the long grass on the idle football fields, the grass which swayed lazily in the Summer breeze under a blazing sun. Carrying a canvas grip with clothes in it in one hand and my violin in its heavy oak case in the other, I made my way with thumping heart to the back gate by the quarries (all gone now, I believe) and strode out, without once looking back, down to the village to get the bus into Dublin. My school days had ended.
And now here I was once more, standing before the granite portico of the hall door. I put my hand out to where the large brass door bell had been. It wasn't there any more - just a void in a large granite circle by the door - had someone stolen it? A more prosaic doorbell was at hand - was it plastic? — and I pressed it. A shrill sound rang out. Not a bit like the Mars-like sound that had resounded from the old one. The old one could have been heard all down the tiled corridors, so that you looked up and thought "Could it be for me? — a vis?" However the modern bell did produce results, and a pleasant looking woman came out with a big smile and twinkling eyes. She didn't look a bit like poor Pat Sullivan. I told her that I had come to see if perhaps Father Mullan were there. My sons and I had just come from a holiday in the Gaeltacht of An Fal Mor in Mayo, where we had mutual friends from whom I was bringing greetings. She told us to come in; she would ring through. We walked into the tiled hall. That was just the same. But what on earth had happened to the two parlours? The lady with the twinkling eyes started to ring through on an internal telephone to Father Mullan, while I looked around and tried to see something that could remind me of the two parlours. Nothing. Not a trace of all that slightly old-fashioned furniture, tables and firescreens, where we had sat on rainy days when our parents and relations had come out to visit us. And what about the parlour on the left, where dear old May Foley (with that unkind nick-name, which she by no means deserved) had reigned supreme by that old upright piano, and where she had tried so conscientiously to instil into some of us the rudiments and beauties of music. I had actually learned the violin from Paddy Delaney in the hall. But whenever he had been sick — and that was quite often — May Foley had taken on the Violinists as well. How she had shouted at John Lavery and me as we had squeaked our way uncaringly through Etudes and Scales. There she had been in the left parlour, in a dense cloud of cigarette smoke, singing out raucous instructions on the one note that we were supposed to have been playing, "Will - you - play - that - note" seemed to ring out on the air, all on the note of E above middle C. But there was nothing there now to remind you of May Foley. Or of the evenings we had gone in there to rehearse our songs for the operas. Father Cregan rehearsing me for what was my first part on the stage — (it was Lady Jane in 'Patience", opposite Joe Masterson's jolly Bunthorne — do you remember it as well and with such joy as I do, Joe?) Malcolm Sargent did a recording of "Patience" in 1962 with the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. I have a copy. Whenever I play it my mind goes back to Castleknock - the performance - the rehearsals - and Father Cregan at the piano in that lovely old room.
Father Mullan came down to us. I think my first year in Castleknock had been his last, but I may be wrong. But his brother, Noel, had been in my class all through the school. Noel, he tells me, is now in Canada. Father Mullan looks so very like Noel - same quiet expression — smile lingering round the eyes — quiet voice. We set off on a journey round the grounds. Once round the comer by the hall door, and the changes could be clearly seen. Swimming pool gone — a new block there — for Day Pupils???? I could see the window of the little ground floor room next door to the sacristy which had been Pat Sullivan's room. How poor Pat used to doze off sometimes in the afternoons sitting in the window seat. And how some gay sparks had come upon him one day, dozing away, and had sprinkled him with rose petals. They knew that he had this great devotion to Saint Therese of Lisieux, so they led him to believe he had experienced a "shower of roses".
All the trees that had been over on the right on little mounds were now gone. Hadn't an aeroplane crashed into one of those trees or one of those mounds once? We always used to say that far mound was unlucky and we wouldn't go near it. Well, it's gone now. All around us was grass — lovely, smooth, green, well cared-for grass lawns everywhere. The old Crease never looked better. We used to have the tennis courts there in the Summer term. It was sitting there, between two games of tennis, that I had learned the War was over. May 8th 1945. Now, I see, there are hard courts well over to the left — near where the old farm-yard had been. And what about the poor old farm-yard? What's happened to that? All through the war, it had supplied us with meat. One day I sneaked in to see how cattle were slaughtered — although the farm-yard was out of bounds. I wish I hadn't. I never want to see that again. I was violently sick and had to go up and see Nurse ShorthalL who nearly had a fit when she found how my heart was pounding.
We now walked past the kitchen entrance. I remember the poor people coming there, queueing up, and being given food in the afternoon after lunch. Father Mullan tells me they still come. We made our way up to the Castle. This was the building which had made such a huge impression on me all those years ago. The thought of the Normans being there - the Tyrells? - the White Lady who was supposed to haunt the keep — incidentally the White Lady was of my clan, she was one Eileen O'Byrne, taken there to the Norman keep against her will. I could see that the ravages of time have become more pronounced since my time — concrete used as supports where it hadn't been before. And then the graves. Silently — without gesture or movement — but with great sincerity from my heart — I saluted Father Austin Murphy and Father Alex MacCarthy - ironically it was with these two priests that I had made my first visit to An Fal Mor to learn Irish in 1944. Father Austin was the man who had blazed the trail for all of us into those parts. We all followed after him. They still talk of him with great affection down there. And Father Alex was the man who once told me he went for a swim there one day — or rather a soak in one of the rock pools, where the water becomes warmer under the sun than in the open Atlantic. He didn't have any togs with him this day, so he just took off all his clothes and got in as he would into a bath. It was a lovely hot day and he was in seventh heaven in the warm waters of the rock pool. Suddenly, to his surprise, three local women turned up and gave him a warm Mayo greeting. He replied as cheerfully as he could, realising that as long as he stayed where he was, they couldn't tell whether he was clothed or not. But to his consternation, they all sat down on the rocks around the pool and entered into a long conversation with him. He never told me what happened in the end.
I saw the grave of Father Hickey too. I can still see him so well in my mind's eye — the long black cigarette holder — the dark-framed spectacles — the way he used to pin up on the notice-board the particulars of the film he was to show on Sunday night The first film I saw in Castleknock was "The Fleet's In" with Dorothy Lamour and William Holden - that was September 1943. (Would anyone like to check? — you'll find I'm right) That was before Father Hickey had his falling-out with Paramount, after which we seemed to get almost all our films from Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Father Hickey used to arrange the hiring and the showing of all these films — he was the projectionist too. He was the school bursar too (is that the correct term?) And I'll tell you this — he made wonderful arrangements about food during the War. Things that were just impossible to get for love or money — he was able to get them. Funny, the thing I remember most was the fruit salad. Fruit was absolutely impossible to get during the War. And yet every Free Day we had — all through the War — on every table was the glass bowl of mixed fruit salad with that inch-thick covering of fresh cream. God bless you, Father Hickey — did you have friends on the Black Market or in the German Embassy or were you the Hoarder par Excellence of 1939.
After the Castle, we went back down to the Crease. I saw the new swimming pool — I bet it's heated. And the old Pavilion. That hadn't changed. I remember they used to sell ice-cream from there in the Summer term. Father Walsh, if I remember right. I remember it was Lucan Dairy ice-cream. You don't get that any more — do you? We concluded our visit by Father Mullan showing us his "crafts centre" with rug-making and tapestry. I wish there had been something like that there in my time. I think I might have been good at that. I admired the lovely colours of the wools and the deft and skilled way in which Father Mullan makes the rugs. I particularly liked two little mats, beautifully fashioned after Irish postage stamps. Very clever.
The O'Byrne brothers - John ('49), Paddy ('48), Michael ('51)
We all said good-bye. It had really been very nice and friendly and strangely moving. Father Mullan waved to us as we drove away - heading back for our life in England. I drove up the winding avenue once more. Once again, I didn't look back. That's my life. I leave many things behind me. I have to. And I never looked back. But then I don't have to. I can still see every-thing quite clearly as it was. I can still see the bonfire we lit on the hill in front of the school the night we won the Rugby Cup in 1943/44. I can see Father Walsh and later Father O'Kane throwing out the letters in the refectory - each one zinging like a guided missile with surprising accuracy to the addressee - I can see the library - I can still smell the books - the Gilbert and Sullivan operas - the Study Hall - serving Mass - Corpus Christi processions - the shoe room - the showers - the "grub-boxes" - the retreats - the Hobbies Club - Father Shields' Musical Evenings - Holy Angels' dormitory - "the Vins' Ref.", where I sometimes used to read to them at lunch (and myself got a lovely lunch afterwards as a sort of reward: it was thus I ate goose for the very first time in my life) - and I see faces and faces of boys of eleven who are now fifty and more — I see priests who are no longer with us - and parents - and friends - and ink an our fingers - and the way we were all coaxed unwillingly into the wider horizons of learning - the way we were all taught to shed the skin of the child and emerge into the world as the intelligent adult. All these things are clearly before me now. And they always will be with me. They are part of me. They have shaped me. I owe Castleknock a great debt. I will always remember Castleknock. But will Castleknock ever remember me?