To School Through the Foam
BOOK REVIEW by BILL HEANEY
Island life is the stuff of dreams … of pulling away … of being alone … of starting a new life from scratch …
Or it can be blighted by drudgery and domestic discomfort, foul weather and hard work and hard times that go with little reward and isolation?
Professor Lucy Collins, of UCD, asked these questions about islands and islanders at Clifden Arts Festival.
She was giving a talk on the life and times of the Cleggan poet, Richard Murphy, who has written much about islands, islanders and the sea.
Such poets as Murphy are frequently associated with dreams, but we all have our own dreams and experiences, whether we ourselves are poets or peasants or fisher folk.
However, what is the actuality? What is island life really like for the people who live and work there?
To find out whether it’s drudgery or dreams – or a bit of both – we should turn to a new book by island schoolteacher Bernadette Conroy – Waves on the Shore – The Life and Times of a Connemara Island.
Nothing sells like nostalgia. Old photographs, battered and framed, books, songs, stories, ink-fading letters and yellowing newspapers come immediately to mind.
Given that this old adage has a ring of truth to it, this attractively designed, illustrated, historically informative and entertainingly written book will be on the wish list of large numbers of people come Christmas.
It will be in popular demand too from members of the Irish diaspora in the United States, Australia, England and elsewhere, particularly from people whose families have links with the Western seaboard.
Bernadette Conroy’s recollections and research are a unique insight into life on Inishturk South, where she was a highly respected member of the community.
She has been there, seen it and done it, and has lived to tell this remarkable tale.
Each Monday morning, she was rowed out to the island by currach from Eyrephort beach, having arrived there from her home in Cleggan via Clifden and the Sky Road.
From time to time, loud, stormy weather meant the crossing to Inishturk was not possible because, for Bernadette, it was To School O’er the Foam.
And not, as the famous author Alice Taylor experienced it more conventionally, To School through the Fields.
When she took up her post, Miss Conroy adapted quickly to the new curriculum being introduced into primary schools in Ireland in the early 1970s.
She wrote: “Many of the old teaching methods were being side-lined, and a new child-centred programme, inspired by the writings of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel, was coming on stream.
“In the eyes of the reformers, traditional teacher-centred methods focusing on rote learning and memorisation would be abandoned in favour of a child-centred, task-based approach to learning.”
She added that the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth’s theory, which was also introduced into schools at that time, was based on the premise that a child’s early experiences are formative.
And that associations they form early in life are long-lasting. They also encourage hands-on learning and include suggestions that children can perform and learn through play.
Bernadette Conroy was initially boarded out with an island family, Martin and Mary O’Toole and their daughter, May, not to mention Carlo, their sheepdog and favourite pet.
On her first day, as she left the house to go to school, the seven Burke children were making their way there too, in single file and in order of age “like the steps of a staircase” along the shore path that had been battered and broken by the “untamed, corrosive power of the waves and the wind”.
The Burkes were joined in class by Margaret and Carmel Hannon, the youngest members of the only other school-going family on the island.
The one-room school had been built at the start of the 20th century and was of weather-beaten, pebble-dashed granite with a pitched slate roof.
Needless to say, the single classroom was poorly decorated but well lit from high windows (specially out in place so that the pupils could not look out of them) and warmed by a fire for which the class brought sods of turf from home to keep it going.
Remarkably, there is no peat bog on Inishturk and the turf had to be brought in from the mainland by currach, which was hard and labour intensive work.
The once white, loose-limed walls of the classroom had, through years of neglect, turned an ugly shade of grey.
And the old-fashioned primitive toilets were still in use, with a wall dividing the boys’ and girls’ sections.
However, Miss Conroy, ably assisted by her enthusiastic pupils, breathed new life into the old place and re-introduced colour around the walls and hard-topped oak desks.
These bore the carved initials of generations of island children, who had been educated there.
The teacher purchased a record player which was operated by both mains and batteries – “This appliance was very suitable for school use, and with an ample supply of operating material and records we were now well-equipped for the times to learn and perform lots of songs. It was a godsend!”
There is much more to this book than just the names on a school attendance register and work record.
Miss Conroy trawls deeply into the islanders’ life and work; the births, marriages and deaths and tragedies, which inevitably blight our fishing communities.
Drama and diet were often on the agenda for discussion around the fireplace, where pot and kettle had since time immemorial hung down on a crane above the glowing sods to bake bread and cook the dinner.
One story relates that Miss Conroy’s curiosity was aroused in the classroom once when a pupil informed her that cormorants (black hags) can be eaten.
“So, you have eaten a black hag,” I retorted.
“Yes, Miss, came the reply, “and drank the soup too,” said Mike.
When the pupil then asked her if she had ever eaten a black hag, the teacher said that while she had not been reared with a silver spoon in her mouth, she could not eat a “cailleach dubh”.
She said that, not even had the pangs of starvation overtaken her, could she eat one – “It was later told to me by Mary, my gracious landlady, that the meat of the cormorant, as well as the soup, is very nutritious and can be served without embellishments. How about that?”
Lobster fishing had always been important in the economics of Inishturk.
Back in the day, lobster and crayfish were sold by the dozen to a French exporter, Monsieur Maughet, who had built holding ponds on the shore at Aughrismore.
Catches of these shellfish were valuable and, at the time of writing, Miss Conroy was “reliably informed” that lobsters were fetching £4.20 a kilo and crayfish, the more expensive species, were £6.40.
She says she refrained from being too inquisitive and had she not, the likely reply would have been “scarce enough”.
Islanders can be reticent when it comes to matters of money.
However, a very unusual catch of lobsters was reported in The Connacht Tribune in 1949 when Willie Wallace from Inishturk caught nine lobsters in one lobster pot.
At that time, lobsters were being sold at 35 shillings a dozen.
In many ways, during these times, life on Inishturk South would not have been fundamentally different from life on the mainland.
While the infrastructure was minimal, it had the benefits of good spring water filtered from the hill, fertile soil, granite for house building and access to fish, birds, driftwood and seaweed – all the richness of the sea.
In the absence of electricity, which did not arrive on the island until 2003, there was no television on Inishturk.
House visiting was the main pastime and there would be games of cards, usually 25, a fast paced game steeped in Irish origins.
It took place sometimes in competition with people from the neighbouring island of Inishturbot, with groceries, tea and sugar and often a chicken as the prizes.
The Inishturbot people would travel across by currach to take part in the card playing, which was friendly but highly competitive.
The usual stories of ghosts and fairies were told around the fire by the non-participants and those knocked out of the card games, whose turn it was to sit out that session.
However, with the coming of electricity, and long after the people had finally left, the ghosts, banshees and fairies appear to have vanished while the folklore lingers on.
Of all the hardships endured by the islanders, one of the greatest lay in th transferring of cattle and other livestock between island and mainland.
With the approach of Fair Day in Clifden, the islanders who wanted to sell livestock would make them swim across the narrow channel to Eyrephort beach.
Everyone helped, including the pupils from the school, to push and shove the cattle down to the water’s edge and out of their depth, to a waiting currach containing three men.
In recent times, it was usually Martin Lacey, Tom Toole and Thomas Madden who did that.
The excitement on the day was palpable with men shouting, screaming children and barking dogs, which left no option for the animals but to rush wildly into the sea and be towed to their destination on the opposite shore.
There is so much more information and entertainment to be had in this invaluable addition to the social history of the islands and of Connemara itself.
A swift synopsis of the facts about Inishturk is that it is the smaller of two islands of the same name off the Connemara coastline.
When the island was inhabited, it didn’t have a church or public house and then the school closed. There was no electricity until 2003 to serve the population, which the census recorded was at one time as high as 128.
Some of the islanders who left return from time to time to attend to farming chores, and several of their houses have been purchased as holiday homes by people from Ireland and other European countries.
The author, Bernadette Conroy, who quit once but returned later to her post as Inishturk shed the last members of its indigenous population, deserves great praise for her work and for the skilful way she has drawn together the fascinating material for this new book.
The Clifden Festival’s Artistic Director, Dr Brendan Flynn, is to be congratulated for having the commendable good sense to promote this book.
Brendan Flynn, Bernadette Conroy and a map of Inishturk.
- Waves on the Shore is available from The Clifden Bookshop, other good bookshops such as Kenny’s Bookshop and Charlie O’Beirne’s in Galway, and on-line from the usual outlets.