Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Convent of Mercy, Boyle

Convent of Mercy
Lest We Forget

In retirement I have enjoyed putting on record many of the memories I have of growing up in my hometown of Boyle, a town steeped in history; the town I love so well. I have covered events like the Blizzard of 1947, the Cattle Fairs on the streets, Christmas Shopping in Boyle, Showday in Abbey Park, Rockingham (the Forest Park) and many more. With the recent closure of the Convent of Mercy I feel now might be a good time to recall some of the happy memories of my first Alma Mater, the Convent school; appreciated or not! My ramblings come from a different time and place, giving names of nuns that can mean little or nothing to the present generation but nevertheless may convey a picture of what life was like for a child attending Convent School back then, ‘a poor scholar of the ‘40s’ one might say.

To say I remember my very first day in school would be pushing it a little.  However I do remember the class of low infants and my teacher Sister Imelda, a nun with a gentle voice and a friendly face. She radiated a warmth that helped overcome the initial shock of those early days of separation from Mum and home. I remember being given a small black slate with a piece of chalk to scribble with and later a lump of plasticine to make shapes. I can’t ever recall her raising her voice to anyone in the class. A high point of that first year in school was the visit of Santa at Christmas. I never got to know who played Santa but I certainly remember the mayhem he created. Dressed all in red with a great white beard, he exploded into the classroom with a show of exuberance that frightened the life out of us. Pandemonium set in with children climbing over stools and running for cover. It took several minutes for poor Sister Imelda to restore calm and for Santa himself to realise the shock he had created, not to mention being given a chance to dole out the toys he carried in a swagbag on his back. Faith in Santa was gradually restored but God bless him he must have wondered what went wrong or where he lost the plot.

Next came the diminutive Sister Anita in high infants. Equally blessed we were with this little nun’s friendly manner. She had a press full of books and toys she handed out for a while each day, a kind of happy half-hour! My favourite toy was a drum that sounded like a bodhran but I wasn’t always lucky in getting it; the competition was fierce for the same instrument. Sister Anita was nothing short of a miracle worker in that she could find a toy or a book to suit everyone almost.

Then came Sister Francis in first class; she was the nun who prepared us for our First Holy Communion. Starting our third year in school, we were becoming ‘seasoned little annuals’ that could take it on the chin whenever she used the word ‘booby’ for making a mistake or ‘sugar lump’ (that melts in your tea) if your excuse for missing school was ‘a shower of rain’. Notwithstanding all of that we loved her, particularly when she read Pudsy Ryan for us in the Far East magazine or the funny jokes from Our Boys comic. Sister Francis had a thoughtful side to her as well and would often send a pupil who looked pale or sickly across to Annie in the dairy for a glass of milk. Gentle Annie would present the glass of fresh milk and simply say in that memorable soft voice of hers: “Drink that up child and you’ll be big and strong in no time”.

Sister Concilio, who was in charge of second class, was an explosive mix of energy and bombast, a nun you’d hear before you’d see. Along with the normal school subjects she taught us to knit, to sew and to be gentle with our female classmates when playing with them. As boys we weren’t overly enthusiastic about learning to knit but it was included as extramural (subject). Mrs. Logan, the lady with the Donegal accent (the examiner), would call to the class now and again to monitor our progress and of course praise our genius.  Sister Concilio was fond of music and taught us our first religious hymns as well as a number of popular children’s songs.  Could one easily forget Little Toy Soldier, Christopher Robin, Sheep and Lambs, Teddy Bear’s Picnic to name but a few! Then there were the occasions she’d pop out for a minute to Sister Francis’ classroom which was separated by a partition that had a small glass panel inset in it. The door would hardly be closed behind her when all hell would break loose with everyone talking together. Her control button happened to be a silver ring on her finger that she applied hard and heavy on to the same glass panel; silence descended on the class like a bolt of lightning. Sister Concilio’s was the last act in the story of the boys in Convent National School; a new chapter in life would soon begin for them in St. Joseph’s Boys’ School at Mockmoyne.

A nun who taught in one of the higher grades was known for her sarcasm, her sinister wit and a skill to speak daggers but use none. Another again was famous (maybe infamous) for a lack of patience, her tantrums, her fiery temper and the unfortunate student ending up in tears. Sister Columbanus, later known as Mother Colombanus and in time Mother General (the Mercy Order), was the most senior teaching sister in the school and was in charge of sixth grade. It would take a book of its own to cover the life story of this very special nun, not alone as a teacher but for the record she left behind; her name was synonymous with student success. She is remembered by many a mother’s daughter as the driving force behind her winning a position in the Civil Service in Dublin or elsewhere when jobs were like gold dust. She was phenomenal by any standard.

Another nun loved by many students (many of whom have since passed away) was the irrepressible Sister De Sales, the chatty and outspoken nun who taught a sister of mine Maura (also deceased) in the mid-1930s. To digress for a moment, Sister De Sales had a flamboyant personality with a tendency to pinch a pupil’s jaw or jowl in a kind of goodwill gesture. She was a nun who loved to hear news and discuss events going on around the globe; in colloquial terms she would be the present-day newshog! Newspapers and magazines would be taboo in a Convent in those times, hardly recommended reading; a nun’s calling after all was to teach, offer praise to God and pray for peace in the world! Sister De Sales, like any of us, had her little idiosyncrasies and asked my sister Maura to bring her the Irish Press on certain mornings of the week (my mother happened to own a newsagents shop). Her one stipulation was not to bring the paper up to her in the classroom and place it on her desk. That wouldn’t be necessary; she would collect it herself from her schoolbag quietly at lunch time. This would be the little secret between teacher and pupil. Mission accomplished with no fuss!

A nun I can just about remember is Sister Theodosia, said to be the oldest nun in the Convent at the time. She taught my mother in infants class in the early years of the twentieth century and when I asked her about her she said in a few simple words that she loved every single day going to school when Sister Theodosia was her teacher, end of story. Now in her nineties she could be seen on occasions in the company of Sister Elizebeth, Mother Superior still enjoying a short walk in her own ‘Garden of Eden’. 

What child of the time could ever forget grand old Mother Xaviour as she walked the school playground every day at lunch hour like an earthly mother keeping a close watch over her family. She was forever on call offering words of comfort to a child that fell, cut a knee (myself included) or bumped a head; she radiated a warmth that helped ease the pain and put an end to the tears. At one end of the playground where a low wall separated it from the Convent gardens, Sister Mel would regularly be seen walking up and down in quiet meditation. She’d pause sometimes in the course of her meditation to ask one of us our name, if we liked our teacher and what we would like to be when we grew up! The winding lane that she walked, the floral paths, the neatly trimmed hedges, the rockery, the little dairyhouse nestled in a corner and a meandering brook that babbled its way to the Boyle river nearby was a picture of tranquility, a hidden gem! The poet who once wrote that ‘one’s nearer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth’ must have had such a garden in mind.

Then there was Sister Josepha, the tall thin nun with the horn-rimmed glasses who managed the kitchen; she looked different. Her habit was part white and blue with an outer garment like an apron almost with stripes running through it. The same nun would be seen at times carrying a tray of food towards the hall door of the Convent; a rambler of sorts or a homeless person had arrived at the hall door and was about to be presented with a hearty meal. This was common practice in the Convent for many many years until very recently, an act of charity unseen to the eye and unlikely ever to find its way on to the front page of a newspaper!
The Convent ran its own farm, milk cows and a dairy to produce its own butter; it was self supplied with its own vegetables and had a beautiful flower garden, self-sufficient one might say in every way. Sister Gertrude, the Bursar and keeper of the purse strings, was never much in the public eye like the other nuns; her job was commercial, to balance the books. In the course of time, when the farming ultimately came to an end, she returned to her first love which was teaching. Larry McDermott from Ballinultagh was farm manager and was there for as long as one could remember, the helmsman ably assisted by his two young recruits Mickey McHugh and Eddie Wynne. Larry had the added responsibility of ringing the Convent bell for the Angelus at 12 noon and 6pm in the evening before he cycled home, a job he did unfailingly. When you heard the bell, you stopped in your tracks and prayed ‘The Angelus’ and automatically thought of Larry the bellringer, God’s messenger to the people of Boyle. His brother Tom took over when Larry retired and remained on until its eventual closure. It was in many ways the end of an era. The Nun’s field (as it was always known), where the cows spent their days browsing, became a new state-of-the-art children’s school erected in the shadow of the statue of Christ the King and alongside what was once the nun’s cemetery.

It would be an injustice not to mention the Convent Laundry and the employment it gave to so many young girls from the town for over half a century. Sister Pia, the nun in charge, was assisted by the indomitable Bea McGowan (her second in command) and two other junior lieutenants – Lizzie Cambell and Bridie Tansey. Could one ever forget Bea, the little lady who taught Irish dancing to generations of school children and was loved by everyone for her smile and her good humour. She is fondly remembered by the people of Boyle as the dapper little lady who came to town all dressed in black; beret, blouse, coat, stockings and shoes. Each shoe was adorned with a silver buckle, the symbol of her love for Irish dancing. A regular visitor to town, Bea knew every living soul in it and everyone knew her. Her name is forever associated with Irish dancing and the Convent Laundry. St. Vincent’s employed upwards of thirty people at its peak, all of them from the town. When at full throttle the sound of the washing machines could be heard around the playground as they tumbled up and down, over and back in an endless monotony. Little puffs of steam poured out the open windows in a regularity of their own, measured quantities almost as they rose up from the ironing presses positioned just inside. The laundry was a thriving business then, giving employment to girls in their late-teens and older during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. At no time had it ever been a Magdalene Laundry or meant to be, contrary to rumours that it could have been. A particular memory I have of the engine room was that of a noisy place. Eddie McGlynn from Doon, the captain of the ship, kept the furnace stoked and the wheels turning. Knowing Eddie from calling to our shop I would often steal my way towards the engine room after school hoping he’d see me and bring me in to see his powerhouse going full steam ahead. I was lucky sometimes, especially if Sister Pia happened to be in the vicinity and gave Eddie the knowing nod!  Eddie also drove the laundry van, as did his brother Tommy and a number of other drivers who came afterwards: Tommy Lee, Paddy Cryan, Leo Scully, Mickey Fox; all of them playing a part in the life and times of St. Vincent’s Laundry.

Last but not least of the many special memories I have of the Convent was the introduction of  Eucharistic Adoration in the Convent Chapel in the mid-1980s, a practice that continued unbroken for over thirty years. Adoration went on around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, twelve months of the year till the Chapel finally closed its doors in May of this year (2017). The religious establishment that had spanned almost 140 years of teaching etc., had come to an end. The school building that had served generations of students was vacated and demolished when boys and girls came together in the new second level Abbey Community College at Marian Road. The building that was St. Vincent’s Laundry was completely refurbished and is St. Joseph’s Resource Centre today and used regularly by voluntary organisations and groups from the town. The Convent with its beautiful garden, today in full bloom; its rockery, its flower-lined walks, its meandering brook and its redundant little dairy house stand a reminder of life’s earthly cycle from childhood to adulthood to old age and death itself. 

A silent citadel, a preserver of a million memories. 

Christy Wynne

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