Best of Times, Worst of Times: Not for a second was I lonely in school: Frank Delaney

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AT THE age of 11, I went to the Abbey School in Tipperary. I couldn't wait to go there. My brothers and I had gone to the village school at home where my father and mother were schoolteachers, and to get away from that was my great anticipation.

To get to this school involved a cycling trip of six miles there and six miles home every day. This in itself was an adventure, because it was a country road, and country roads had hedgerows, and hedgerows are the most enchanting places to a boy. So there was a wonderful excuse for dawdling - not on the way to school, because they were very particular about punctuality, but on the way home. And it remained a mystery to my mother, how if school ended at a quarter to four, I could not complete this 40-minute journey before six o'clock.

The school was run by Christian Brothers. They wore long black cassocks which had voluminous sleeves, and some of the Brothers kept up their sleeves a leather strap to beat us on the hands. It was a short strap, about a foot long, made of very thick leather thongs all sewn together . . . and hard as a plank.

There was an extraordinary mixture of the benign and the brutal. Some of the Christian Brothers were decent, sane men who dedicated themselves to education. But there was one teacher, whose name I cannot mention, who was an unbridled savage, and he brutalised everybody. The unintelligent boys he ignored, and when the intelligent boys were not performing according to his standards, he beat them up, severely. He was unhinged. But the results he got were extraordinary. In one national Latin exam I got 398 marks out of 400, simply because I was terrified of this man.

When I arrived in 1948, the old buildings were still there; crude, 19th-century buildings with huge, draughty rooms, and long benches. It was straight out of Oliver Twist. It was a very small school, there were only 200 boys in it, most of them were farmers' sons from the surrounding countryside. But for a country school in a small market town, there was an extraordinarily high level of intelligence, and the competition for places at the top of the class and in the state exams was very high indeed.

It was a hybrid existence intellectually. Because the school was endowed as an agricultural college, we learnt things such as crop rotation and animal husbandry, but alongside this we had an extremely good literary education, Latin, some Greek and very good English and history, so in one period you would be dissecting an ear of wheat, in the next period you would be translating an ode of Horace.

I can remember, vividly, every moment of those classes. I so loved the learning, I loved what I was hearing, it was very exciting.

Before I went to the school I never felt I fitted in. I was the youngest of eight, and most of my brothers and sisters had formed their own groups and associations within the family, and I always had a consciousness of being on my own.

Not for a second did I feel lonely in that school. That's what was so wonderful, and that's why I was so lonely the day I left . . .

We finished our last exam. It was a glorious, sunny day. We left without ceremony, without even saying goodbye to each other; and I remember cycling home feeling absolutely free, and wondering nostalgically, perhaps sentimentally, should I keep in touch. But I remember being acutely aware that from now on I was very much on my own, and I would probably never again get such a concentrated period of learning in my life, and I hated that. Even now, I have a very keen sense of loss, of never being able to learn in that way again.

Somewhere in that huge mass of learning I will never receive, there is a piece of information, a piece of knowledge, that is peculiarly and only mine. In my heart I must have known that the day I left school I would have to spend the rest of my life trying to find that one piece of knowledge, and that I was not going to find it easily, and that I would have to start looking.

It leads me on, it leads me forward, and it makes me search all the time, almost as if I was someone searching for the right religion, which I'm not. For me the only religion in which I am interested is the religion of learning, and the great thing about writing is it's a learning process, every single page you write you're learning something.

I dream about the school. It's always more or less the same dream. In it the school is completely white; as it was the day I was leaving, a very bright summer's day - and the yard was as white as Morocco.

In the dream all the environs of the school are absolutely white, and I can see myself slightly in the distance, and I'm walking across the yard, and there's no colour anywhere, except I'm wearing a blue shirt, a particular blue of which I am fond, and I am walking to where my bicycle is parked. All the windows of the school yard are ranged in the L-shape that they were, and behind the windows all the boys are at class, but they seem to be absolutely still, they are not animated, everything seems completely frozen. I have that dream several times a year, exactly the same. I still haven't worked out the importance of it.

Frank Delaney's novel 'Sins of the Mothers' is published by HarperCollins, pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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