Last week as I drove home from my work office I passed by my old primary school, which caused me to recall the days that I spent there, so many years ago. As I thought about those days, a certain image returned to me and was very clear in my mind. It was the image of one of my teachers, Mr. Mangin. Even when he had taught me, all those years ago, Mr. Mangin was a very old man who must have been near to retirement age. He had a head of silver-grey hair which, unusually for a schoolmaster in those days, reached just over the collar of his shirt. A small, knowledgeable man with thick rimmed glasses, Mr. Mangin was given a lot of respect among the people in the area where I lived. To most of those people he was known simply as “Master Mangin”, and he was considered by all to be a respectable, a decent, and a religious man. He was also believed by many to be a man of great generosity, of whom it was said that, “He would go out of his way to do another person a good turn.”
Being the oldest, Mr. Mangin was also the most senior teacher in that school, which was actually a small, two-roomed, unprepossessing building situated in the countryside about four miles from the biggest town. Despite its age and outward condition the school was just about big enough for the townland population for whom it had been built so many decades before. The roof of the school was covered with ‘Bangor Blue’ slates, and the two chimney pots in the centre protruded upward to expel the smoke from two old pot-belly stoves that were the only source of heating in the classrooms. The solid stone walls of the building had been plastered over on numerous occasions and were regularly whitewashed by willing volunteers. In those far off days when it was first built there was little thought given to cavity walls and to insulation, and I still remember how bitterly cold those classrooms were in the winter months. In each of the two classrooms were two medium sized windows with squared panes of single glazing that did little to help improve the temperature in the building.
At one end of the old stone building there was a playground, which was enclosed by a high, rough-stone wall. The playground floor had been constructed of solid concrete and, at the farthest end, were two toilet buildings. On the left stood the boys’ toilet and to the right was the girls’ toilet, each made private by slatted wooden doors, which had been painted a dark olive-green colour. Adjacent to one side of the school ran a main road while, on the other side of the building stood a row of three mature trees. Some of the older boys would carve their names in the tree trunks while others stuck old pen nibs or drawing pins into the trunks in a variety of patterns. During the summer, which was our favourite time of the year, the classroom windows would be opened wide and the rustling leaves filled the air with their sounds when the breeze blew heavily. The windows on the side adjacent to the road would always be closed in a vain attempt to keep the noise of tractors, lorries and cars at a low level. At the same time, it was a gallant effort to reduce the strong natural smells of the countryside from wafting into the room on those days that muck-spreaders and the like were busy at their work. In the winter, however, the windows on both sides of the classroom were firmly closed, and through them we would watch the rain-drops on bare twigs slowly develop into icicles as the temperatures dropped. Overall then, the old school building was a cold, damp structure that was particularly uncomfortable from Autumn until Spring, a period that covered the larger part of the school year. Master Mangin, meanwhile, was a man who always complained about the cold, even in the early Autumn when the weather was quite mild. On those days he would always wear a heavy overcoat over his thick woollen jumper and rubbing his hands together roughly he would complain, “By God boys, it’s very cold today. All the ‘brass monkeys’ will stay indoors on a day like this.”
In our efforts to please Mr. Mangin we would confirm his observations by saying, “It is very cold, Sir. It’s Baltic!”
Outside the wind would be blowing a storm, forcing the last dead leaves from their refuge on the branches of the trees. Occasionally they would rattle off the classroom windows when the wind was particularly strong. Above us, along the edge of the school’s roof ran the guttering which channelled the rainfall to the damaged down-spouts and would regularly splash on the window pane. The very sight of a cold, wintry day outside those classroom windows had the effect of making you feel cold without any other help. Not surprisingly, therefore, we would quite often follow Mr. Mangin’s example by keeping our coats and scarves wrapped closely around us while we sat in class.
One other unforgettable habit that Mr. Mangin possessed was his almost compulsive efforts at maintaining his personal hygiene and grooming. Three or four times each day he would take his black comb from an inside pocket of his coat and use it to tidy his hair, whether it needed attention or not. He also consistently kept cleaning his hands, washing them constantly with soap in a basin of ice-cold water and drying them on a roller-towel that was fixed to the inside of a tall cupboard door. In Spring and in Summer he always hung his coat tidily on a hanger and, throughout the year, he would use a clothes brush to remove chalk dust and fluff that seemed to accumulate on his clothes every day.
I will always remember November and March as being among those months when we experienced the most rain and the heaviest winds. During those months four or more buckets would be strategically placed on top of desks throughout the classroom to catch the drips that fell from various leaks in the roof. As we studied at our desks we could hear the music caused by the drips of rainwater as they plopped into the buckets with varying amounts of water in them. They were usually accompanied by different tones of whistling as the wind blew over the multitude of holes, cracks and loose frames that were so much a part of that old building. Then, every now and again, one of us would be called upon to empty a bucket that was almost filled. On almost every occasion it was a boy who was selected to lift the bucket and carry it outside, where it would be emptied down one of the drains before being returned to its place on top of a desk. On each of these occasions Mr. Mangin would ask, “What’s happening out there now?”
All the old man had to do was to look out of the classroom window for a weather update. Instead he would ask the windblown and wet boy carrying the bucket back into the classroom. Despite his frustration and discomfort the boy would always politely reply, “It’s still very wet and windy, Sir.”
There was, however, one talent which Mr. Mangin possessed and that was the manner in which he could always use his time to his own best advantage. He would often write a series of mathematical problems on the blackboard, which we were expected to write down and answer in our exercise books. At the same time, he would appoint one of the older boys in the class to monitor the students while he went out to the school porch to enjoy a quiet smoke of a cigarette or two. There were other occasions when he would sit at his desk and read the racing pages of the daily newspaper, while we completed our mathematical exercises. Some days he would write down a theme for a story on the blackboard and, while we wrote, he would take his coat and disappear for periods of up to fifteen minutes. It was much later that I found out that, at these times, Mr. Mangin would walk to Billy Whyte’s house and use the phone there to place a bet or two on the horses he had picked.
During these periods of the teacher’s absence the boys would usually play mock battles, fighting with rulers like knights of the round table. Paper darts would fly from every corner of the room and, sometimes, balls of paper dipped in ink would be catapulted across the classroom using the wooden rulers. It is needless to say that we went through quite a number of those twelve-inch wooden rulers and the noise level we caused would rise to such a pitch that the lady teacher next door was forced to act. Miss O’Neill, as she was known, would storm into our classroom through the adjoining door and scream, at the top of her voice, “SILENCE!!!”. Not being a woman who was known for her gentle manners, Miss O’Neill would let loose with her “adder-like” tongue, spitting out an unending stream of poisonous invectives at her targets. “You are all low lives! Just good-for-nothing corner boys who will never amount to anything in life! Its Borstal you need and not school. Just wait until Mr. Mangin returns and I will tell him what sort of evil brats you all are!”
I can recall at least one occasion when that old witch picked me to shake her bony fist at, hissing, “And you boy! I will give a good account of your behaviour. Serving the priest at Mass like an Angel in whose mouth butter wouldn’t melt, while you act like the devil you truly are the rest of the week! I have my eyes on you, boy!” The class, however, would remain silent in the face of her verbal onslaught and we would turn our minds to the music of the drips that fell into the various buckets. Thankfully she never tarried long in our presence because her own class would begin to fidget and make a fuss while she was away from them.
Whenever Mr Mangin returned to the classroom the first question he would ask was if we had disturbed Miss O’Neill. Of course, he knew the answer even before he had asked the question. Our silence and the condition in which he would find the classroom always confirmed his opinion of our behaviour. Turning to the blackboard he would commence writing the answers to the mathematical problems he had written there and then call us up one by one to recite aloud the stories we had written. As he listened to our efforts Mr. Mangin would stare out of the classroom window and study the great beauty that nature presented. He would often say, “There can be no other county in all of Ireland that has the natural beauty that County Armagh possesses. When the songwriter wrote that, “There’s one fair County in Ireland”, he never spoke a greater truth.”
One December Mr. Mangin became very ill and was told by his doctor to remain in his bed for at least two weeks before going back to work. Later he would say that these were the longest and most tedious days that he had ever spent in his entire life. When he did, finally, return to the classroom he still retained a sickly pallor about him and his physique had failed considerably. But, to ensure that he would have no relapse of his illness, Mr. Mangin immediately began to block off the ventilators in the classroom with perforated plywood. At the same time, he stuffed blotting paper into the wide gaps that existed at the door frames. On one of the windows there were several muddy marks caused by a ball that had been kicked by several of the boys. The ball had hit one pane so forcefully that a large crack in the glass had been created. When Mr. Mangin saw this crack in the window pane he smiled softly to himself and said, “Someone has created a map of the Shannon.” Every occasion after this when he taught us geography, Mr. Mangin would point to that pane of glass and simply tell us, “Take a look at the Shannon.”
Another important feature of the classroom, especially in winter, was the fire, which was required to be ‘banked-up’ with coal on a regular basis. On occasion, when our ration of coal was used up, Mr. Mangin would send one of the boys down to Billy’s house to borrow a bucket or two of coal, which he would ensure was repaid. The student selected to go to Billy’s house for the coal was always given a reward by Mr. Mangin, which was usually in the form of a couple of ‘Jelly Baby’ sweets that he took from a packet that he always kept in his coat pocket. Sometimes the fire would burn out and on these occasions one of us would be called upon to get it lit again. From a corner of the room we would retrieve several old and well-used exercise books, which we would crumple up before placing them in the hearth. Bits of stick and other kindling would be placed on the top of these crumpled books, while coal was carefully placed upon this. Finally, the exercise book would be set alight and very soon thereafter a warm fire would be blazing in the small hearth. On one occasion I can recall stretching a newspaper across the fireplace, which helped in lighting the fire by causing an upward draught. But, on this occasion the newspaper caught fire and from that moment Mr. Mangin nicknamed me ‘The Arsonist.’
I can recall one time, just after the Christmas break, when the first heavy snows of winter fell across the province and the countryside was almost cut-off from the town. But, in those days, the school did not stop because of the weather. In fact, even if someone had blown up the school the students would have been expected to report to class the next morning. On the occasion to which I refer, however, some person or persons climbed over the school yard wall and stole away the school’s entire supply of coal. Mr. Mangin sent no student to Billy’s to borrow a bucket or two of coal and we had, therefore, no choice but to suffer the cold as best we could. The stone floor of the classroom was constantly wet from the shoes and boots that we all wore, and it was so cold that when we breathed upon the window panes it frosted over immediately. When the door from the classroom to the outside was opened an icy-cold wind would rush in and instantaneously remove all the air that had been warmed by our bodies and breaths.
Under our desks, and as quietly as possible, we would regularly move our feet in a fast, dancing motion, while sitting upon our hands to keep them warm. It would have put you in mind of a flock of swans upon a lake, with our upper bodies unmoving and straight while hidden from view under the desks our feet and legs worked double time in a vain effort to keep them warm. On the coldest days Mr. Mangin would make us stand at our desks and sing “McNamara’s Band”, stamping our feet on the spot as if marching. All the tricks that he did teach us helped us greatly to almost forget just how cold we were. But, most of all, on a freezing-cold day we could always look forward to Mr. Mangin’s science lesson. On a side counter there was a ‘Bunsen Burner’ attached to the gas supply of the classroom. As soon as Mr. Mangin set light to this ‘Bunsen Burner’ everyone in the class knew what was to come, namely the usual experiment that demonstrated the processes of evaporation and condensation. Although it was the same experiment on each occasion we didn’t mind because the ‘Bunsen Burner’ gave us a source of heat around which we could all gather. It was only many years later that I came to understand the true purpose of the experiment when I saw an old uncle set up similar equipment to distil poteen.
“I will show you how to get pure water from even the dirtiest of waters,” he would tell us. In a large glass jar he had poured a dark-brown, almost black, liquid. The one occasion when I caught the smell from the container I recall the aromas of treacle, fruit and other sweet things. Mr Mangin would empty some of the liquid into a long glass tube and showed it to the class.
“From this liquid,” he would say, “I will show you how a clear, pure, drinkable liquid can be produced.” To us innocent children, of course, there was nothing untoward happening and we would watch attentively as the experiment proceeded. First, Mr. Mangin would set the burner under the long glass tube and allow the flame to bring the dark liquid to the boil. The steam produced by the action was then trapped in a long-necked flask that was hung over a small basin, and the cold-water tap would pour water over this flask. No matter how many times we saw this experiment we were always amazed at what happened. We would see the bubbling liquid create steam and then the steam turned into drops of liquid which quickly fell to the bottom of the flask. The air in the classroom was filled with a sweet, malt smell and the only sound to be heard was the hiss of the ‘Bunsen Burner”. Finally, the burner would be turned off and he would hold up the flask, which now contained a clear liquid. To prove that the liquid was pure to drink he would pour some into a tumbler and delicately bring it to his lips. “That’s pure!” he would say.
Looking back on it now, I can understand why he did not choose any of us to test the liquid and left us to study the scum that had been left behind by the process. After the experiment, while he continued to quench his thirst, Mr. Mangin would ask us questions about what we had seen. To add an interesting item to the experiment he would tell us that if we were trapped in a jungle we could get pure water from dirty river water by doing this. There was, of course, more chance of aliens landing on earth than there was that any of us would ever find ourselves trapped in a jungle. Nevertheless, at least once a week, throughout the winter he would set up the equipment and carry out the same experiment every time.
When I see that old two-roomed school now I can see a patch of new slates on the roof, various repairs to the whitewashed walls, and an ugly iron barrier at the big metal gate, which is there to prevent the children from rushing onto the road immediately after the last bell sounds to send them home. There are no children in that old schoolhouse now, but there are those who look at such a building and wonder just how children received an effective education within its walls. As for me; I have no complaints. I gained an interest in science and, after university, I secured a job in the production department at one of Ireland’s largest whisky manufacturers.