John McCullagh March 14, 2005
FishersBurns.jpg

‘You’re for it, ye oul b****x!! I’m getting my da for you’. 

A hasty retreat – a slammed door and he was gone. Nervous tittering from the class. The schoolmaster was aware of thirty pairs of eyes drilling into his skull. Internally he felt torn and twisted – anger, shame, embarrassment and indecision vied for dominance. It probably showed on his face too, and in his demeanor. He knew it was imperative to avoid any show of weakness. His continued authority depended on how he might react right now. Any hint of remorse or frailty would be seized upon and exploited. But he felt remorse.

The boy was right. He had exceeded his authority – inflicted a cruel beating using the thin strap he had recently purchased, on the advice of some older, more seasoned colleagues. He would never forget his embarrassment in the leather shop when asking for such a weapon to be fashioned for his use. His idealism and youthful enthusiasm for his new role as an educator of youth had lasted a mere few months. The Teacher Training College had ill-prepared him for the bedlam that was St. Simon’s Secondary School in West Belfast. 

His early life had been poor preparation too, he reflected. Just four years ago – or was it five? – he wasn’t sure – at the Christian Brothers School he attended in the quiet little seaside town that was his home, he had himself received the odd slap from the teacher’s strap.  He bore no ill will towards the order or any individual within it.  It was often no more than he deserved.  O’Hara now, for all his insolence and persistent goading of him, had not earned this flaying.

A pale, thin, almost emaciated teenager with lively blue eyes and an unruly crop of tousled brown hair, he reminded the teacher of himself at the same age. In other circumstances – in any other circumstances – he would have sympathized with the boy – but this was self-preservation. 

The boy’s threat strangely unsettled him. He was not sure why. He had faced up to parents before. He did not mind the obscenity. No. He had grown used to that. But ‘oul’ – at twenty-two! Perhaps in the youth’s eyes, he was!  

He knew he would make good on his threat to return with his father. The next day? The same day, perhaps. There were few in employment in this community and parents would always make themselves available at their children’s behest – and especially for something like this. It was a very few years since they had required their own fathers to perform the same service. He struggled to recall the father’s face. He felt sure he had met him at Parents’ Night. Trying to visualize him, he was compelled to suppress an involuntary shudder. He realized now that he was going to have to say something, and very soon, if he was to re-establish his authority.

You are for it, sir! O’Hara’s da is in the Provies! 

The interruption came from Barry’s mate, Brendan Flynn. Brash, bold, confident to the point of arrogance and – like his friend – totally disinterested in all academic matters, he was still, like all these youngsters, consummately streetwise.  

At least he had appeared so until now. This was a big mistake. Mr. Greene made a silent aspiration in thanksgiving for the relief that the remark offered to him.

Whether that’s true or not, Brendan, I doubt that Mr. O’Hara will thank you for broadcasting it!

Unworthy! Ashamed, he realized that he had taken the easy way out. Yet again, he chastised himself, silently. Undermined the youth when he needed to assert his own authority. He read the glint of hatred flashed in his direction from Flynn’s eyes.  

‘You’re digging an ever deeper hole for yourself,’ he silently cautioned himself. 

He risked a quick scan of the room to gauge the class’s reaction. To his relief he found that everyone was glaring in Flynn’s direction. In this community the worst crime possible was ‘touting’ – informing on those who were making a contribution to the ‘armed struggle’. He had bought himself a little time – but at what cost? He was going to have to do something and quickly. He felt a rush of blood to the head.  

He was sure he would regret it later but he decided to throw himself on the tender mercies of J1B. 

I’m sure you didn’t mean it, Brendan and we’re going to forget what you said. ‘Strike that last remark’ – as the judge might say in court! I don’t think Barry meant what he said either – and I forgive him for the abusive remarks he made to me.  

In fact, I was wrong and I will tell him so when he returns. I will also apologize to him because I was unnecessarily cruel – though he did provoke me.     

For the first time ever he had their rapt and undivided attention. It was working!  

I also apologize to you for this diversion from your normal lessons. 

Embarrassed shuffling of feet. 

 

Wrap it up quickly, fool – you’re overdoing it! They’ll think you’re acting from fear of O’Hara’s father! 

He assumed a professional air. 

Enough of all that! The geography lesson today is on fishing from the port of Kilkeel. Has anyone ever been to Kilkeel?

The lesson went well and over the next half an hour he gradually regained his composure. His authority was intact – perhaps even reinforced. When they busied themselves with drawings of trawlers – drawing was practically the only lesson they enjoyed – he had time for his own thoughts again. 

Provie, he mused. I wonder if I know him. Or if he knows me.


 

Gerry had been active since the Civil Rights campaign began. In fact, he had long since concluded that the State was beyond reform. He was a committed socialist and had become in turn a march organizer for People’s Democracy, a Shinner and then a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party. He carefully cultivated his physical image. Little pale-blue intense eyes couched behind small, round gold-rimmed glasses, a prominent Roman nose and a short goatee ginger beard contributed, he felt sure, to a general appearance not unlike that of his hero, Lenin. He accepted comparison too with Trotsky – that exponent of world revolution. He had little time for do-gooders. Revolution was both possible and necessary. A committed Marxist, he could recite passages from the Communist Manifesto better than any evangelist could quote the Bible. Western democracy was a contradiction in terms, synonymous with multi-national capitalist plutocracy.  

He was Education Officer for the local Branch of the Party. He spent most evenings addressing the activists on the need for revolution, teaching the principles of Marx and Lenin. Only gradually did he come to realize that the recruits were interested only in training for guerilla warfare. Their highlight was the trip across the border to isolated farms in Monaghan and Donegal, where they learned the use of arms, and the skills of bomb-making. That was necessary too, Gerry accepted, but he needed them to know that the ultimate goal was a united Socialist Republic – and not some super-Catholic state where the oppressed would become the oppressor. 

Now, he sensed, it was all going wrong. He knew that his comrades were really a gang of psychopaths – men who enjoyed killing for its own sake. Worse, they were sectarian bigots who knew little about – and cared less for, their fellow countrymen of a different religious persuasion. He had lost some good colleagues in the first split within the IRSP, gunned down by their erstwhile colleagues. The psychopaths had almost established control. There were rumours of a second split. He accepted that he would become a likely target. They wanted to cleanse their group of weirdoes like him who called for physical self-discipline and preached communism.  

His personal life was in tatters too. His girlfriend – whom he loved dearly – was three months pregnant. Most evenings when he returned to the dingy flat that was the only home they could afford, he found her kneeling at the toilet bowl. She was concerned too for their safety. They would have to get out before long. But he couldn’t afford to move. With his reputation he had been a long time finding a teaching job. State schools were out, naturally. The Catholic Church did not want a committed communist teaching Her youth, either. He was surprised at first at how easily he had been appointed here – but the reason became obvious as time went on. Nobody else wanted the job and now he could see why. 

The end-of-day bell came as a blessed relief. He had had no visitors. He vowed not to relate the incident to Mary. She had enough on her plate. He cried off the Branch meeting he was supposed to chair that evening and concentrated on lesson preparations for the next day, before retiring early to bed.  

Alone with his thoughts he wondered how his Principal would react if the O’Haras were there to meet him first thing in the morning. He could lose the job they needed so badly. Perhaps even he deserved to. Then what? 

He heard chime before he fell into a fitful sleep. More reluctantly than any pupil he dragged himself wearily to Beechmount the following day. 

Mr. Greene, would you step into my office for a moment. I have a parent here who wishes to speak with you. 

Yes, I intended to mention this to you yesterday before I left – but I had another urgent appointment.  

Were the raised eyebrows for him or the parents? he mused. 

Too late now, then, eh? Come along! We mustn’t keep the parent waiting! 

Mrs. O’Hara stood up in the office and came forward with hand outstretched in friendly greeting. He was pleasantly surprised. 

I’m sorry for the trouble our Barry gave you, Master. 

 

We can do nothing with him! He’s hijacking cars, now, too. We’ve had the police round. Is there anything you can do to control him? Please? We’ve done all we can!  

Oh, blessed relief! Thank you, God, he thought. Then, – God? Am I going soft? 

If he promises to behave in future at school, I think we can forget the whole episode. You could help me by ensuring he does all his homework to the best of his ability. And I’ll give him enough to keep him off the streets at night.

Thank you, Master. Thank you very much. You don’t know what a relief that is to me. I’m finding it hard enough to cope. He’s the youngest of seven and I’ve more bother with him that I had with all the rest. 

It was nice meeting you again, Mrs. O’Hara. 

He made to leave. The Principal cast him a meaningful glance that was more of a glare. I know, he thought. I got off lightly. We all have our problems. 

Is Barry at school today, Mrs. O’Hara? 

He is, Sir. And he’s got his homework done. I sent him round to Brendy’s to find out what he had to do. And I stood over him until he had it finished. 

I’m very grateful to you, Mrs. O’Hara. I’ll get along to class now, if you don’t mind. Headmaster? 

Very well, Mr. Greene. I’ll speak with you later. Now I’ll see Mrs. O’Hara off the premises.

Goodbye to you both. 

As he mounted the stairs he wondered whether old McKibbon would summon him later for a complete explanation. He did not mind anymore. He was in the clear. He could colour the yarn to suit his own ends.  

He paused. ‘I don’t like me, he thought. I have become what I hate most in other men, a cynic and a complete and utter hypocrite. How can I change?’ 

…………………………………………

J1B was well-behaved. He made a hasty and embarrassed apology to O’Hara but he was careful to do it in private. Chastened by his parents’ scolding, Barry was in no mood to give further trouble.  

Not that day, anyway, the teacher mused, philosophically. 


At the classroom door flew open and two men burst noisily into the room. Their garb indicated clearly that they were strangers to this workplace – rough denim jeans and dark sweaters were hardly de rigeur for inspectors, parents or teachers.  

The balaclavas which hooded their features and the guns clutched in their fists did not bode well for their intentions. Even before they were so ordered, everyone in the room froze in fear and astonishment. The shorter man addressed the class first. 

Arms folded on the desk in front of you. Heads down. Mouths shut! That way, no harm will come of you. 

We’re here for him, not for you!! He nodded menacingly in the teacher’s direction.

 

They did as they were ordered – most of them. Curiosity got the better of a few. No matter what the danger, they did not want to miss anything. 

The taller man approached the teacher. He raised his gun hand and pointed the weapon at the teacher’s head.

‘You’re Greene, the Communist, right?’ he spat out.  

There were gasps of disbelief from the class. The teacher did not – could not – reply. 

But someone else did. 

He’s not, Mister. Mr. Greene is off with the flu. He’s just a sub. Honest, Mister!

I told you to be quiet!  the first man snapped. Then he contradicted himself.

 

And what’s your name, smart boy? 

‘Smith, Sir. Jim Smith.’ Barry O’Hara lied with practiced ease.

Mr. Greene rang sick this morning. He’s name is McCauley. Honest, Mister.

 

John McCauley, chipped in Brendan Flynn. 

 

He lives down our street. Mr. Greene’ll be off for a week anyway. 

 

Flynn just couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He wanted a bit of the action! In any case, he was backing his friend. 

 

Shut up, you!! the first man ordered.  The gunmen exchanged glances.

 

What’s your name, Master? the taller man demanded.

 

They told you. McCauley – John McCauley. I’m subbing for Mr.Greene. Please don’t shoot me. Please. I’m the wrong man! You’d be making a terrible mistake!

 

The gunmen were confused and undecided. 

 

Suddenly, with a final order delivered over a parting shoulder that no one was to move for ten minutes, as abruptly as they had entered, they left. 

—————————————–

He felt urine run down his trouser leg. He became aware too that tears were streaming down his face. He didn’t care. His authority as a teacher was compromised but he was alive. He looked up, expecting ridicule. The whole class was smiling in dazed relief.

 O’Hara and Flynn were beaming. There was a burst of applause.

 

 We done it! Didn’t we do it, Sir? 

 

We done it. We saved you, Sir. We fooled them!!

He took some time to answer. He was overawed by their presence of mind in such circumstances. He tried to control the emotion in his voice.

 

Where had they learned this? 

 

He choked out the brief sentences..

 You did very well, boys. I owe you my life.

I will never forget your bravery.

And I’m sure God will forgive our little white lies. 

It was nothing, Sir!

Barry spoke softly and with feeling. But he knew that his pride was justified.

 

I wet myself, too!  

 

he added, with a huge grin on his face. He sounded proud of it.

‘He’s covering for my embarrassment’, the teacher thought, astonished. 

 

‘How will I ever return to teach this class of boys again?’

 

Flynn’s hand was raised – asking for permission to speak.

 

 Do you think will Mr. McKibbon give us tomorrow off – to recover, like, Sir?

 I mean, we’re all going to need a break after this, aren’t we, Sir? 

They wanted him to feel like he was just one of them!

He whispered a silent prayer. 

 

And for the first time in many, many years, he meant it. Every word of it!

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.