Fifty Years Ago Today

Fifty years ago today…3rd September 1963, I was an 11 year old schoolboy. It was my first day at one of Belfast’ two Catholic Grammar Schools ( for boys of course).
It was cold and there was a steady drizzle.
There were over two hundred of us lined up. And in the rain…we stood there like prisoners of war in a WW2 movie while they called out our names and we were allocated to one of six classes …1A,1B,1C,1D,1E….and you guessed it…1F.
It was not random. My place in my class of thirty six was dependent on the first letter of my surname.
In other words…
If your name was
David Cameron…1A
John McCain…..1E
Barak Obama…..1F
John F Kennedy…1C

To be honest I never really understood it. Three Murphys in 1D, four Kennedys in 1C, three McGraths in 1E and so on…but I suppose it made administration easier.
We wore uniforms of course and in those days, we all wore short trousers, except maybe a handful of taller boys who had outgrown short trousers. The uniform was a curious mix of hand-knit clothing, hand downs from big brothers and a mine…I was probably from one of the poorest families …was precise and accurate in every detail and bought from the “proper” outlet.
Thats the curious thing about rich and middle class people. They know how to save….like knowing that a scarf and skull cap were optional extras. Poor people dont know that kinda thing.

Books…loads of books. The youngest kids carried the most books…Maths, English, Science, Art, History, Geography, French, Irish, Latin…
At the end of Second Year, Science or Art could be dropped. I dropped Science.
At the end of Third Year I dropped Art. And Latin.
And we did the Junior Exam.
Fourth Year….we were split into new classes. Twenty five boys maximum. Based on Science or the Arts….4LA, LB, LC, LD….4SA, SB, SC, SD.
A brutal and brutish environment. It was after all the 1960s. But 1967 ran right across it. The Summer of Love in San Francisco bizarrely stretched to Belfast. By this time, nobody wore short trousers. Our uniforms were discarded when we outgrew them and our hair grew longer.
Those who advocate Integrated Education miss the point completely.
In 1968…our fifth year class went to see the movie “A Man For All Seasons” at (unusually) The Grand Opera House. Our English teacher, a Christian Brother from County Kerry explained it all for us.
“At the end of the film, the English (sic) National Anthem will be played. I have no idea what it sounds like. Neither do you. I expect you all to act in the best traditions of this school”
Suffice to say that when the British Anthem started our school rushed for the foyer where our way was blocked by some British patriots. Blows were exchanged. I made my way to the foyer thru crawling under the seats.
We found the Kerry Christian Brother already there…waiting for us.
See thats the kinda craic we would miss out on under an “Integrated” system.
The catchment area for the school was not just West Belfast. We had kids from Short Strand, the Markets, posh Malone, parts of Antrim Road (although most Catholics from North Belfast chose the other Catholic school).
And we had kids from surrounding towns like Lisburn, Glengormey, Bangor, Portaferry, Moira and even Lurgan..
The character of the School changed when it moved from the older part of West Belfast to the outer reaches of West Belfast (1968).
A uniform was introduced again and they tried to domesticate us again.
The thing is that I woke up today realising that fifty years ago, I was standing in the rain in a Grammar School playground.
I wrote the first few paragraphs of this blog on a train to Belfast.
And coincidently I ran into another one of those thirty-six boys from my First Year Class.
Talked about old times and “the day that was in it”.
Interesting that those guys….what would be the odds for men of 61 and 62….would 25% have passed on?
I know that three died violently…statistically probably more but the only three that I know for sure were in that Fourth Year class of twenty five boys.
That seems high.
Two were IRA volunteers and the third was a victim of a sectarian assassination.
But heres the thing. September 1963 was six years before the Troubles started. There was no inkling of what was to come.
Today more kids started School. Probably not standing in a cold wet playground. Its all more sophisticated in 2013.
But in fifty years time those kids will look back on their lives.
As I have said before we are re-living the 1960s.
A period of Peace.
The man of 61 that I met today agrees with me. We fear for our grandchildren.

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8 Responses to Fifty Years Ago Today

  1. Thought-provoking post, FJ. I tend to agree. As many locals remarked the descent into communal conflict for “integrated” Bosnia-Herzegovina was astonishingly fast. Syria presents a similar case. The Assad regime may have kept a dictatorial lid on the communal and sectarian pot but it was never exactly boiling over. Until the lid came off. All looks peaceful on the surface but beneath that tensions were simmering away.

    The quite Wee Six were only quite while the Unionist regime maintained the whip-hand. When that no longer had the same impact the people rose up.

    • And Egypt and Iraq also.
      Dont feel able to touch a “Syria” post, although an American friend has asked me.
      In regard to the old school, I see too many parallels with 1960s. Unionist Outreach versus Unionist Stupidity. It will end badly.
      Almost got drawn into too many anecdotes from those days.
      But I have always wondered why the 1930s type generation had a certain affection for it all and had a Past Pupils Union.
      We had absolutely no affection for it all.

      • Ed Moloney had a very good post over on the Broken Elbow on the Syria conflict. I won’t post a link directly, in case it upsets anyone, but it included the video of two young boys being executed by (extreme Islamic) Syrian Opposition fighters for “blasphemy”. I didn’t watch it but a still image.of the children haunts me. I’m still deeply disturbed by it several days later. I can actually feel tears in my eyes as I write. A truly atrocious crime against Humanity.

        We humans are such barbarous apes.

      • As I get older, I find it increasingly difficult to watch images of children in distress.
        On Sky News, Gareth Bale is paraded as earning £300,000 a week. And the adverts for aid to Africa come on.
        I can barely look.
        Syria….same thing.
        India….Im haunted by the documentary which showed the 6 year old begging in the streets and having to hand over the money to his owners (sic) who give him a share to live on the street.
        Tears? Certainly.
        This is a sick world.
        Every childs face I see makes me imediately think of my three lovely grandchildren. And Im not the only one who thinks like that.
        I am 61…I really wont be sorry when my time is up.

  2. factual says:

    Strange that Science could be dropped at the end of second year.

  3. factual says:

    One of the things that Sinn Féin has done is to remove the 11+.

    Today Loreto Coleraine admitted students without academic selection for the first time, something that would have been unthinkable had SF not taken up the post of Education.

    Great to see children not having to do a test and be selected.

  4. The stupidity of the anti 11 plus policy is laid bare when the children go into school – the first thing that happened my children was that they were streamed following “assessment” – and the stupid children were assigned a class of their own for the smart kids to laugh and point at. They even keep them on the same campus to ensure that the clever ones get a chance to entertain themselves daily.

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