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Don Byard (1940-1996)
(Born: 22nd Jan. 1940 — Died: 24th Feb. 1996)

by Don Byard

“How did you ever finish up here ?” is a question often posed to me nowadays and indeed I suppose that I often ask myself the same question and indeed I have to take myself back many years to trace the origins of that move. I had started my teaching career in the country of the Scarteen Black and Tans under the slopes of the Galtee Mountains and had then spent over two years quite happily with the Christian Brothers in Carrick-on-Suir. I had spent one term in ‘digs’ in Carrick Beg and shared in some of the many attractions that Carrick had to offer even in those days in the late fifties and early sixties when I surprised all those old hand in the staff room one day by announcing that as it was my birthday and that I was now no longer a teenager - a term which had just been creeping into popular use and had connotations even at that stage of immaturity and a certain degree of wild abandon.

After a term in ’digs’ it had been suggested to me that I could just as easily drive to work from Fethard and the prospects of having a car for a young teacher was a dream I could not pass as it seemed to open up so many prospects to one who had experienced the frustrations of waiting hours for public transport, adjusting your routines on a Sunday so that it might be necessary to leave home for a lift after dinner to get to Clonmel to catch a late evening bus to Carrick with the prospects of spending hours waiting and waiting. I had tried ‘thumbing’ a few times and seemed to lack the skills for making my appeal gain the vital seat and a few times returned from the outskirts of Clonmel on a Sunday afternoon to ‘kill time’ until the one and only bus to Carrick came along about eight o’clock. The idea of being able to plan my own schedules and the independence offered was too good to be overlooked. My introduction to motoring is another story but after graduating from a dodgy Morris Minor to one of the first Mini’s on the scene- when such a car was for sale at £469 and could be bought for about £420 as an introductory offer to get over the sales resistance to the introduction of this new concept in motoring. My days with the Mini were happy ones and if ever a car earned its keep this one - FHI 856 - certainly did and saw most corners of Ireland and was usually loaded way beyond the designer’s idea of optimum capacity. In these cars I travelled to Carrick for over two years and was happily doing so in September 1961 when things suddenly took an unexpected turn.

Ballingarry up to that time had been just the name of a place that I had never seen. I knew it was ‘somewhere beyond Killenaule’ almost as if it was physically cut off in some way from the rest of the country. I had a vague recollection of going there for a car trailer of anthracite with John Whyte and collecting that load at the old mine site at Clashduff and being more intrigued by the whole process of coal mining as seen from the passenger seat of a car than in the location of the place and of course we never went near the actual village of Ballingarry that day but I was not even to know that. When I started teaching in 1959 a job had been advertised in Ballingarry and the good sisters in the convent in Fethard had offered to say some prayers for Michael Coady’s successful candidature as he was visiting Fethard at the stage. Coady was not successful ! His Gold Medal on graduation was for English and that in Christian Doctrine carried more weight with a former Diocesan Examiner, the late Fr. Michael Lee who was then P.P. of the place and so it was that another colleague, Sean Darcy became Principal in Ballingarry in 1959. In September 1961 I had seen an advertisement for a Principal in Ballingarry Boys’ N.S. on the paper and just said to myself that Darcy must have moved on and paid it no further attention.

However fate took a hand when somebody whose name I never learned passed away in Mullinahone. You may well ask what a death in Mullinahone could have to do with the whole saga for me but stranger things have happened from time to time. At that stage in my life I had returned to an old family duty, almost a tradition, of playing the church organ in the Augustinian Abbey in Fethard and was quite friendly with all the friars then stationed there. When I returned from school in Carrick one day I was met at dinner time in Fethard by a beaming Fr. Tony Leddin from the Abbey who announced to me that he had great news for me. He had been to a funeral that day in Mullinahone where he got into a chat with the P.P. of Ballingarry who casually asked him if he happened to know any young teacher who might be interested in a job as Principal in Ballingarry and he, Fr. Leddin, said that he knew just the one for the job and that he would bring him to Ballingarry that night. I am afraid that I left Fr.Leddin rather deflated when I told him that I had seen the advertisement for the job a month previously and had concluded that Sean Darcy had moved on and was not interested further in any moves as I was quite happy teaching with the brothers in Carrick.

The discussion then started on the ‘pros’ rather than the ‘cons’ of a job in Ballingarry and I have to say that I was showing quite a marked reluctance to all the plans that were being made. I was told the value of a Principal’s Allowance, the benefits of the experience of teaching in a two-teacher school if it was not my intention to stay forever in Carrick and even the difference in the mileage from Fethard to Ballingarry as opposed to Fethard from Carrick-on-Suir. In the end he more or less begged me to come with him to Ballingarry as he had given his word at that funeral in Mullinahone that we would go to Ballingarry that evening.

And so to Ballingarry we went on that day at then end of September 1961 and when we reached the village we were first shown to the curate’s house where I was both pleasantly surprised and amazed to find a curate who had an amazing selection of the best recordings available of opera and a hi-fi system to do them justice. He was also quite a connoisseur of art and already his front room was looking quite like a gallery. This was my introduction to Fr. John McGrath then curate of Ballingarry who was certainly both a dynamic man with ideas so far ahead of his time and yet rooted in all the traditional values of that time. We enjoyed a short recital before departing for the P.P.’s residence and never even thinking of asking any questions about the main purpose of our visit. Our visit to the P.P. was more formal but quite brief. Out of deference to Fr. Leddin I could not show my lack of enthusiasm but expressed an interest in the position, told him how I had seen the advertisement in the papers but was not really thinking about any moves at the time as I was quite happy in Carrick. I promised to think about his kind offer of the job and departed for home, satisfied that Fr. Leddin’s reputation was intact and that I had left the two Ballingarry priests in peace.

I mentioned the episode to the brothers in Carrick the following day and it did not merit any major coverage in the news of the day as we viewed it all quite objectively and mentioned again some of the benefits and possible drawbacks of such a move. Again my return home for dinner after school was to be greeted by another surprise as there was a telegram awaiting me from the P.P. of Ballingarry who had decided to waste no time and dispatched the message “APPOINTED PRINCIPAL BALLINGARRY N.S. MICHAEL LEE P.P.” This was getting serious and very suddenly at that and called for some very definite action on my part. A quick visit to the Augustinians raised no surprises and I began to wonder if further moves had been made without my knowledge. It was definitely time for serious thinking.

On arriving at school in Carrick the following morning I put my cards on the table and we had quite a lengthy discussion on the merits and demerits of my proposed moved if I was to make it. I have to confess that the brothers adopted a very objective stand on the whole issue and whether they were glad to see the end of me I felt that they handled the whole discussion very professionally and in the end we favoured a decision to go to Ballingarry. My discussion with the Principal were equally frank and helpful and it was agreed that I would stay in carrick until they had a reply to an advertisement to fill the position I was going to vacate. I notified my District Inspector as a matter of courtesy and contacted Fr. lee that I would be making arrangements to take up the position and i went home satisfied that all the comings and goings were over and a decision had finally been made. How wrong I was !

On the following morning my first visitor was my District Inspector who asked me some salient question which only proved to me how ‘green’ I was in relation to my proposed move. had I seen the school ? Did I discuss it with the previous Principal ? Did I know why he had left ? Did I not realise that he was a strong strapping lad of over six feet who had found the going too tough in Ballingarry and whose predecessor had got out of the place because of the discipline problems there ? He said that it was in his interest to see a teacher in the school as it was in his district but that he would hate to see me walking into a situation that I could not handle. He said: “You would need to be some sort of a missionary to go to that place !” I said that I had notified the P.P. of my intentions to accept and he advised me that I could just as easy notify him that I had changed my mind as I had nothing binding signed as yet which contractually obliged me to go.

I was dumbfounded. If I did not go I was reneging on my commitment to Fr. Lee. If I did go and I made a mess of my new appointment I could hardly expect much sympathy from my District Inspector as he could have reminded me that he had advised me and that I knew too much to accept well-meant advice when it was given in my interest. I certainly felt in a quandary. I discussed it with the brothers again and they said to think for a little while and not to rush things and perhaps have a word with Sean Darcy and get a first-hand opinion on the situation as he saw it.

My journey home that evening was slow and troubled as i mulled over the whole dilemma in which I found myself and after dinner I made a quick trip to the Abbey to pass on some of my problem to Fr. Leddin for whom I was beginning to entertain some murderous thoughts as I felt that he handed landed me in this whole mess. he was taken aback by this new development and played a very safe hand when he offered to pray for me. My thoughts were far from prayers at the time. I decided that my best bet was to contact Sean Darcy and arrange to meet him and so it was that on the following evening I arranged a trip to Thurles for a full discussion on the developing situation.

Sean was quite enlightening about the whole situation. he described very accurately and fairly the problems he had encountered over the previous two years. His move from Ballingarry had nothing to do with the situation there but a job in Ballysloe was six miles nearer to Thurles and Sean was to move again a few years later to Ballycahill which was much nearer still before he later transferred to Leixlip which was then in the country and was later to develop into a 26-teacher school, one of six in that developing suburb. What a far cry from the 2-teacher school in Ballingarry ! He reckoned that he had solved the discipline problem but had yet to start on raising standards which had fallen with the discipline problems of the previous years. He felt that the children were ‘more sinned against than sinning’ and would have no hesitation in recommending me to take the job. He had rather strong views on the District Inspector’s judgement on the whole scene. In a sense it was Sean’s ‘imprimatur’ which helped me to decide on my final course of action.

And so the die was cast. I arranged to finish in Carrick-on-Suir with my Third Class with the Christian Brothers and say genuine farewells to Brother Sheedy and Brother McCormack, my Principal, or ‘Mac’ as we always called him and report to Ballingarry on Monday 30th October 1961. Nowadays it would be a Public Holiday, being the last Monday in October ! I did not go there beforehand to examine the school building and see if it was as bad as the Inspector had described but felt that I had to trust in my luck at this stage and take my chance in another step in life. Yet it would be fair to say that I did not go there without some forebodings and genuie worries as to what could happen if discipline problems and the general running of such a school proved beyond the capabilities of a 21-year old. At the back of my mind I had decided that if the worst came to the worst that I could probably go to Dublin and get a job there as a teacher with some experience and perhaps do some further studies as I would like to have done in Music. For my departure I went armed with the blessings of the whole Augustinian community in Fethard and Fr. Leddin in particular who almost guaranteed that I could not fail in such a venture -- in his opinion !

The morning of my arrival in Ballingarry was perhaps uneventful to most people but to me it was a giant step into the unknown. I motored to Ballingarry slowly, taking about a half an hour for the usual twenty minute journey and ran my thoughts through all the conflicting if well-intentioned advice that had been given to me. I still arrived outiside the school with a quater of an hour to spare and took stock of my surroundings from my parked Mini on the opposite side of the road.

The building was a typical example of most rural two-teacher schools of its time - the late 1880’s. What intrigued me most was the roadside wall with a strong green hedge above it and a stout iron gate set in the cut stone piers. I was later to examine the workmanship of some smithy in Kilkennt who had constructed the gate with such care and attention that the joinery used was still visible - mortices in steel and riveted bars making the whole structure very solid, built to last and endure the sudden openings and closings of generations of schoolboys. The hedge was the most informative article as i could clearly see so many pairs of curioous eyes peering out to get some idea of what the new master looked like and be able to report to the others on first opinions. If I was limited in my vision of these pupils they were equally at a loss as to know what the tiny green car held on the other side of the road. i often surmised later as to which pair of eyes showed most fear - those on the hedge lkooking out or the eyes of the teacher seated in the Mini taking in as much as possible at this first glance.

I soon noticed the arrival of my assistant, Mrs. Annie Walsh, a woman of my mother’s generation and I’m sure that she too had her misgivings as to what the future would hold with this new ‘garsún’ who was supposed to be her new Principal. My first instinctive reaction was to ask myself how one could give orders if necessary to somebody of my mother’s generation. It just did not seem right to me at the time. She had the key, and what a key it was, another sign of solid times past. This key had all the signs of authority and was not meant ofr putting in coat pockets but was large and solid and meant to be placed on a hook for safekeeping. We both went inside to complete introductions and i was to learn that Mrs. walsh’s sister was one of the staff of Fethard Presentatioon Convent, Sr. Peter, so I knew that she would have some idea of my own background. We had hardly called in the pupils when we were joined by the P.P. Fr. Michael Lee who introuced me to the assembled boys and gave them a short talk on how he expected them to behave towards their new teacher. I wonder how impressed they were or if they were postponing judgement until they saw how this new arrival shaped up in their estimation. When a pupil had to spend four years with one teacher in thios rural situation it was important to both teacher and pupil that some realtionship was soon formed between them. Four year at loggerheads could be along sentence indeed for man or boy.

In our own very elementary and rudimentary fashion we were all taking stock of each other and weighing up what we considered the opposition. To them I may have been ‘The Master’ but few of them realised that I was only seven years older than the oldest of them and some of them were taller than me so I immediately decided that the rostrum was both useful and added a sense of authority to the new incumbent. In spite of their ‘reputation’ as given to me by our inspector I decided that they were not so different from those i had left behind me in Carrick-on-Suir and that perhaps there was some truth in the idea that boys are the same the world over. I started on a formal note to them by reading from my prepared notes on what i expected from them if we wanted to have a reasonable time together. I immediately asked two named pupils to stand up and told them that I had heard all about them from Mr. Darcy so I was well prepared for them. I was mentally photographing the faces to watch and giving them the impression that I had quite a sizable dossier on each of them which I could consult from time to time.

I was also taking stock of my immediate surroundings. In all I had about twenty pupils as the total enrollment for the school was 38 and my score of pupils were accommodated in three long benches that would have been totally at home in any Dickensian novel. The furniture consisted of a high sloping desk on a rostrum to give me an elevated sense of importance as ‘The Master’ and in front of this desk was a small table and chair which could be used for writing or eating. The sloped lid of the desk was hinged to store roll books and other stationery. We had one large press which stored other roll books and copies and indeed the lower section contained the remnants of the old rolls and register books going back to the previous century but now in a sorry state from the visitation of mice and other vermin.In the corner inside the door was a basin and jug with a bucket for water.While the mains water passed by the entrance gate we did not even have the luxury of an outside tap and had to rely on the generosity of the neighbours for our daily buckets of water. Going for a bucket of water was a task for which there was no shortage of volunteers as it provided an escape form the classroom. We had two blackboards - one was wall-mounted and the other was on a standard easel. the wall-mounted one had a reasonable surface but the other always offered stiff opposition when I tried to put some written work on it for the half of the class which had to sit patiently while I worked with the other lot. My attention was immediately drawn that first day to a statue about three feet high on a stand on the wall. It immediately struck me that the male saint had no neck. I was later to learn the full story of St. Anthony and the accident to him which caused a previous teacher to re-set the head on the shoulders minus the neck and so he remained watching in that crouched position while we remained in that school building for another four years.

The school was originally built as a single room but a partition had recently been added to divide the Junior section from the Senior Section. This wooden partition had amber glass in the upper section but did not go as far as the ceiling so in fact all work in the room could be heard on both sides of the partition. I had worked in a ‘divided’ room with another teacher in Carrick-on-Suir so it was not a totally unknown situation to me. It did create unusual situation where pupils tended to tune into the more interesting lesson irrespective of which sit of the partition they were seated and from where the sound was coming. It did remind a teacher to keep his or her voice at an acceptable level so as not to encroach too much on the other. If relations between two teachers were not too happy such an arrangement could be quite a challenge and provide much ammunition for further combat.I was fortunate in that Mrs. Walsh was certainly not going to try to shout me down or I was not tempted to challenge her vocal ability. We both realised that allowances had to be made for the other classes. Entrance to her classroom was through mine as there was only one door to the school so in a sense she had no privacy whatsoever.

If the indoor facilities were primitive the outdoor ones were more so. The entrance hallway had a few coat-hooks and a partitioned area for storing fuel for the open fire. The school yard could have been adequate for the number of pupils attending except that we had no provision for space for any team games such as hurling or football and in wet weather the whole yard tended to become one quagmire with consequent results to the classroom floor. There were no cleaning arrangements for such schools in those days and pupils generally took turns with a sweeping brush after lunch to give a quick run around to the floor and one had to encourage them to sprinkle a few drops of water to keep down the dust level.

The most obvious problem to me when I arrived was the lack of toilet facilities for pupils or staff. There was a partially covered building at the rear of the school with a ‘dry’ toilet which consisted of a seat over a pit and where we emptied the ‘Jeyes Fluid” bottle on occasion to try and control the offensive odours. Perhaps once a year we had a visit from a ‘traveller’ who offered to clean out the ‘pit’ after school for an agreed sum of ten shillings or a pound if he could get it. Some of these hardy souls also stipulated some fortification before launching on this unpleasant task so a few bottles of porter were also ordered as part of the price. The contents were to be buried at a safe distance and depth to ensure some degree of hygiene and sometimes we had to trust these volunteers to complete the job as requested without supervision and I have to say that I never had cause to complain.

The children accepted these privations as being the norm but I found that it took me some time to adjust to the lack of privacy and the primitive nature of the facilities so in the end I had almost trained myself to refrain from using toilet facilities after leaving home in the morning until I arrived back at about four o’clock in the afternoon. These may have seemed small problems but they influenced many a career move in the past. Our school was no better or no worse than the bulk of such country schools at the time but I did feel that a tap in the yard would not have strained the parish finances when the water main was just two feet from the school gate.

My next adjustment was to the whole heating situation. As I arrived at the end of October we were entering that period when fires would become a necessity for survival. A few older pupils had taken responsibility for coming in before class and lighting the fires. Originally there was just one open fire at the ‘master’s’ end of the schoolroom but when the partition was added a pot-belly stove was erected in the junior section with a makeshift chimney through the wall and up the rear of the school. When this worked it was quite effective and needed a safety grill to protect pupils from the hot metal sides. My earliest memories of the open fire in my room was that it often took hours before it decided to light and throw out some heat especially after the weekend when the chimney was cold. There was no shortage of volunteers prepared to spend hours if necessary on their knees coaxing the fire and trying to blow it aflame. I partly solved this slow-start problem by purchasing a gas poker and this was considered almost a magic addition to the master’s equipment when I first produced it. The poker ensured that the most stubborn fire had no option but to light when jets of flame from the gas kept playing on the reluctant fuel and forced ignition much earlier than traditional methods. I then got a small gas ring that I used from the same cylinder and this could be used at lunchtime to heat water and make tea. We organised a midday hot drink and I think that this again was considered a major advance by pupils and parents.

I was slowly learning. I discovered that the master was responsible for buying the fuel and then had to wait until the end of the year when the cheque came from the department. A sum of just twenty pounds was to be used to heat, clean and purchase any further necessities for our little school and the many others like it. I was also learning the necessity for strict budgeting as any shortfall would have to come from my own pocket. At an early stage I began to experiment with different fuels to try for both efficiency and economy if such was possible. I had brought bags of coal and turf in the boot and on the roof of my ‘mini’ to school. It seemed strange to be bringing coal to a mining district but the local anthracite would need different equipment from our open fire. I must have discussed the subject openly with my trusty band of pupils and one of the older ones whose father was a miner offered to provide what appeared to be the perfect solution. All miners were entitled to a ration of culm - the dust from the anthracite which the tempered with yellow clay to make culm balls for use in the open fires. I had seen these in the farmhouse fires of this area and neighbouring Kilkenny and had always been amazed by the ‘blast’ of heat from these red glowing balls in the hearth.

Two of the older pupils offered to collect a pony load of culm on Saturday and to deliver it to the school and also to get the required amount of clay to complete the job. One could hardly ‘look a gift-horse in the mouth’ when such a load cost only ten shillings and I could see visions of master and pupils almost basking in their shirtsleeves on a winter’s day as we enjoyed the heat of these local masterpieces of ingenuity. I did not foresee what awaited me on Monday morning !

I had envisaged the load of culm and clay stacked at the rear of the school to be prepared for the open fire and I intended to use the learning process for myself as a suitable subject perhaps for ratios in mathematics and maybe we could develop the whole episode into a journal of the experience and explore the geology of coal formation at Geography. The results were far from what I anticipated. On Monday morning the sight that met my eyes left me at a total loss. The culm and the clay had been safely delivered but totally unloaded in the front hall of the school which was the only entrance to the two classrooms and through which all pupils had to pass on their way to and from their classes. My two smiling volunteers were there ahead of me and had started the process of ‘dancing’ the culm and clay. The total mixture had to to be sifted and shovelled a few times while dry before adding water and all the time they walked it to ensure a good mix. I could see no end to my present problem. I told them to get the ingredients mixed as quickly as possible and put behind the cloakroom partition. By eleven o’clock I began to realise that ‘dancing;’ culm was a slow process and that my two experts intended teaching me a full lesson in all the intricacies of getting that mixture right and tempering it properly to ensure good bonding and perfect culm balls at the end. This would have taken a week at their present rate of progress - a week which they had planned away from the pressures of lessons and school work even if it did involve some physical labour and the regular opening of the door by the master to look for any signs of progress. I saw black footprints everywhere ! Everytime a pupil went in or out we had to try to get him to scrape his boots and leave some of the clinging culm outside. My thoughts turned to inspectors and school managers. What would they have thought of the fool who allowed the front hall of the school to be used for ‘dancing’ culm?

I began to panic on the second day and set a deadline for completing the operation and sent out some other self-acclaimed experts from the senior ranks to try and get the mixture and the manufacturing process complete. There was talk of borrowing a ‘gun’ for shooting these balls - in effect a pump-like object to suck up the amount required to make a ball and then push it or ‘shoot’ it out to dry. We had no facilities for drying or proper storage of the finished culm balls. They also demonstrated how culm balls could be made by hand and produced perfect ovoids similar to the present day commercial products with no regard for the condition for their hands or the spreading black mess on the hallway floor. My patience was running thin and my nerves were not improving as time seemed to stand still in spite of my many visits to the hall to check that work was definitely in progress.

By Wednesday I set a deadline for the completion of all work irrespective of the stage reached. They protested that the whole process of ‘dancing’ the culm and making the balls took much time and patience and they seemed to have an endless supply of these especially when weighed against the possibilities of having to do classroom work again. I issued a diktat that all material was to be stored in the fuel section of the hall and the hall to be washed before evening to try and remove some of the many layers of the clinging black mass that seemed to become more deeply ingrained with each passing day and defied all efforts to contain it to the small entrance hall. To wash the hall the one and only school bucket made many trips to Paddy Hayes’ tap and a black tide flowed down the school steps with each scouring. I dreaded to think when the effects of the black liquid would finally disappear and with it the appearance that we had all abandoned this building from which the very dirt seemed to pour from under the front door in a black seething mass and return some signs of human habitation again.

By evening I was reconciled to the fact that we would have to depend on time and weather to remove the offending telltale signs. Did we learn anything from the project ? My grand visions of combining Mathematics, Geography and English were long abandoned. I felt that the pupils had definitely learned that there were many areas where their own knowledge was superior to that of the master and that with proper planning he could be ‘taken for an occasional ride’ if the going got too tough in the lesson field. I have to admit that while I came to teach that I too had a lot to learn about the ways of culm balls and a new respect for the men who made them.

Did they produce the great surge of heat I had anticipated ? I have to admit that my accelerated process had interfered with the natural time scale required and the finished culm balls tended to disintegrate unless handled with gentleness and care and become almost a slack or dusty mixture again. With the addition of normal sea coal we added the culm mixture and enjoyed some of the comforts resulting from three very uncomfortable days for the new master.

Thoughts in an Autumn Graveyard

Beneath November’s carpet let me lie,
With colours generously strewn
From oak and beech of nature’s bounty,
Odd shapes all riotously torn;
With gentle mists and filtering fogs
The fading light foretells the end
Of another day, a year, a life
Returning again to soil’s embrace.
Spare me too all plastic flowers
Unless by plastic weeds enjoined
Not for me such durability
No unnatural uniform perfection.
Give me then the passing pleasures
Of a God-given natural cycle
Of birth and life and decay,
When Autumn finally comes to me.

— Don Byard (22nd Jan. 1940 — 24th Feb. 1996)

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