On the Wearing of the Poppy….or Not

The National school I attended way back in the 1960’s was an all male affair. Teachers, Priests, maintenance were all men and the pupils were exclusively boys. Now, with the benefit of almost half a century of hindsight I can see that that was the reason for our terrible rivalry with a particular, larger all boys school. Unhindered by the common-sense of woman kind the rivalry grew to ludicrous intensity before our annual league meetings on the hurling field.

Our teachers, fired by God knows what ancient grievance, would take time from teaching us our three R’s and catechism to instil in us kids a fervent hatred of the rival school and in particular their snooty superiority in hurling. Songs of support were composed and rehearsed, chants were practiced, and some years the alternative wording, far more blood curling than even our teachers would allow, were circulated in secret amongst the kids only to be launched on match day to surprise our teachers and shock everyone else within earshot.

Examples of our rival’s nastiness were helpfully highlighted by our teacher such as their practice of grouping together around their teachers and staring across the pitch, sometimes in silence, at our chanting supporters. This obvious attempt to intimate our lads never worked and howls of derision were directed back at them while some of our more talented mimics would show their bravery by making like primates up and down the touch line, racism was never an issue as we were all milk-bottle white. The disdain they showed for their jerseys, socks and even sometimes a boot (they never had the decency to leave two matching boots) leaving them carelessly behind seemed designed to show how richer they were than us, who had to cherish our gear. But the most galling aspect of this rivalry was that by the use of their superior skills they invariably defeated us. Superior skills or not, we still considered defeat at their hands a dreadful injustice.

One particular and typical match stands out in my memory. As defeat was looming ever nearer, and our hurling ever more reckless, and our teachers shouting ever louder and shriller, all against a background of chanting which would now be considered “threatening with menace” our star forward found himself without his hurley and in the path of a scorcher of a shot which was destined to go wide. Being a secret soccer player (the ban on “foreign” games being then still strictly enforced) our hero knew exactly what was required of him. He met the rocketing sliothar with his forehead as if it were a soccer ball, thus rendering himself unconscious and the score line less embarrassing for our team.

In those days helmets, gum shields, and using temporary unconsciousness, as an excuse for not finishing a grudge game were unheard of, and would have been frowned upon as unIrish had they been heard of. And so our dazed teammate was returned to the fray and our half forward line were directed to launch their shots not to him, but at him.
Boys “self esteem” had not yet been invented and anything with “self” and “steam” in its title would probably have been taken as a particularly vigorous form of masturbation, probably of Protestant origin, and so our teacher, while afterwards praising the star forward’s commitment, assured us that as he was a bright pupil no harm was done, if however the same knock had been taken by us dullards in the half-back line what meagre brains we had would surely have been irretrievably scrambled , they did have a wry sense of humour, those teachers.

It was many years later when I met the woman who would become my wife and all of whose brothers hurled for our nemesis that I learned the truth. Our mutual rivalry had all the mutuality of the hang man and the hanged man. The only effect of our one sided rivalry was to convince the other school that ours was a school comprised entirely, man and boy, of border-line imbeciles and way-beyond-the-border-line psychopaths. One Brother in law swears that his teacher used our hurling style to illustrate to his class the kind of demented fury which made the Vikings so feared.

Before they played us their teachers would warn the collected kids to stick together, don’t get isolated, safety in numbers. When the final whistle blew they were to change quickly and depart. Under no circumstances was anyone to go back for any boot, jersey or sock left behind. Anyway the uncouth savages would probably have the article torn to shreds and be gnawing on the remnants.
These memories of our one-sided rivalry so many years ago came flooding back as I read the recent discussion on the wearing of the poppy. I am not sure why they did, but did they did. The mind works in mysterious ways, or maybe it’s just my mind. Come to think of it, maybe that teacher was not joking about the half-back line.

Eamo. 12-11-2011

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