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
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.