Master Danny: A Lesson In Quiet Determination.

Margaret Farren

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"I tried never to be rough, especially not with the girls. I'd scold them a bit but I always found that inducement was better than aggression. There was a rule book issued by the Department and I always tried to abide by the rule book. And the rules said that no teacher was empowered to punish a child except for misconduct, not for failure to learn, and then only the headmaster could discipline. I don't think the inspector was empowered to do it.

"One day this same man from West Donegal came in when I was teaching the prepositional pronoun. The inspector put his hat on and asked the question 'Ce air a bhfuil an hata? / On whom is the hat?' and the answer was 'Ta se ort. / It's on you' and then he'd pick up a pen and say 'Ce aige ata an peann? / Who has the pen?' and the answer would be 'Ta se agat. / You have it.' and so on. There was this one child in the class - a big innocent fellow - he wasn't very bright but a very good child - and very big! After about half an hour the inspector went back over the same ground to revise the lesson and this big innocent fellow gave him some ridiculous answer. The inspector went over and hit him a tip with his hand, which he wasn't allowed to do. That really annoyed me.

"We also disagreed about the best way to teach long division. If you were dividing say 351 by 29 I would tell the children to round off the 29 to 30 and then multiply by 6 or 7 or whatever. But no! He went on about dividing the first figure of the divisor into the first two figures of the number to be divided. No child would remember all that before they'd do it! I thought my system was far better and my system was far better! No one in a superior position likes to be have their authority questioned. That's going to get you into trouble. But I could not bear to be talked down to by someone and told that their system was better when actually I think it wasn't! [laughs]"

Apparently Master Danny got used to being at odds with the Department, which he acknowledges became much more liberal and helpful and less draconian in later days. But however daunting the prospect of locking horns with a Department inspector, the real drain on a teacher's forbearance was religious instruction. It's a pressure that Master Danny believes was responsible for one of the great regrets of his career, when he punished a boy too severely for failing to learn his catechism.

"There was massive pressure on the teachers at the time with the religious programme. Every child had to learn off, by rote, prayers, catechism and bible history and be able to pass an annual examination. Some priest would be appointed to go around the schools and would spend nearly all day there examining the children on their religious education. Each child would be quizzed individually. Then on Confirmation Day, the Bishop would report on the performance of each school and you'd get a 'good' or 'very good' or 'poor' and that would be read out from the altar! That wasn't pressure, that was intimidation! [laughs]

"The whole religious programme was laid upon the teachers. I don't remember any priests teaching catechism apart from Fr. Douglas. In those days every diocese had its own catechism and the one we had to teach was just very difficult. The old Derry catechism had a terrible lot of big words in it and it was very difficult for the children, especially the small children, to learn. Some time in the 1940s we held a meeting of the INTO to try to get the catechism simplified. It was I who brought it up, because I thought it was very unfair that the children had to go through such an inquisition. We then had a regional meeting and some of the Derry teachers resolved to go to Bishop Farren and make their case.

"They appointed so many and were very organised as to who would say what and when, and I remember getting impatient with them and suggesting that they just go to the Bishop and speak to him from their hearts. Tell him the difficulty. I think that would have been the proper course of action. "As it happens it wasn't changed 'til several years later. There's a new catechism now, a national one for all Ireland. "But as I said, the one big mistake I made, that I can remember, was giving that boy a caning for not learning his prayers. I often regret that. It's a very poor way of teaching religion."




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