A Trio of Talents

Rodney Devitt

In 1952, at the age of about seven, I was a fairly competent reader. This was not considered unusual or remarkable by my parents or immediate family, all for the most part avid readers themselves, subscribers to magazines, and patrons of the local Public Libraries. The reading muse seems not to have been so bounteous to some of my peers at school. For me, English class was boring and tedious. I had to bide my time as those around me made heavy weather of The – Cat – Sat – On – The – Mat.
One afternoon, the teacher from the class above mine entered our room, had a whispered conversation with my teacher, and then called me out. I was brought into her classroom, sat in a front desk, handed a storybook, and told to read out loud. Puzzled, but still in my comfort zone, and happily unaware of the resentful and irate glances boring into my back from all around me, I read the first two paragraphs of The Wind in the Willows. The teacher thanked me, and told me to go back to my class. As I left the room, I could hear her accusatory remarks along the lines of: “So there, do you see? And he’s a year younger than you.” How this pompous little upstart escaped being waylaid and thrown over the wall into the sea by those whose status and dignity had been wounded, as I walked home along Strand Road that afternoon, I’ll never know.
Some years later, I had moved from Star of the Sea scoil náisúnta buachaillí into St. Michael’s School on Ailesbury Road. St. Michael’s was a private primary school then, a small, intimate and friendly institution. Thursday afternoon was Elocution and Music class, run by the inimitable Mrs. Morris. She would hand out the words of the songs on sheets, which she had typed up and then laboriously hand cranked out from the Gestetner machine. This machine seemed to run out of ink quite rapidly, so the print on the final few copies tended to be rather pale and anaemic. Mrs. Morris’s typographical errors also abounded. The Minstrel Boy was one song to suffer. The first two lines of our copies read: “The Minstrel Boy to the warp has gone, in the ranks of death you will find him.” Despite Mrs. Morris’s exasperated demands to ignore that extra p in war, forever more in my head when I hear that song, the poor Minstrel Boy is still heading bravely to the warp.
Our end of term Concert had all Mrs. Morris’s classes demonstrating their musical prowess. It was a relaxed affair, and those among us who were not gifted singers could mouth along safely beside those who could hold a note. Then, from the class below ours, a small bespectacled boy called Ruari Quinn was called out to sing O Sole Mio, a cappella, and solo. When the sniggering and hooting had been quelled, to all our chagrin he sang his song with confidence and with gusto. Master Quinn went on to become a talented singer, a talented rugby player, a talented architect, a Labour Party Government Minister, and possibly the best Taoiseach we never had. But how he escaped being thrown under a train at Sydney Parade railway gates by those whose lack of talent he had shown up earlier, as we walked home from school that afternoon, I’ll never know.
Moving ahead a whole generation, it seems a certain gene in my family was still dominant. Number One Daughter found her primary school English classes less than challenging most of the time. Her mind was usually two chapters ahead in whatever book was being read. A mundane essay on A Day At The Zoo would usually be spiced up by dramatic descriptions of what she saw in the dinosaur enclosure, or the Siberian tiger killing and eating the African lion. My Summer Holiday could easily include her exploits of capturing an alligator in the Everglades, or parachuting off the Angel Falls in Venezuela.
One homework assignment was to take four vaguely homophonic words – paddle, meddle, middle, and cripple – and include each in a sentence that illustrated its meaning, and get the spelling right. (The last of those four words had not yet been deemed politically incorrect). It was an exercise that would hardly have taken our scholar more than five minutes. But five minutes she couldn’t spare, so she handed in a speeded up version of the assignment next day. “Tell that cripple not to meddle with the middle paddle” graced the top two lines of her copybook, where at least eight lines would have been expected. Her copybook, when returned, contained Teacher’s red inked comment in the margin: “Too clever by half.” How she escaped being sent to the Principal for cheek and insubordination, I’ll never know.