From the summit of Mount Pelier the sinister ruins of the Jacobite Hell Fire Club seem to frown upon Rathfarnham and the College of Saint Columba. At Saint Columba's, the headmaster's residence is a Georgian mansion, and behind it, around and beyond a Gothic quadrangle, lies the school itself, founded originally—so the prospectus modestly states—for the sons of the nobility and gentry of Ireland.
Columban headmasters are always clergymen. They are known as Wardens. A new boy's uneasiness on learning this might well turn to dismay after a check-up with Webster. Mine did: 'Warden,n.Keeper, esp. a public officer in State penal institutions'.
I wondered whether my official standing would be that of pupil or inmate.
English, the ponderous warden of those days, sandy-complected, elephant-eared and -legged; an elephantastic memory for academic inconsequentialities his claim to scholarship. I can still see him bringing up the rear of procession, navigating the open wind-swept path from cloister to chapel, gown bellying in the gusts, catching between his legs, flopping over his mortarboard; he, floundering on toward the chapel door like a rudderless funereal windjammer trying to make port. Masters ahead of him, clutching everything, lesser craft. I can see them all—could repeat their names if it meant anything. The sounds, the smells, the tastes, the sights are still clear, pungent, vivid: that clanging chapel-bell, the Latin grace, the lavatories in summer ('bogs', we called them); Patterson's Camp Coffee, Cadbury's Cocoa, currant cake at the tuck-shop of a winter afternoon; the sacred quadrangle, the Latin inscription on the bronze plaque beneath charred beams at the end of the cloister: Hoc loco flammas sedavit Deus—here God put out the flames. This testimonial caused more Columbans than me to question the infallibility of His prudence. After a week at school I began to repeat the line in my sleep, so many times had I copied it out. The new boy, unwittingly crossing the quadrangle—privilege reserved for the fifth and six forms—would be given it to write out fifty or a hundred times according to the caprice of the prefect who caught him. An inadvertent word uttered in chapel procession, and he would get it again along with a swift kick in the behind from a prefect sneaking up on him.
Some fellows got onto the trick of tying three nibs together on the same penholder and reducing their task by two thirds. Others would copy the line and sell it at tuppence a hundred. To stamp out this pernicious practice the more tedious and equally instructive task of copying out different lines was invented. Thus:
"Æneid IV. One hundred lines before five tomorrow afternoon. Starting line 450: Tum vero infelix...."
The lines not ready. The boy bent tight over a form for so many slashes across the contracted buttocks, the tip of many a cane bound with copper wire keep it from splitting and, possibly, to raise a lump on the point, to where, chalked to aid precision, it unfailing curled.
Much of my first year at Saint Columba's was spent writing out lines. My buttocks suffered proportionately. I doubt if any useful knowledge entered my head during the entire period. I had come to school with as much spirit as the average boy. In a month my spirit was broken. The prefects had made a coward of me. I let myself be bullied by boys I would have fought and licked without much trouble in Tipperary. After class I used to sneak away and hide in the foulsmelling bogs with pen, ink and block, and write lines.
Outside of the prefects Read, Powell and Scott, my chief Inquisitor was a heavy-set fellow with bow-legs. Bones major, by name. In the bogs I hid from him. He was the standard type of bully, sycophant of prefects, a dunce; at sixteen he was still at the bottom of the second form. Once he came out in the bogs and found me writing lines. Others joined him and watched him upset the ink pot over a painfully copied page of the second AEneid of Virgil. I could not speak. I let everything slip to the ground and lay back against the wall. I had not the heart to start again. At five I went to the cubicle of prefect Read.
"Where are the lines?" he said.
I held out the unfinished inksmudged task. He looked at it and at my inksmudged hands and face.
"Why aren't they all done?" he said. I could not answer. He got up and took his cane. "Wait for me in the classroom."
I began to cry dismally and went out. Bones major and his coterie were at the classroom door. Four prefects came along. I only felt the first two strokes.
A senior named Croasdale found me still bent over the form and carried me up to my cubicle in the upper dormitory. My pants were slit. He pulled them off while I lay on my stomach. There was a redblue welt an eighth of an inch high across my buttocks. Each of the four strokes had been aimed perfectly. My hip was bleeding.* Croasdale went for drill-sergeant Potts, who put vaseline on the welt and iodine where the tip of the cane had broken the flesh. I did not attend 'prep' that night. Result next day: lessons not prepared; half-holiday stopped. More lines from Scott, the team captain, for not going down to football practice, I could hardly walk.
Red eyes, unwashed inkstained hands and face. High watermark around the neck. Limping along, I found myself in the middle of a crowd of boys, Bones major at their head. They dragged me off to the bathroom in the Cadogan dormitory, pulled off my clothes and tossed me into a tub of cold water.
Bones major washed me with the mop and black soft soap used for scrubbing the classroom floors. Croasdale came in at the end of this ceremony. He pulled the mop out of Bones' hand and helped me out of the bath and across the hall into the room where we changed for footer. At the door he stopped.
"What a bunch of swine you are!" he said to the fellows. "Come on, give me a hand, one of you."
One of them came forward. I lay on a bench while he and Croasdale washed the floor-soap off me.
"I want to go home," I blubbered, "I want to go home."
The first round of the Leinster school's Rugby football cupmatches : Saint Columba's drawn against Blackrock College, cupholders for many years. This drawing must have been providentially arranged for my special benefit. The afternoon of the match I had a great time watching the Blackrock team pile up sixty points to nil against the Columbans; watching Read sent spinning, face in the mud, every time he got his hands on the ball; watching the senior prefects, Scott and Powell, slung about, trampled on, kicked off the ball—Blackrock was never gentle. Before the final thistle an opening came for Read. He slipped through a couple of Blackrock backs, but before he could pass out to Powell the entire Blackrock team seemed to fall on him. It was three minutes before he could get up.
"Sixty points to nil!" I kept chortling to myself on the way back to Rathfarnham, piled with a dozen others into one of the horse-drawn breaks that had brought us to Lansdowne Road.
Only one Columban was in good spirits that evening, and he had a hard time keeping it to himself. I included our conquerors in my prayers that night: "God bless the Rock."
*It must be born in mind that conditions are very different at Saint Columba's today.