The holidays were short, but the respite they brought made up for that. I begged my father not to send me back to Saint Columba's. My mother sided with me. She suggested Saint Andrew's College in Dublin, or Strangway's: day-schools. I could stay with my grandmother, and cousins of mine, the Greer boys, were at Saint Andrews which would make things different for me. My father said he would think it over, but the thought of my quitting did not appeal to him. Then came my term report from the warden. A series of B's and V.B's after every subject but one, and a V.V.B. after conduct. With the report was a personal letter to my father from the warden, who appeared to see the surface of everything with amazing clarity and form his judgments accordingly. My father tossed the letter on the breakfast table.
"How can the man expect a boy to accomplish anything in class when he spends all his recreation hours writing out lines?"
One thing had queered me with the warden: he had caught me writing lines in his Latin class, lines given me by prefect Read, for bringing him someone else's canned cream in the dining hall my first morning at school.
The only words of encouragement in this dismal report came from the drawing master, Henry Allen, R.H.A., who said that a boy named Gaunt and I showed more promise than any of his pupils since William Orpen had been at Saint Columba's.
Three days at home made a lot of difference in everything. Each morning I went riding with Ned Purcell and, when I got home, Paddy Carry, a farmer's son who fancied himself as a boxer, would be waiting to put on the gloves with me. Paddy was a little touched in the head on account of Mr. and Mrs. Carry being first cousins, and though my father coached me when I boxed with him, he never got wise to it. Pretty soon I became used to his wild swings and could slip or block them with so much ease that I would grow careless and stop one of them with my nose, which would put me on the qui-vive again.
These bouts were a bit tough on Paddy. I was the one who got all the coaching; but no doubt my father thought Paddy was being sacrificed in a good cause. My brother —aged nine— always resented the way the proceedings were conducted. His sense of fair play was outraged, so he took upon himself the responsibility of coaching Paddy. A lack of scientific knowledge confined his support to shouts of encouragement when Paddy rushed me off my feet, and cries of derision when one of his swings connected with my nose. Paddy used to start off like a windmill running amok, and, as he was too heavy for me to hold off with a straight left, I usually spent the first round ducking and side-stepping, and letting him have it with short jolts to the midriff as he swung over my head. If this had not slowed him down for the second round, my father would light a cigarette and offer Paddy one too, which flattered him because he knew I was not allowed to smoke, and he would inhale the smoke deeply, as he was very proud of being able to blow it out through his nose. So he was generally winded by the third round, and would have a job keeping his hands up. Then my father would make me stand off and box him.
After he had made it bleed a few times, my mother became afraid that Paddy would break my nose; but my father was of the opinion that a broken nose was not an unhonorable disfiguration. If you were ever going to learn how to avoid punches you had to take a few, he said.
During these holidays I spent a lot of time with my mother. In the afternoons she and my brother and I used to go visiting people in the parish, the rich, the well-to-do and the poor; those in the social swim and those who were not, and broke their necks trying to make you believe they were. The poor people, mostly Catholics, lived on potatoes and tea. And no matter how poor they were, when you came they always wanted to give you something to eat. They ate off a sack with a little mound of salt on it into which you dipped the floury potato, which never tasted as good at home when you ate it with a knife and fork off a plate. And we never could make potato cakes the way they did.
My mother was always telling me not to neglect my prayers. She was waiting for me to be confirmed so that I could get up at seven o'clock on Sunday mornings and go to early communion with her. I was not keen about the idea myself, but I would have been willing to get up at six to please her. Every night I used to read a verse of the small Testament she had given me. A verse she had marked in red ink: Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
During the previous months I had been putting this divine promise to the test; and though to-date my fervent petitions that retribution in its direst form be visited upon the elephantlegged warden, the prefect Read and Bones major had remained unnoticed, I was aware that God's mills are reputedly slow grinders, and the virtue of patience must be cultivated.