‘I doubt if anyone enjoyed school in those days,’ muses Tom Sheehan, puffing on his pipe. ‘It was a time of corporal punishment. But, unfortunately, children were punished – not for bad behaviour, but for failure at lessons. It wasn’t Ireland alone though. The same thing was happening in England and Wales. Have you ever read How Green was My Valley? It’s terrible what went on. But I was okay really. I got off lightly in comparison with some.’
Given that Tom endured rather than enjoyed his school years, you might not have expected him to become a schoolteacher, but that is precisely what he did when he left school in 1949, relocating from his native Kerry to faraway County Cavan.
Teaching was not in his blood, but emigration was. Dick Sheehan, his father, was a farm labourer who spent most of Tom’s early years in England.
‘Things were very tough in the early thirties,’ explains Tom. ‘Money was so scarce, even in England. My father was in his mid-twenties when he got married. He needed to gather up the price of a house, so he went to England with two of his brothers and they worked with a big dairy farmer in Surrey. They supplied milk to London. I was only a year old when he went and I don’t think he came home again for two or three years.’
Dick and his brothers were not the first Sheehan family members to emigrate. Four of their aunts and uncles had moved to Kansas before the First World War. Tom’s mother, Peggy, also knew the tug of foreign lands as two of her aunts had settled in Chicago. ‘At that time, people going to America practically had to be adopted by someone who could guarantee their family,’ says Tom.
While Dick was earning money in England, Tom was raised in the parish of Murhur by Peggy and her mother, Mrs Thornton. They lived about half a mile away from Tom’s present home, which Dick built after his return to Ireland in 1934.
‘Himself and a friend built a house for the friend the first year. And the next year, they built this house. It was a full-time job and took them most of a year to build. It happened to be a very bad autumn, winter and spring and I can remember mud everywhere. They got the material from Listowel but the sand had to be drawn from rivers, and it was very poor quality. The land here is very heavy, so in wet weather you can imagine the amount of mud. They had to draw rushes in to soak it all up. There was no tractors then, so I’d imagine they borrowed a horse to draw them.’
Fortunately, it has proved a sturdy dwelling. ‘There was a number of houses built around here that time,’ says Tom. ‘I think there was a grant of £100 going, when wages were about £1 a week. An old cousin of mine told me years ago that this was the only one of those houses still standing fifty years on, because the others were so poorly built.’
Tom, the eldest of six children, was initially schooled at nearby Kilbaha. He then went to St. Patrick’s secondary school in Glin and, during the week, he stayed with his aunt Kitty and her husband, Jack Adams, the Glin blacksmith. While at St. Patrick’s, he realised that it wasn’t just the teachers who used violence on children. ‘We were playing ball at school once. There was a fellow with a purple and blue line up his back and along his side. He said he had been walking on top of a gate, a tightrope sort of thing, and that he fell. That evening we were walking home and he said, “I didn’t fall on the gate at all. It was my dad that beat me.”’
Fortunately, Tom’s parents refrained from such violence. ‘I was very fortunate,’ he says. ‘I was never slapped by my parents. My mother hit me with a wet towel once but I never held it against her. My father was very strict but he never slapped us.’
By the close of the Second World War, Dick and Peggy were operating a general grocery shop from their home and Tom would cycle back from Glin at weekends to help them run it. ‘All the sugar and tea had to be weighed,’ he recalls. ‘Every pound counted and there were 240 pennies in a pound in those days.’
‘Life was a struggle,’ says Tom. ‘I was looking through memoriam cards recently and I would say that nine-tenths of the people who died when I was growing up were between fifty and seventy.’
Tom left school at the age of eighteen and went to Dublin to spend two years training to be a teacher at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra.
After a few months working at the Model School on Dublin’s Marlborough Street, he was asked to take a job in County Cavan.
‘It was in a remote, poor area of Cavan called Knockbride, near Bailieborough. I went there on a miserable, cold November evening. I didn’t expect to stay long. I hoped I would have a job in Kerry before Christmas. But it was very hard to get jobs that time and, well, I retired from there thirty-seven years later.’
Tom taught ‘everything’, primarily to children aged between nine and eleven. Sometimes, he felt very far away from his Kerry homeland, not least with the Troubles in full flow along the border. ‘I was in Cavan when all the bombing and shootings was going on in the North. At least once a week, we could hear the booms of bombing going off twenty or thirty miles away. You had to be careful about where and when you travelled. But sin scéal eile, that’s another story.’
Away from the classroom, Tom turned his mind to theatrical matters. ‘Amateur dramatics came into a lot of country places in those times,’ he recalls. ‘I was part of a group called the Pavilion Players. Sometimes, I was producing but I was mostly acting or working as a make-up artist. I think my favourite role was playing one of the brothers in Joseph Tomelty’s play All Soul’s Night. We played at many drama festivals – Cavan, Bundoran, Navan, Dundalk and several others. There was an All-Ireland final every year in Athlone. We got into the final twice and we came third in the rural section one year.’
Every summer holiday, he returned to Kerry to help his parents run the shop and gather in the turf. In 1975, Dick and Peggy closed down the grocery. Such home enterprises were already starting to feel the squeeze of the supermarkets, though Tom attributes their retirement to old age. Dick died three years later, aged seventy-three.
Tom himself retired from Cavan in 1989. ‘It was earlier than I intended to retire but my mother was living on her own and she was not very well. So I returned here. I had an idea of returning to teaching but it did not happen.’
He also devoted a good deal of his spare time to his twin pastimes of photography, with an old box camera, and fishing. ‘I had my own boat on the lakes in Cavan but the thing I looked forward to mostly was coming back down here to fish on the river. I would always be looking forward to that.’
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