Back in the Olden Days

Long ago, in the days when students wore German Army parkas and Doc Martins, or boot runners and denim jackets, there was a school. It was a time when Michael Jackson was still known more for his music than his court appearances, and Drogheda had yet to become a mere suburb of Dublin. The year: 1985. The school: St. Oliver’s Community College. The place was brand, spanking new, having only been open a few years. Most of the teachers had been working there since the beginning (Is there still that big framed photo of them near the front door?), and compared with the other schools in the town, Ollie’s was state-of-the-art. It was still looked down upon for being a ‘Tech’, as all community or technical colleges were known, but this didn’t put my parents off. It had also developed something of a rough reputation, which I always considered a bit unfair, despite the fact that some of my year went on to contribute more than their fair share to this particular image.

I would have thought it a pretty typical school as far as the kids were concerned. You might go out for a smoke behind the woodwork and metalwork rooms, or catch a fight down behind the swimming pool. There was still a swimming pool there back then. There was always some mitching and bullying and fighting over the seats in assembly, and anybody who thinks that schools are ever any different must never have gone to school.

But Ollie’s was already establishing itself as a leading contender in both national sports competitions, and academic achievement. The girls’ basketball team seemed to win everything; unfortunately there was no basketball training for boys, I could never figure out why, and it was the only sport I really wanted to play. Our Gaelic and soccer teams did well too, and there were constant announcements over the P.A. of victorious results – the students were made to feel proud of their teams.

The school’s sporting prowess was attained despite the fact that we did P.E. in the ‘old’ gym – now the library or study hall -where a good game of basketball could end in a broken window, and you inevitably came away with evil carpet burns on your knees and elbows. Several mini-marathons and non-uniform days later, we finally managed to get ourselves a decent gym. It would be difficult to overstate the fuss that was made the year that building was opened. For a while, we wondered if they would actually let the students use this majestic new facility, they were being so careful with it.

There were some serious art projects during those years as well. The stage doors were painted with Picasso’s Guernica, which I didn’t get to work on because I wasn’t actually studying art at the time, but I would have loved to have been involved. It was a real disappointment to hear it was later painted over. There was also the design and construction of the sculpture at the gates of the school – with its time capsule – and the sculpture competition, voted for by the students, that produced two winners, whose pieces went into the courtyards on either side of the school. In the same year, the first yearbook was produced, and I did the cover, with caricatures of Mr Kierans (the Vice Principal) and Mr Cooney (the Principal), hanging by the scruffs of their necks from our proud new sculpture. I just thought you get your digs in where you can, but that picture ended up having pride of place in one of their offices.

A few of the students from the senior art classes were also picked to paint cartoons on the walls of the children’s ward in the Lourdes Hospital around that time, which was a good laugh (particularly since we got off classes to do it).

Since I was no great hand at sports, myself and a few others started a chess club, and later a chess team when the Drogheda Schools Chess League was set up. The room ended up being not only a place to practice your game at lunchtime, but also somewhere you could go and eat your lunch in a bit of peace and quiet, and as a result we had no shortage of members. The debating society also took off and the team began to win all sorts of competitions. I didn’t take much part, but later all my brothers and sisters did; my family being naturally argumentative. That room was not so quiet at lunchtime.

There were plenty of misadventures too. I remember one guy in my year getting the top of his finger cut off by having an open window slammed on it (don’t ask me how). Another time, a girl in our assembly area was having fun sending lit matches flying by flicking them against the box. One went into the bin, which caught fire, resulting in the whole school being evacuated. I once saw another guy break one of the glass panels in the corridor with his head. Not deliberately, I should point out – he had help. Discretion prevents me from naming the more violent pranks that were popular at the time, but there was, of course, the usual sticking of signs on backs and the standard projectile weapons, made from elastic bands, or biro tubes, for use on each other when the teacher was facing the blackboard.

You got a different view of the school when you didn’t have to go to classes there. It was a pretty cool building for twenty-four-hour stay-awakes, or weekend projects like finishing off the coffee table we made in woodwork. Without the classes and the uniforms, school was a nice place to be. The sloping corridors were perfect for skateboards – if you could get away with it – the assembly areas were ideal for a game of football (but with a tennis ball), and the big sports events like the mini-marathons had a great atmosphere, when teachers and students could suspend hostilities for a few hours. I wouldn’t say that my schooldays were the best days of my life. Frankly, I’m still having a good time. But I appreciate my schooling now more than I ever did then, and I think the teachers at Ollie’s did a great job of educating the belligerent, pain-in-the-arse, know-it-all teenagers who showed up at the door that September in 1985. I believe that most of us left that school better people than when we arrived, and my thanks goes out to all the teachers and staff who saw us through those five vitally important years.

Oisín McGann, February 2004.