Michael McLaverty - My Old School Teacher

By Joe Graham 

I first began attending St. John’s Elementary School at Colinward Street , Springfield Road, in 1949, I was five years of age, I went into the infants class where the teacher was a Miss McCarthy. At aged six I moved into the big boys world of “First Class”, today’s kids I believe call it ‘Primary 0ne’, and that’s where Mr. Michael McLaverty came into my life as my master, a ‘Master’ being a male teacher in those days. This man stamped patterns, values, views and memories into the minds of two generations of Belfast boys and I have yet to meet one ex-pupil who would ever have a bad word to say about ‘Mickey’, (which we called him behind his back). I was fortunate to have him as my  Master’ throughout my seven years at St. John’s, moving up a class each year but always in the same class room, schools were smaller back then. When St. Thomas’s Secondary Intermediate School opened on the Whiterock Road in 1957 we older boys were all moved to it and Michael had been appointed Principal there, so Michael McLaverty figured throughout my schooldays.

Michael McLaverty was no mere teacher, as far back as 1939 he had many of his now famous short stories published and now much of his works can be read in many languages throughout the world as one of Ireland’s all time great writers. Michael was an artist with a pen; he could paint a picture in words that could equal any masterpiece of even the great Michael Angelo. Michael was a master word weaver, his book “Call My Brother Back” is testament to that . In one of his short stories, “The Sea ”, one of his characters, an old man, “Peter”, following the death of his wife poised the question to his adopted son, “ What is the nearest thing to death about a house”, he then answers himself, “Well. I’ll tell ye,  A hearth without a fire and a house without a woman.”  Show me the man who would not agree with Peter, indeed Michael, as it was he who penned the sentiment.

Michael was a  smallish man and at times struck an eccentric picture arriving to school on his bicycle, wearing bicycle clips and  with a black beret on his head, other times he would arrive with his ‘stepping it out’ gait wearing his grey soft felt ‘Paddy Hat’. But the days in which he would arrive in the black Morris car driven by his son brought the most excitement to us kids, we would all run down Colinward street after it to watch Mickey step out of it  and hopefully to catch a glimpse inside the car, for cars were still not common in the early 1950’s Belfast. 

Michael left us a treasure trove of writings, stories such as, “Stone”, “Lost Fields”, “The Mother”, “The White Mare”,  Pigeons’, The Wild Duck’s Nest ”, etc, some are based on Rathlin Island, where he was a frequent visitor, and others around Co.Down and the countryside around Toome where he spent much of his leisure time and where his father’s people lived. We all have our heavens on earth, I think the Strangford area was Michael’s, ‘heaven n earth’ and when he died he was buried there at Kilclief. 

Michael was very kind to us pupils, for remember those were not so affluent days, in fact they were poor days and even if ‘rationing’ had ceased and the shops were full with all the groceries mothers desired few could have afforded to buy them. Often enough parents found it hard to supply us kids with money for pens or catechism’s and this is where Michael stepped in. Every day he ran a penny ballot and the winner won a beautiful fountain pen or on another occasion, a pencil box or catechism. But looking back it is very interesting to note that no one child ever won the pen , pencil box or catechism twice, this was obviously Michael’s way of helping each us kids  obtain these little luxuries, indeed necessities, and of course our pennies would never have covered his expense of purchasing the things. Michael, as we pupils all knew too well, had a tougher side to him, and commanded discipline. If he found two boys fighting he would invite them up in front of the class, take two pairs of boxing gloves out of his desk and ask both boys put them on and he would say, “Right, now fight ”. Ninety nine out of a hundred times the boys sheepishly stood with their hands by their sides and looked embarrassed. Most pupils will have their own stories of Michael, but one aspect they will all mention, his afternoon storytelling session, always at 3 o’clock every afternoon. He would open a book, a book of his short stories, and read a chapter, and a pin could be heard if dropped, such was the interest we had in his stories, a wonderfully decent man was Michael, a prince among teachers. I have no doubt it was Michael McLaverty who instilled in me my love of reading and writing, he, and his writings influenced me and impacted on my life from the earliest age. Michael McLaverty introduced us boys to poetry, prose and Mark Twain, had us share in the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and even brought the drama and majesty of Shakespeare into our wooden floored classroom, lines like “is this a sword I see before me”, from MacBeth echoing out into Colinward Street. His encouragement was tremendous when at 12 year old I had a play I wrote staged at St Paul’s Hall at a school concert, we kids emulated  him by writing short stories and looking closer at birds, twilights and sunsets. Michael was quick to encourage kids who aspired to writing and would be generous in hi appraisals such as when one  lad I remember wrote of the rain falling on a tree, “Feeding the leaves below drop after drop”, which delighted Michael. 

Michael McLaverty began his schooldays at St. Gall’s primary school at Waterville Street adjacent to the famous Clonard Monastery and from there went on to St. Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road. He went on to Queens University and acquired a physics degree in 1927 but it was when he decided to become a teacher in his native city that a problem arose. The Northern Junta in the six counties had recently decreed that any new teacher’s qualifications who trained in Dublin would not be recognised so would be unable to teach in Catholic schools insisting that all teachers having to be trained in British or six county colleges. Young Catholic men wishing to take up a career teaching at Catholic schools were placed in a dilemma since at that time there was only the one Catholic training college in the North, St. Mary’s which was a girls only college. However  the way around this was to go to Strawberry Hill Catholic College in London and so Michael enrolled.

He returned with his Higher Education Diploma in 1928 and took up a teacher’s post at St. John’s Public Elementary School in Colinward Street and completed his scholastic studies with a Masters Degree in 1933. I must mention that it was thanks to the generosity of the wealthy catholic Hamill family having bequeathed their large house, Trench House, about 1900 to the Catholic Church, firstly St. Mary’s girls Teachers College was set up and then about 1949 a male teachers  college was   established  which  meant  male and female teachers  done  their training in the North and the males didn’t have to go to Strawberry Hill anymore.

In the previous paragraph one may detect that Michael had a strong sense of Irish Nationality, of that I had never any doubt and was pleased to hear a family member say quite recently, “He considered himself to be an Irish writer who just happened to live in the north, and he couldn’t see a divide between north and south”. I find it amusing how the “Northern Ireland Brigade” are hijacking his name and writings and are attempting to brand or Tag  them as a ‘product of a six county ‘Ulsterman”, or a ‘Northern Irish Person/writer”, for make no doubt about it Michael McLaverty was an Irishman, a great Irish writer.!  It would indeed be sad if they were successful in cataloguing him along with their other infamous ‘product’’ the ‘Titanic’ and its two sister ships which also sank on their maiden voyages, unlike them, Michael was never a failure.

St. John’s School was built in 1910 to help facilitate the ever growing amount of boys and girls in the St. Paul’s Parish and to alleviate over-crowding at St Paul’s  and St. Gall’s Schools. St. John’s was a boys and girls school, the boys classes being housed on the first storey and the girl’s on the ground floor with each entering their part of the school through separate gates with a 10foot high brick wall dividing the playgrounds  and outside toilets.

A young childless widow, Mollie Conrad (nee Giles) a teacher in the girl’s school caught Michael’s eye and he found himself chatting to her at every chance and as he once said, ‘missing her when she would be off work sick’, before long they began dating and keeping regular company. Mollie’s family at one time lived at College Street North then moved to 46 Springfield Road, her father was a Professor of Music and later her brother Gerald became a local G.P. Michael and Mollie were married , I believe, at St. Joseph’s at Hannahstown. 13th July 1933, the couple went to live at Knock (Belfast) for a few years and later moved to Deramore Drive at Malone, they had four children, two boys and two girls, Shelia, Kevin, Colm and Maura. I often wondered did Michael call his son Colm after the central character in his book “Call My Brother Back”.

It was in the late 1930’s that Michael began his writings and by the time I came into his class room about 1950 he was already an established writer and out this we kids got a great kick  bragging to the kids in the other classes. Even as kids we recognised that the books he was reading to us were HIS books and that made him special. He ‘lifted us up on his shoulders’ and we saw things which we would have otherwise missed, although not tall he was a giant among men. There was no doubt he was a favourite to most lads in the school, although at the same time he was no soft touch  he kept discipline but somehow had a skill in managing the lads to get the best out of them. To this day I have a great sense of pride and good fortune at having been taught by Michael McLaverty not merely because he was noteworthy or held a certain celebrity for without either I am sure he would still have been the great human being and shining example that he was to us kids. With respect for the other ‘masters’ I would have to say Michael had an affinity with the kids yet a separation from the teachers. Michael was basically a shy man and during play time you would see him walking along the nearby old Cotton Mill lane past the tall trees at the Flush and the squawking crows high up in their twiggy nests. I often wondered was he gleaning material for his writing, taking notes in the notebook in his head. I could not see him writing kindly of the scavenger crow, “The Devil’s Bird”, which flourished in Ireland by feeding off the wretched bodies that fell through hunger along the laneways and in the fields in ‘Black ’47’. Michael of course was involved also in the mundane role of a teacher like disciplining kids for running in the corridor  or up the stairs and  was  known to  place himself in an advantage point to catch you doing just that and you were guaranteed ‘three of the best’, three slaps on the hand with his cane, back in those days caning was still the norm for bad behaviour. Dinner time in St. John’s was between 12.30 and 1.30 and each day just five minutes before the bell went at 12.30 Mickey would say, “right Dinner Boys stand up” and he would ask a question like ‘who made the world’ and inevitably in one voice the ‘Dinner Boys’  which were about half the class would answer “God made the world sir” and he would say “okay, away you go ” and the race was on. Out we’d walk quickly along the corridor, then charge down the Springfield Road, into Iris Street, down to the bottom of Hawthorn Street to St Paul’s Parochial Hall to get our dinner.  The idea of the simple question was so that we would all know it and leave together and so we’d get down ahead of the boys from St. Paul’s school with whom we shared the dinner hall otherwise there’d be a scrimmage in the hall doorway. Really Mickey could have just said “Free Dinner Boys stand up” for I don’t remember any school mates paying for the dinners. It was so matter of fact that we kids referred to St. Paul’s Hall as the ‘Free Dinner Hall’, sadly today few of those kids would admit they availed of the free dinners , it’s a bit like how  many people from  those days never remember their mother using a pawn shop, which surely  prompts one to ask ‘then how the hell did all those pawnshops manage to stay open if no one used them  ’.

But to get back to the Dinner Hall, it was one day in the early 1950’s when Mr McLaverty was on ‘dinner duty’   this was when teachers from the amalgamated schools took it in turn to be present in the hall at dinner time in case some boys misbehaved. As I came out of the hall Mr McLaverty was standing on the corner of Hawthorne Street and Cavendish Street chatting to another man, who like him, was wearing a ‘Paddy Hat’.  As I passed them I made the point of the other man, who was a friend of my father’s  seeing me and he gave me a friendly smile and said “Hello Joe son, how are you”, I answered him , “Hello Mr O’Byrne, hello Mr McLaverty”, I can still remember the odd feeling hearing Mr McLaverty saying “Hello Joe”, I realised as I got older the circumstance   merited other than a “hello Graham ” as a teacher would have  normally called you by your surname.  The ‘other man’ in the felt hat was none other than Cathal O’Byrne whose house nearby I had visited many times with my father and sampled his sister Teresa’s great stew. Looking back now I value that short conversation with two of the greatest writers Ireland ever had, both of whom I have admired all my life. Is it any wonder I look back and think,  if only I had a camera that day’. 

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