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Irish Times writers’ school days

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Fintan O’Toole

The Head Brother was a fierce and imposing man. He patrolled the corridors, fixing miscreants in his baleful glare, keeping at bay the anarchy he knew to be seething beneath the surface.

He had us cowed. Most of us were, as I was, from families where no one had gone to secondary school. We were willing to accept the bargain of conformity in the Catholic Ireland of the early 1970s. We would keep our feral natures in check in return for some notion of advancement.

Then came a day when the Head Brother was walking slowly past the open door of the classroom, where we were waiting for the teacher to arrive for class. Something flew through the air and hit him on the head.

It was a small, silvery packet with the word Durex printed on it. It was doubly unbelievable. It was impossible for such an object to exist among us, and utterly beyond credibility that someone had the gall to throw it at the Head Brother.

His own incredulity released itself in a volcanic outburst of rage. He erupted into the classroom, roaring the question he could barely articulate: “Who threw this?”

He kept repeating it while every one of us cowered and looked away, terrified lest we catch his eye and reveal the guilt that now clung to us collectively.

Since no one answered, he turned on the boy who was indeed by far the most likely candidate, the class messer: “It was you, wasn’t it?”

Johnny looked both stricken and offended by the accusation. “No sir, it wasn’t me. I’ve got mine in my pocket.” And he pulled it out as proof of his innocence.

I have never seen a man deflate so rapidly. The Head Brother shrank before our eyes. He could not speak. He shook his head three or four times and slunk away, utterly defeated.

Patrick Freyne

I have had many academic honours, but the highest accolade I have ever received was being designated fourth toughest in fifth class in my local national school in Co Kildare. Having moved around a lot between schools in my youth I was very aware of the political cross currents in the school yard and knew that I was still finding my feet socially. Most of my social cues were taken from the television programme the A-Team in which I idolised mental-health pioneer “Howling Mad” Murdock. I could see some of my classmates making their way in the world as the strongest, the cleverest or the best looking. All of these avenues were shut to me. From the life of “Howling Mad” Murdock, however, I learned that every gang needed a crazy “wild card” character. Looking around at my classmates, I was pretty sure I had an edge here.

And so it would turn out to be when eventually a sort of Battle Royale broke out in the school yard and the hierarchies of “toughest boy” in the class were up for grabs once more. Who was the arbiter of such things? That would be the unanimously accepted First Toughest Boy. His name was Dodo, nicknamed inexplicably after an extinct bird, who regularly looked across his puny classmates with disdain and rejigged the hierarchy once more. I was a runner (in so far as I usually ran away) not a fighter but on this day of random child violence I decided to channel my hero “Howling Mad” Murdock and allow the Second Toughest boy, Robert, to punch me repeatedly in the face. I didn’t cry. I think I might even have smiled. So Robert started to cry because he was tired from the punching and sadism loses its edge with masochists. Everyone was very impressed. Dodo bumped me all the way up to Fourth Toughest boy, leapfrogging several violent young thugs along the way. It may have been the proudest moment of my life. I’ve a memory of getting a certificate and everything but I can’t find it so that bit could have been a dream.

Rosita Boland: ‘When we discovered that breakfast tray preparations for the priest included filling a jug with milk the evening before, we helped ourselves’
Rosita Boland: ‘When we discovered that breakfast tray preparations for the priest included filling a jug with milk the evening before, we helped ourselves’

Rosita Boland

In my sixth and final year at boarding school, our common room was adjacent to a tiny room under the back stairs; a stairs which led to the nuns’ private quarters. This room was the sole domain of Madame Clemence, the oldest nun in the community. Her tasks were to open the front door – only formal visitors arrived at the front door, everyone else came in the side doors – and to prepare breakfast for the priest who said Mass each morning at 7.30am in our chapel.

This breakfast was cooked hot daily, and served up by Madame Clemence in a parlour where there was a harp and a large, permanently unlit fireplace. Each evening, she prepared the breakfast tray in the tiny room under the stairs. When we snooped, as of course we did, we saw unfamiliar china; delicate cups and plates with flowers. Our refectory china was heavy white institutional type stuff. Here was a lace traycloth, and china so thin we could see through it when holding it up to the light.

There was a little kitchen area in our common room, where we made hot drinks. Milk was delivered to the fridge once a day, but we had usually run out by evening. So when we discovered that Madame Clemence’s breakfast tray preparations for the priest included filling a jug with milk the evening before, we helped ourselves. To make sure the milk level did not fall, we cunningly topped up the jug with water and carefully replaced the crochet-edged doily that sat atop it.

One evening a couple of weeks after we had begun our nightly milk heist, the Reverend Mother called all the boarders to a special assembly. This usually only happened when serious crimes had occurred. We were agog, wondering who had been caught smoking now, or who had gone out of bounds, or who had been found with something banned, such as the radios we all had, but kept hidden.

“Girls,” she began. “Madame Clemence, the most senior member of our community, is very upset. Someone has been stealing the priest’s breakfast milk. Theft is unacceptable in this school.”

There was a titter among our huddled masses. I exchanged incredulous glances with my classmates, all of whom were trying not to roar laughing. Busted! But how?

We owned up, trying very hard to look repentant. We were ordered to apologise in person to Madame Clemence. I was one of the group selected to carry out this task. At the end of our grovelling, I asked her: “How did you know?”

“I knew,” she said, “because the milk jug was always topped with cream for the priest’s tea. And when I poured it for him in the morning, there was no cream.” And thus it was that Madame Clemence Holmes discovered our nightly dairy-pilfering crime.

Frank McNally

I spent a few Septembers of my school years in dread of “ducking”: an initiation ceremony that involved having your head held under a tap. At least I think that’s what it involved. I don’t know because somehow this ritual baptism, which was dying out then and is unknown to my children, never actually happened to me.

Even if it had, I would have got off lightly compared with some schoolboys of the past. Patrick Campbell, an Irishman’s Diarist of the 1940s, recalled attending a preparatory school on Dublin’s Stephen’s Green where two bullies held his head down a toilet bowl every day, and flushed, to punish him for having a stammer.

Ours was a more enlightened era, or the dawn of one anyway. The Patrician Brothers Carrickmacross were like a Christian Brothers’ political wing, committed to achieving education through peaceful means, if possible. Most of the students were non-violent too.

The best prank we ever played was a literary one. It arose from the visit of a female French exchange student who may or may not have been romantically involved with one of our classmates. The Sunday World’s agony aunt later received and gratefully printed a letter detailing their supposed night of passion in a coal-shed, and the resultant fears of teenage pregnancy. Strange to say, neither the group composition nor its success in national media impressed Mr O’Brien, our English teacher.

My preferred newspaper was of course The Irish Times. This led to an apocalyptic scene one morning when I was holding it open in front of me, for maximum ostentation, no doubt reading about the latest crisis in Afghanistan. Suddenly, never mind Kabul, the paper itself was in flames. No, it wasn’t an omen. It was Gerard Martin, who had set fire to it with a lighter.

A few years earlier, the same arsonist needed to be rushed to a Dublin hospital one afternoon after a classroom frolic in which a tennis ball nearly took his eye out. The event might be forgotten now except it coincided with one of the worst days of the Troubles, rumbling away across our nearby border. Approaching the city that evening, en route to the Eye & Ear, they heard a loud bang in the background. It was 17th May 1974. The first of the Dublin and Monaghan bombs had just gone off.

Malachy Clerkin: ‘My broken nose was put in its true perspective. Second fiddle to a wheezing old Ford Sierra’
Malachy Clerkin: ‘My broken nose was put in its true perspective. Second fiddle to a wheezing old Ford Sierra’

Malachy Clerkin

I have one party trick. I can make myself sneeze. Okay, it’s a crap party trick. I haven’t actually done it at a party. If there was ever a big demand for it – and there wasn’t – it’s fair to say that the post-Covid party scene won’t exactly be crying out for it either. But the fact remains: I can do it. And the reason I can is that Marty McCormilla broke my nose playing football at lunchtime in 1996.

I went for a header. He went for an overhead kick. I got the ball. He got my nasal bone. We both got drenched in a Niagara of blood.

Ordinarily, that would have been that. St Macartan’s College in Monaghan had about 600 boys in it at the time. A bloody nose didn’t get you too high up the triage ranking in normal circumstances. So it must have been pointing in a fairly exotic direction for a teacher to take one look at it and grab his car keys. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll bring you to the hospital.”

Somehow, three of my classmates were able to feign enough concern to get in on the trip. Marty, on account of being the culprit. Neal and Mickey, on account of being prepared to do basically anything to get out of going to class.

It should have been less than a 10-minute drive. I had my head back so I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going. But after a bit, I realised that we had stopped somewhere that definitely wasn’t the hospital. Instead, we had pulled up outside a car garage.

To the howling delight of the three apes in the back of the car, our man put aside his concern for the student who now looked like a Tarantino extra and went in to see a man about a rattle the car was making. It wasn’t something that had just arisen on the trip into town or anything – he had been meaning to get it looked at for ages.

The four of us were light-headed by this stage. Me, with the rapidly draining haemoglobin. The other three, buckled with the giggles. Accounts differ as to whether he actually came back or just left the three of them to walk me to the hospital. Either way, my broken nose – and presumably, concussion – was put in its true perspective. Second fiddle to a wheezing old Ford Sierra.

Consequently, there’s an indent in my nose to this day, about three-quarters of the way up. And if the mood takes me, I can press on it and make myself sneeze.

I haven’t yet come across the precise scenario in which it will be of true use to me. But life is a journey.

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Census 2022 – what difference does it make?

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Next Sunday, April 3rd, is Census night. Millions of people in homes countrywide will fill in page after page of questions, some of which are deeply personal and many of which might be unfamiliar.

But what it is it all about?

At a basic level, Census 2022 will be used to inform planning of public policy and services in the years ahead, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The questions will cover a range of environmental, employment and lifestyle issues, including the use of renewable energy sources in homes.

The questions will help inform policy development in the areas of energy and climate action, and the prevalence of internet access, to understand the availability of and need for internet connections and range of devices used to access the internet.

Questions also focus on changes in work patterns and will include the trend of working from home and childcare issues, while questions are also asked about the times individuals usually leave work, education or childcare, to help identify and plan for transport pattern needs locally and nationally.

Other topics covered include volunteering and the type of organisations volunteers choose to support, tobacco usage and the prevalence of smoke alarms in the home.

And of course there is a time capsule – the chance to write something which will be sealed for the next 100 years.

In this episode of In The News, the head of census administration Eileen Murphy and statistician Kevin Cunningham about what it all means for us.

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Oscars 2022: Will Smith makes Oscar history after slapping Chris Rock over joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith | Culture

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Will Smith took the Oscar for Best Actor at last night’s 94th Academy Awards, but he also became the protagonist of the ceremony for other reasons. The night was following the script, until Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on the stage after the latter made a joke about the shaved head of the former’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock had quipped that he was “looking forward to GI Jane 2,” in reference to her look. Pinkett Smith has revealed publicly that she has alopecia. It looked as if the moment had been planned, until Smith went back to his seat and shouted: “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”

The moment, which immediately became Oscar history but for all the wrong reasons, left the attendees with frozen smiles, and asking themselves whether it was possible that a veteran such as Smith could have lost his cool in front of tens of millions of people. After taking the prize for Best Actor, the superstar actor made a tearful apology, saying that he hoped the Academy “will invite me back.” Later on, actor Anthony Hopkins called for “peace and love,” but it was already too late. The incident overshadowed the success of CODA, which took the Oscar for Best Picture. Just like the time when Warren Beatty mistakenly named La La Land as the big winner of the night, no one will speak about anything else from last night’s awards.

At first sight, Smith’s actions looked as if they were scripted. When he first heard Rock’s joke, he laughed. But his wife was seen on camera rolling her eyes, and it was then that the actor got up onto the stage and hit Rock. When he returned to his seat he raised his voice twice to shout “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” sending a wave of unease and shock through the attending audience. The fact that he used the f-word, which is prohibited on US television, set alarm bells ringing that this was real and not a planned moment. In fact, the curse word was censored by the broadcaster, ABC, in the United States.

During a break, Smith’s PR manager approached him to speak. In the press room, which the actor skipped after collecting his prize, instructions were given to the journalists not to ask questions about the incident, Luis Pablo Beauregard reports. The next presenter, Sean “Diddy” Combs, tried to calm the situation. “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve this – but right now we’re moving on with love,” the rapper said.

When Smith took to the stage to collect his Best Actor award for his role as Richard Williams – the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena – in King Richard, he referred to the character as “a fierce defender of his family.” He continued: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse, and have people talk crazy about you and have people disrespecting you and you’ve got to smile and pretend it’s OK.”

He explained that fellow actor Denzel Washington, who also spoke to Smith during a break, had told him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

“I want to be a vessel for love,” Smith continued. “I want to be an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern. I want to apologize to the Academy and all my fellow nominees. […] I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams, but love will make you do crazy things,” he said. He then joked about his mother, who had not wanted to come to the ceremony because she had a date with her crochet group.

The Los Angeles Police Department released a statement last night saying that Chris Rock would not be filing any charges for assault against Smith. “LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program,” the statement read. “The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report. If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”

On December 28, Pinkett Smith spoke on social media about her problems with alopecia. She stated that she would be keeping her head shaved and would be dealing with the condition with humor. “Me and this alopecia are going to be friends… Period!” she wrote on Instagram.



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House-price inflation set to stay double digit for much of 2022

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House-price inflation is expected to remain at double-digit levels for much of 2022 as the mismatch between what is for sale and what buyers want continues.

Two new reports on the housing market paint a picture of a sector under strain due to a lack of supply and increased demand driven by Covid-related factors such as remote working.

The two quarterly reports, one each from rival property websites myhome.ie and daft.ie, suggest asking prices accelerated again in the first quarter of 2022 as the stock of homes available for sale slumped to a new record low.

Myhome, which is owned by The Irish Times, said annual asking-price inflation was now running at 12.3 per cent.

Price

This put the median or typical asking price for a home nationally at €295,000, and at €385,000 in Dublin.

MyHome said the number of available properties for sale on its website fell to a record low of 11,200 in March, down from a pre-pandemic level of 19,000. The squeeze on supply, it said, was most acute outside Dublin, with the number of properties listed for sale down almost 50 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels.

It said impaired supply and robust demand meant double-digit inflation is likely until at least mid-2022.

“Housing market conditions have continued to tighten,” said author of the myhome report, Davy chief economist Conall Mac Coille.

“The broad picture of the market in early 2022 remains similar to last year: impaired supply coupled with robust demand due to Ireland’s strong labour market,” he said.

Soure: MyHome.ie

“One chink of light is that new instructions to sell of 7,500 in the first 11 weeks of 2022 are well up from 4,800 in 2021, albeit still below the 9,250 in 2019. The flow of new properties therefore remains impaired,” said Mr Mac Coille.

“Whatever new supply is emerging is being met by more than ample demand. Hence, transaction volumes in January and February were up 13 per cent on the year but pushed the market into ever tighter territory,” he said.

He said Davy was now predicting property-price inflation to average 7 per cent this year, up from a previous forecast of 4.5 per cent, buoyed strong employment growth.

Homes

Daft, meanwhile, said house asking prices indicated the average listed price nationwide in the first quarter of 2022 was €299,093, up 8.4 per cent on the same period in 2021 and and just 19 per cent below the Celtic Tiger peak, while noting increases remain smaller in urban areas, compared to rural.

Just 10,000 homes were listed for sale on its website as of March 1st, an all-time low. In Dublin, Cork and Galway cities, prices in the first quarter of 2022 were roughly 4 per cent higher on average than a year previously, while in Limerick and Waterford cities the increases were 7.6 per cent and 9.3 per cent respectively.

The report’s author, Trinity College Dublin economist Ronan Lyons, said: “Inflation in housing prices remains stubbornly high – with Covid-19 disturbing an equilibrium of sorts that had emerged, with prices largely stable in 2019 but increasing since.

“As has been the case consistently over the last decade, increasing prices – initially in Dublin and then elsewhere – reflect a combination of strong demand and very weak supply.”


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