04 Dec 2021

PICTURES | St Joseph's, Netownforbes, class of 1970 hope for better days

Nuala Fox (née Keogh) reflects as the Class of 1970 from St Joseph’s, Newtownforbes were due to get together for their 50th Reunion this month, but Covid-19 put paid to those plans

June is forever remembered by those who have gone through the education system as 'exam month'.

Invariably, the sun shone brightly while students laboured through examinations that would determine their future.

So it would seem to be the obvious month for my class of 1970 to choose to celebrate our 50th anniversary.

But “man proposes and God disposes” and Covid-19 put paid to our plans this year. Luckily, we had got together, as many as possible, last year, to organise ourselves for the big one.

We started our secondary school education in St Joseph’s Secondary School, Newtownforbes in September 1965 – bright eyed and bushy tailed and innocent as the day is long, never realising how hard we would work under a very strict regime.

There was no such thing as an Open Day or an Induction Day in those times. We just accepted that this was what we needed to do if we were to make our own way in the world.

Our parents had given us the opportunity to get a good education and we wouldn’t waste it. It was an all girl school run by the Sisters of Mercy.

Memories of our lives over the following five years were mixed and varied when we met. It took many introductions and a browse over old photographs to jog the memories and even then, like leaving a football match, one wonders if we were all at the same game!

This is understandable as many had no contact at all with any of their peers for 49 years. To the youth of today this seems incredible but with no mobile phones, very few house phones, and none of today's technology, the only means of communication at that time was by letter.

With our new found freedom we pursued our futures at home and abroad and it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we finally got together again and our Whats-app group has kept us entertained during the current crises.

A member of the group posted the poem 'Class Reunion' and it seems appropriate to publish it with this article.

During our time there the school building was an old 2/3 storey building behind a high wall. Toilets were in the front yard where many a sneaky cigarette was enjoyed!

For the first couple of years our teachers were all nuns. Then around 1968 the first lay teacher arrived followed by a part time art teacher. (Art and Music were low on the list of subjects available.)

This was the 1960s – the decade that changed the world – the decade of the folk revival, pop music, Woodstock, free love, long hair, the mini skirt, hotpants, hippies and so much social liberalism that our parents must have been worried sick about our future lives. But this was our generation and we knew no different.

The 1960s brought changes for nuns too. Vatican II liberated the Catholic Church from its antiquated ways with Mass being celebrated in the vernacular and the priest facing the congregation.

Nuns were released from their cumbersome black habits and could dress more comfortably in ordinary clothes. We began to see that they had hair and legs and some even coloured their hair.

The Sisters of Mercy first came to Newtownforbes in 1869 after Lord Granard requested that an Industrial School should be established there to accommodate young girls who were in need of care for one reason or another. The local Bishop agreed and nuns from the Longford convent were the first to arrive. Lord Granard donated a vacant house and garden free of rent plus £90 annual cash donation.

By 1879 buildings were in place to accommodate a primary school, dormitories, laundry and industrial school. There were still girls in the industrial school during our time. It was called the Orphanage and a couple of those girls attended the secondary school. Others worked in the Laundry.

Our boarding school was built on land bought in 1904 across the road from the convent. It wasn’t until 1951 that the secondary school was established. Eventually the Boarding school closed in 1987 and was sold in 1990. It operated as a Nursing Home for some time after that.

The old school building was demolished and a new one built but it, too, closed and in 1999 the convent and the school were sold and apartments were built on the site. Ours was a big class – possibly 34 Boarders and 6 day pupils – which reduced after Inter Cert as would be expected at the time. Some went to work as it was possible to gain a good position in the civil service with an Inter Cert result. Others went to other schools as free education had been introduced in 1967 and they could now have free transport to their nearest school and could live at home.

At this time too, boys came to our school and three brave souls started in the first year, then three more the second…as day pupils of course.

Amid the strict routine there were, of course, lighter moments. The “Midnight Feast” was something experienced by all at least once. The sheer delight of outwitting authority and smuggling food – crisps, biscuits and minerals – upstairs and congregating on someone’s bed giggling and fretting in equal measure, was memorable.

On a nun’s feastday we often put on a bit of entertainment (and escaped a class or two) and how we envied Dana when we watched her winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970. There was one television in the school which we were allowed to watch only on very special occasions.

A trip to the Shannon at Lough Forbes came as a huge surprise during the exams in 1968. It was beautiful weather and we walked through the castle grounds and had a picnic by the shore.

It was disappointing for us not to have a 50th anniversary celebration but Covid-19 allowed us time to reflect, to discard the negatives and be thankful for the positives, to enjoy the present and hope for better days.

Class Reunion

Donna Presnell

It was my class reunion, and all through the house,
I checked in each mirror and begged my poor spouse
To say I looked great. That my chin wasn’t double,
And he lied through false teeth, just to stay out of trouble.
Said that neath my thick glasses, my eyes hadn’t changed,
And I had the same figure, it was just rearranged.
He said my skin was still silky, although looser in drape,
Not so much like smooth satin, but more like silk crepe.
I swallowed his words hook, sinker and line,
And entered the banquet feeling just fine.
Somehow I’d expected my classmates to stay
As young as they were on that long-ago day
We’d hugged farewell hugs. But, like me through the years,
They’d added grey to their hair, or pounds to their rears.
But as we shared a few memories and retold some class jokes,
We were eighteen in spirit, though we looked like old folks.
We turned up hearing aids and dimmed the light,
Rolled back the years, and were young for the night.

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