Published in Personal History, Troubles

I did the 11+ exam in 1969. The Troubles in the North had started the year before and widespread violence came in August 1969. To me the Troubles were something in the background. Academic selection and whether I would get to a grammar school or not was the thing that mattered.

The primary school I went to in north Belfast, St. Columba’s (known locally as Sacred Heart after the parish) had 42 students in P7 divided in to two classes, one under Mr. Armstrong, and my class under Mr. O’Gorman. Only 7 of us passed the 11+. This was no big surprise. The school was in a working class area with too many pupils and not enough teachers. Of the five or so streets off Manor St. which had Catholic families in them only myself and another boy passed the 11+.

Getting to St. Malachy’s College was a big deal and I remember not just words of congratulations from my extended family but from neighbours too. The interview with the college president, letter of acceptance and buying my school uniform in the approved (and expensive) shop were all big occasions. Going from a small primary school to the ‘big’ school was a culture shock and I was glad that four of my pals from there were going with me.

St. Malachy’s College was a couple of kilometres away and I walked every morning along Manor St. onto the Cliftonville Rd., down to the Antrim Rd. where the school was. On the way I had to pass the mock Scottish baronial building of Belfast Royal Academy (BRA), a large Protestant grammar school. On the corner of Manor St. was a sweet shop, the type that does not exist anymore. It sold sweets of all kinds from penny chews to luxurious boxes of chocolates. To look in its window was like getting a glimpse of paradise with its array of chocolate bars, shiny boxes tied up with ribbons, and jars of boiled sweets. I would always take time to look in this shop, dreaming of what I might buy and calculating what I could when I got my pocket money on Friday.

One day on the way home from school, I was engaged in this daydreaming when another boy in school uniform came up beside me and began to look longingly in at the window too. Like me he wore grey trousers and a black school blazer. He had a wee black skullcap on his head. I had one of those too but it was safely was back home in my bedroom. The cap was listed as a compulsory item of school uniform and my parents dutifully purchased one. My mammy insisted I wear it for fear I might get into trouble. I soon found out that myself and the other handful of boys in skullcaps stood out as no one else wore one. So the cap was whipped off and safely out of sight in my schoolbag. So I felt sorry for this boy being forced to wear his even out of school.

I did not recognise him but I had only been at St. Malachy’s a couple of weeks and there were hundreds of boys of similar age. He opened the conversation by asking me how I was getting on in the ‘big school’. We discovered that we both had the same anxieties and observations about being in a school with hundreds of students and a different teacher for each subject. When we started discussing teachers I realised that something was not quite right. None of the names he mentioned rang a bell with me, even with their nicknames. I sneaked a glance at him and saw that he was not from St. Malachy’s at all but was a pupil at BRA..

I was surprised but glad that this boy was talking to me. Apart from elderly neighbours in my street I knew no Protestants. Sectarianism was part of the fabric of life in Belfast but my parents were conscientiously anti-sectarian. They voted Labour rather than nationalist and taught me that religion did not matter. So I saw this meeting with the BRA boy as a chance to practise what they preached and was sure we could be friends.

But he too had twigged that something was not right. He stopped talking and turned to examine me properly. He eyes went from my green, white and black tie to my school badge. To this day, forty years later, I still remember the look of shock, fear, and disgust on his face. He took a step back,
“You, you’re a … a …”
He did not complete the sentence but we both knew what he meant: I was a Catholic, a taig. Without another word he turned on his heel and fled.

Tony Canavan is a free-lance writer and former museum curator


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