Memoirs, Episode 4: “Just a Formality?”

The big event of any pupil’s final year at the school was the 7th year formal. The other two grammar schools in the town also had theirs. In this particular year it turned out to be something of an anti-climax. In America the equivalent, I believe is known as the “high school prom”. This is the occasion so beloved of hackneyed, clichéd Hollywood rom-com movies where the underdog triumphs over the golden boy. The finale inevitably features the typical scene of “making out” in the back of the Chevy after the underdog, the weedy bespectacled guy has outwitted his butch football-playing rival and won over the glamorous girl.

But this wasn’t California. For most of us in the real world of Omagh’s ostentatiously named Royal Arms Hotel (not quite as plush as it sounds – and sadly no longer there) on a mild night in February 1992, this was a distinctly unromantic affair. There was no Marge and Homer moment. The young woman I took already had a boyfriend. I was aware of this, just as he was aware of the arrangements on the night. Being the decent fellow that he was he didn’t mind. This wasn’t a big deal in any case. My first and second choices were already spoken for and the formalities were more or less made at the last minute. Going on your own without an accompaniment and being the proverbial spare prick was a non-starter. This boyfriend was an accomplished athlete and Gaelic footballer and if I remember correctly was on the Tyrone minor team at the time. I could provide very little in the way of competition. The sum total of my playing career had consisted of about four matches (two as a sub) for the Omagh St Endas under-12 reserve team, all of which we’d lost quite heavily. However as he was in the year below he was ineligible to attend, the formal being for final year pupils only.

One individual was adamant that he wasn’t going, claiming that it was a waste of money. And to his credit he didn’t go. Looking back in hindsight he did have a point. It was quite an expensive night – for a schoolboy anyway. On top of the costs of the two tickets and the hire of the tuxedo it was customary to buy flowers for your escort and chocolates for her mother. Any drinks purchased on the night were of course another added expense. However as I was driving I was strictly teatotal on the night – unlike a few others.

Only a few years earlier the secondary event, the annual school disco had been abolished due to drunken pupils going on the rampage and destroying everything in their wake. This would reflect the shape of things to come.

The formal was usually held on a Friday night for obvious reasons. Nursing a hangover in class the next day wasn’t a pleasant prospect. However this year, due to some booking error or similar twist of fate it was on a Thursday.
It was a spectacularly unremarkable night. The boys formed their own little cliques and the girls formed theirs in which they chatted amongst themselves. That is until the bombshell was dropped.

After the unexceptional meal of roast chicken and the usual lukewarm, overcooked vegetables, the traditional mock awards ceremony took place. My memory of the night is hazy given that it was nearly 20 years ago, but if I remember correctly young Mick Cunningham was master of ceremonies, rather appropriate given that his initials were MC. The prizes awarded were generally jokes directed at the personality of the recipient or in reference to a memorable incident in which they’d been involved. One boy for example was known to be an ardent Celtic supporter, so the plan was to present him with a Rangers shirt on the night. But for reasons soon to become apparent this never happened.

It started off fairly innocently with a game in which a male and female participant were plucked from the “audience” and made to say “fluffy ducks” with a marshmallow in their mouths.

Following this less than inspiring start a young lad – to preserve his anonymity I’ll call him Gavin McCarthy (which sounds absolutely nothing like his real name of course) – was called up to the stage and invited to say his piece.
I should point out here that it was customary to invite the school principal to the event.

McCarthy walked up to the microphone somewhat unsteadily and addressed the crowd in a slightly slurred voice.

“Is there any teachers out there?”

“No!” lied the congregation who by giving him this illusion were inviting scandal. The MC had probably told him something similar.
McCarthy in his alcohol-fuelled innocence saw this as an opportunity to speak his mind more freely than would have been advisable under the circumstances. His next words have since entered into folklore.

“Who here agrees that Crokey’s an asshole?”

This was followed by a very awkward, uncomfortable period of eerie silence, which lasted about 10 seconds, but seemed more like 10 hours.

In his advanced state of inebriation he has been blissfully unaware of the presence of the object of his character assassination himself in the very room – along with a number of other teachers.

This blip was ignored for the moment. The proceedings continued despite this dark cloud hanging over them like the proverbial elephant in the room. Things gradually degenerated into anarchy as the MCs started pouring beer over McCarthy’s head.

Crokey had had enough by this stage and decided to intervene. He purposely walked up to the stage and called the whole proceedings to a halt. From that point on the atmosphere was somewhat subdued. I was pissed off as I’d been told I was going to be the recipient of some award and was looking forward to getting up on stage and making a witty speech.

Later on in the gents – or so the story goes – McCarthy in conversation with an unnamed individual was supposed to have expressed a sense of betrayal, claiming:

“The bastards told me there was no fuckin’ teachers there!”

Needless to say young McCarthy never came back to the school. Four months of intense exam preparation (among many other things) later it was all over for the rest of us as well. In the words of Alice Cooper, school was out for the summer, school was out forever. Except for the poor sods who’d fucked up their A-levels and had to come back and repeat.

Then came university, an entirely different experience…


Memoirs of an Ageing Schoolboy (Nostalgic reminiscences on schooldays in a Co. Tyrone town during the 1980s and ’90s – coming out soon in paperback) Episode 2

John "Crokey" Smith

    Episode 2: (Christian) Brothers in Arms

My secondary education during the mid-1980s to the early 1990s from the age of 11 to 18 was formed at a Christian Brothers grammar school. The order has come in for much criticism of late in the wake of the major abuse scandals which rocked Irish society. But like any other sub-group in any society it was swings and roundabouts. There were good brothers and bad brothers. And mad brothers. By the time I had left the school there were very few of them left, but the “brotherly” principal was a despotic Kerryman called McC____ [Details suppressed for legal reasons] – known (not exactly affectionately) to the pupils as “Crokey” – and to most of the teachers as something unprintable. He resembled a taller leaner version of the former British Labour Party leader John Smith. In response to his supposedly dictatorial regime, a self-styled schoolboy “terrorist” group called the Pupils Liberation Organisation (PLO) was active at the time – but more on them later.

Retreat from Reality
Being a religious school, retreats were compulsory. They served little practical purpose though. Sending a bunch of unruly, frustrated adolescent boys oozing with hormones on a residential course of supposed spiritual renewal was a recipe for disaster. Although their purpose was supposedly to provide sacred reflection in the tradition of the school’s ethos, they were in reality, a complete waste of time – a view that I’m sure many of the teachers would even share. These retreats were usually chaired by an earnest young priest who liked to think he was in touch with the angst and frustrated minds of the modern youth. On one such event in the spring of 1991 was held at an old priory in the historic village of Benburb – a place famous for the 1646 Battle of Benburb.
The unfortunate youngish priest presiding over this supposed course of spiritual renewal happened to be German. For convenience purposes let’s just call him “Father Von Schumacher”. Unusually for priests of the day he had a moustache, and so as to appear more down-to-earth and informal he chose to dress in civilian clothes rather than the normal black garb and clerical collar. The cringe-worthy events which ensued were like that famous episode of Fawlty Towers about the German guests. Cue goose-stepping around the grounds, Nazi salutes, felt-tip pen Hitler moustaches drawn on upper lips, etc. Needless to say the war was mentioned once or twice.
The next day the entire class was hauled before the teacher in charge, a well-known county GAA official, who had a few stern words to say. Given the troubled political situation of the time he said he could understand why we were “angry young men”, but why did we have to take it out on this harmless man simply because of his nationality?

The following year – my last year at the school the retreat was residential. The high jinks on this excursion were even worse…


The Genesis of Civilization

Peter Gabriel

Niall Ferguson

I’ve just been watching Civilization, the new Channel 4 series in which eminent historian Niall Ferguson explores how the western powers came to replace China in the middle ages as the dominant world culture. Certainly an interesting topic, even though I don’t agree with many of Ferguson’s views.
I couldn’t help noticing though that he seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to the recording artist and former Genesis vocalist Peter Gabriel (or at least what to Gabriel looked like in the mid-1980s).

Or is that just me?

Remembering the Sino-Icelandic War

Plastic dinosaurs: the cause of the Sino-Icelandic war

The Institute of Asio-Nordic Studies has called on academics all over the world to recognise the significance of that long-forgotten naval conflict the Sino-Icelandic war of 1902.  This obscure maritime war between the two great sea-faring  powers of the early 20th century Iceland and China evolved from a trade dispute related to tax duties imposed on the export of plastic dinosaurs for distribution in cereal packets.

In fact the war has been almost airbrushed completely from the history books and is no longer taught in either Chinese or Icelandic schools.   Both Beijing and Reykjavik have played down the impact of the war such is their embarrassment about its causes.

The only known expert on the war is the discredited academic Dr Paul Lawkins of the Faculty of Sino-European Warfare at the University of the Faeroe Islands.  Lawkins was sacked from his previous post at Carrickmore University for suggesting that 90% of the world’s pollution was caused by the emissions from cat yawns.

However Dr Lawkins has achieved significant progress in his efforts to bring the Sino-Icelandic War to public attention.  During an archaeological dig in Icleand’s barren volanic interior he unearthed the long lost grave of Captain Floo, commander of the Icelandic naval fleet which launched the unsuccesful attempt to shell Shanghai harbour. 

The inscription on the gravestone carved in ancient Icelandic rune script provides a fitting epitaph.  According to Dr Lawkins’ translation it reads:


Tony Blairs All between Iraq and a hard place

Cartoon by Martin Schranks

Ken Macdonald QC’s piece in The Times brilliantly exposes Tony Blair’s real position on the decision to invade Iraq:

“Hindsight is a great temptress. But we needn’t trouble her on the way to a confident conclusion that Mr Blair’s fundamental flaw was his sycophancy towards power. Perhaps this seems odd in a man who drank so much of that mind-altering brew at home. But Washington turned his head and he couldn’t resist the stage or the glamour that it gave him. In this sense he was weak and, as we can see, he remains so. Since those sorry days we have frequently heard him repeating the self-regarding mantra that “hand on heart, I only did what I thought was right”. But this is a narcissist’s defence and self-belief is no answer to misjudgment: it is certainly no answer to death. “Yo, Blair”, perhaps, was his truest measure.”

It’s doubtful whether the Chilcott enquiry will reveal anything new, but it’s all very simple really:

Q:  Why did the Americans invade Iraq?

A:  Because there’s a lot of oil there and big bad Saddam while doing nasty things to his own people (but that’s beside the point) wasn’t going to give it to them – and coincidentally America’s own oil supplies are running low.

Q:  Why did the British invade Iraq?

A:  Because the Americans told them to (and apparently there’s a lot of oil there too).

Blair didn’t have the balls to say no to Bush.  Nor do his successors have the balls to tell the Americans to fuck off in relation to the extradition  of computer hacker Gary McKinnon who has the right to be tried in his own country.  Uncle Sam has John Bull in his pocket – just like a paedophiliac relationship between priest and altar boy.  The US has enough power and influence to carry on abusing and Britain is too ashamed to blow the whistle.  While the Vatican UN quietly turns a blind eye, pretending they didn’t know anything about it.

Leone: A Fistful of Dynamite, Part 3: Commentary

And so to the third and final instalment of Phil’s epic work on A Fistful of Dynamite:


Despite the fact that Coburn’s accent in the film frequently borders on the “oirish” side, and Steiger’s acting sometimes lapses into hamminess, somehow these blemishes seem oddly appropriate within the wider context of “…Dynamite.” And it certainly does not ruin things for me in the least.

Coburn - Oirish accent fails to convince...Steiger - too fat for a Mexican peasant?

Coburn - Oirish accent fails to convince...Steiger - too fat for a Mexican peasant?

Although I am now in my thirties, and many of my political views have moved to the right as I have become older, “Dynamite” still has particular resonance for me. As a schoolboy studying events in 20th century European history I came to see the leaders of the Russian Revolution as almost robotic figures, or dim automatons from the past. Perhaps this impression was not disabused by the attitudes of people like Lenin, who famously berated himself for enjoying the works of great European composers, because their music caused him to feel warmth towards the men who composed the music (thereby making them more difficult to put up against a wall and shoot if necessary). What a cold-blooded monster, as too was Stalin, and Trotsky also, in his way. Such people found it easier to deal with humanity in the abstract than in reality.  Perhaps ordinary reality was too much for them to cope with.

“…Dynamite”, in spite of what Leone claimed, was a very political film – but not in terms of left-right politics, which are only peripheral. The politics are mostly on a human level. It takes humans to put a revolution in motion, and our revolutionaries in “…Dynamite” are as human as it is possible to get.  Sean’s revolutionary fervour dims by the end of the film, and reminds us in one memorable line that no matter how noble or idealistic the cause is, the means necessary to bring it about can have a crippling effect on the human spirit, and frequently violence can become an end in itself:

“When I first began to use dynamite I believed in lots of things…all of it!

Finally I believed only in dynamite.”

Strangely enough, it is the unschooled and unlettered Juan who, after the Mesa Verde Bank raid, casts a bitter (and very perceptive) judgment on revolutionary idealism, which causes Sean to begin reappraising his views. Sean has just told Juan that “It’s a nice little revolution we’re having here.”  Juan replies angrily:

“Don’t talk to me about revolutions – I know all about revolutions and how they start. The people who read the books go to the people who don’t read the books, the poor people, and say oh ho the time has come to make a change!  The poor people make the change.  Then the people who read the books sit around a big polished table and talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat and what has happened to the poor people…THEY’RE DEAD!

So please, don’t talk to me about revolution….


How very true, Juan. He could also have plausibly added that frequently the revolutionary cadre who seize the reins of power through force become just as oppressive, cruel, and authoritarian (if not more so) as the regime which they have overthrown.  After all, it stands to reason that what has been gained by violence must be maintained by violence, and violence, whatever political language an idealist chooses to dress it up in, is not pretty.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara - a victim of his own revolutionary fervour?

Ernesto "Che" Guevara - a victim of his own revolutionary fervour?

Nonetheless, I find myself drawn to the revolutionary peasants in “…Dynamite.” These are people with real grievances, dirt poor, who only wish to lead their lives with a modicum of dignity and have enough land to feed themselves and their families, and be free from oppression. Having suffered enough, they are taking the only course open to them, namely, opposing military brutality with force of their own. They are definitely not the indulged middle-class anti-globalization protestors or woolly-minded idealists who prance around Westminster on May Day waving banners and shouting about what they IMAGINE poor people in the third world to be suffering, and patronizing the poor of our world with what they believe is a solution to their situation.  [And neither are they comprarable to the likes of Bono, Madonna et al who in their rank hypocrisy pretend to be concerned about the suffering of the third world, yet live in extravagant luxury.  CW]

Luckily for us today, it seems that the world has lost its enthusiasm for the type of political idealism represented by the Bolsheviks in 20th century Russia, but during the late 1960s and early 1970s when “…Dynamite” was made, revolutionary idealism was still popular. So, by advertising the pitfalls to revolutionary violence, Leone was a man ahead of his time.

I should add also, that Mexico, despite violent upheaval in the early 20th century, did not return to dictatorship, and has remained a democracy since, however imperfect and however many problems of poverty and other social ills it faces. I feel that this is something for which the Mexican people have never received enough international praise and credit.

As if all the food for thought above weren’t enough, “…Dynamite” is absolutely action-packed, has many funny moments to leaven the gloom, a great star cast, a brilliant train crash sequence, monumental explosions, a spectacular finale and a fantastic score from Ennio Morricone. What more could a viewer ask for!

Phil Larkin