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…