Meeting Eithne

In June 2011, I put the name ‘Eithne’ and a slightly unusual surname into a search on Facebook. Two pages were returned – one person from Belfast was not who I was looking for, but the second one showed promise. And so I emailed – ”Are you the person who was with me at the St Louis Convent Boarding school in Dundalk, Co Louth, Ireland?” And back came the response –  ”Yes, I am ! ” This was one of the amazing moments I have enjoyed since becoming ‘e-inclusive’ as the EU likes to call it! Imagine! Finding someone who was a very special part of my life almost 5 decades ago!

Eithne hails from County  Monaghan, a county bordering  Northern Ireland to the south,  and I was from County  Donegal,  a county that also borders  Northern Ireland to the  north-west, so  we already had something in common!   We two Ulster women found ourselves deposited as 13 year olds in a convent boarding school run by the St. Louis Sisters in Dundalk Co Louth – many miles from Eithne’s Castleblayney  home and even more  from mine in faraway Carrigart, County Donegal.

school

Some of the dormitories were in the Castle on the left

It was 1961. Boarding school had serious disadvantages –  nights of lonely crying into the pillow as we faced into three terms of endless weeks  missing family and friends and home; months of rising at 7 am; months of cold water for washing ‘everywhere two skins meet’; months of seemingly endless  study; months of endless  praying. Add to the mix:  no boys ; no privacy as only curtains separated our ‘alcove’  sleeping spaces – each containing  a single bed, a chair, a locker with a towel rail  topped by a green plastic basin and beaker,  as well as a single  wardrobe. This was ‘home’ for up to 14 or 16 weeks at a time, three times a year, for 5 long years.

Me: 2nd row from Front, 3rd from right

Me: 2nd row from front, 3rd from right; Eithne: 5th row from front, 3rd from left

School was defined by rules, long silences, prayers, study, long regimented walks, retreats, breaking rules, operas, dance lessons, still no boys, even more study, hours of silence, tuck shop on Saturday with Toffo de Luxe and chocolate; mashed parsnips, and  first Sundays of each month in silence for up to 17 hours!

louislist

School Prospectus

Here we learned life long skills in the art of sharing:  how to divide a three week old  quarter sandwich into five portions with the tail of a steel comb;  how to dissect a small chocolate Turkish delight sweet  into 6 minuscule portions so everyone could share the last remaining morsel of luxury; how to eat a chocolate cake so that only crumbs remained, then pen a letter of complaint to the manufacturer returning the crumbs, stating that  it tasted of petrol. The plan worked sometimes and we got a replacement cake! The demands on teenage hormonal girls were truly extraordinary, and – it has to be said –  were also character forming. There was one huge advantage: friendships that formed in these  adverse conditions ran deep and true.

A couple of St Louis Nuns

A couple of St Louis Nuns – the delightful Sr Colmcille on left.

Eithne and I spent happy summer holidays at each others homes in Donegal and Monaghan. Her home was so exotic –  she lived in a fairly large inland  town compared to my small village, her family had a shop and a pub no less  – and her mother was just the nicest woman ever you met!  There was a very beautiful lake nearby where we talked and we walked, lay in the sun  and eyed up the local talent.  On visits to Donegal, Eithne fitted into our lives  like a hand into a glove, and here too we eyed up the local talent and walked and talked on our big deserted beaches. Sadly Eithne changed schools in 1964 when  she left to go to school elsewhere, while I remained in the Louis for a further 2 years.

Life continued to send us in different directions – in Eithne’s case she emigrated, became a nurse, married and moved between England , Scotland and Holland. In my case I also emigrated to England  and with many changes of address we drifted apart. A lifetime later Eithne, after the Facebook search,  was coming to Ireland for a visit and so we arranged to meet for lunch last summer!

It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I boarded the bus – what would we talk about?  Would we have ANYTHING to talk about? What if lunch  is just too long? As I approached the meeting point I saw her….later I was intrigued that I had recognized her from the back, as she was facing away from me, but there was something so familiar about her standing there, as though I had seen her just a few days before. I called her name and she turned round….

And so it was  – lunch stretched to almost 4 hours of non stop banter and reminiscing. Life stories were recounted  including births marriages and deaths of family members we each knew well. We looked back with a great sense of fun  at the quite severe existence we endured in the Louis, and how we laughed as we recalled the fun we had when rules were being broken.

Life has certainly thrown some challenges to both of us in the intervening 48 years, but we have survived.  I am thrilled to have sent that email, to have rediscovered a friend, to discover that  true friendship is enduring and can pick up where  it left off, no matter how many decades have passed!  I rediscovered a kind, gentle, caring person with a lovely sense of humour – what more could a friend wish for ?

Thanks Eithne, so  glad to be able to call you ‘friend’!

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22 Comments

Filed under Irish History, Life in the 1960s, Living in Ireland, Oral History

22 responses to “Meeting Eithne

  1. The mere mention of Castleblayney and you had me captured as I lived there as a child for four happy years. Also, boarding school ~ sibs went but I escaped at the last minute!

    It didn’t surprise me to read that you knew her ‘from the back’ but I just love the way you wrote about meeting her again.

    • How lucky were you to have escaped the rigours of boarding school. I think free education spelled the end for many, other than the most elite, in the late 1960s or 1970s . I have been in ‘Blayney only a couple of times since …travelling between Donegal and Dublin . It’s a nice town. Thank you for your very kind comment and for ‘popping in’!

  2. A wonderful story, so glad that you have rekindled your friendship… sorry about the boarding school, but what delightful cheek, complaining about the chocolate cake! I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. 🙂

    • Well boarding school Chris was something we had to endure – it was that or no education past national school as there was no 2nd level school in our village . We were reminded (by the nuns) on a daily basis that our parents had to make great sacrifices to have us there, which of course they did. Glad you liked the post Chris. 🙂

  3. What slender threads can weave in and out of a life without us knowing and then…there they appear again…what a lovely story down through the years.

    • Thank you Kerry – it is a lovely story – so good to rediscover one another and hear all about lives lived and hope to be a comfort and support to one another in our ‘third age’ . Thank you for dropping by! Angela

  4. What an absolutely wonderful story Angela and I’m so pleased you’ve had the chance to renew your connections. My other half would no doubt be able to identify with many of your experiences of boarding school albeit on the other side of the world, and a different gender, so perhaps even more isolating. I do so hope this is the start of a new adult relationship between you both.

    • Thank you Pauleen . I think boys had it slightly easier than girls (two of my brothers were in boarding school just a couple of miles from me, but I think in five years we only got to meet once briefly for a few minutes – school reputations would have been compromised if a Louis girl was seen talking to a Marist boy! Eithne and I are delighted to be staying in touch and we may even work on a school reunion in the year of The Gathering. Thank you for visiting – you are a star!

  5. Oh, what a beautiful story Angela. Your schooling sounds unimaginably horrible but, as you say, “friendships that forged in these adverse conditions run true and deep.” The mark of a close and abiding friendship, I believe, is that you can not see each other for a very long time and then just pick up from where you left off. Although 5 decades is an awfully long time 🙂 … Just wonderful.

    • Thanks Catherine. It was awful with lots of deprivations (for which parents paid a big fee) . Thsi was pre free secondary education in Ireland. But we did have fun too – and now I smile every time I think of rediscovering Eithne! Thank you for your comment – much appreciated !

      • You’re right Angela!!! I just enlarged the Fee List and am amazed that you also had to supply your own bedding, cutlery, pay extra for laundry etc. A huge expense, indeed it was. Meant to say previously, that Sr Colmcille looks very young and you look very fresh faced, extremely pretty and happy… especially compared with so many other sad faced young women.

      • Sr Colmcille is still living in Dundalk – a Donegal woman too. She is remembered for being exceptionally fair and reasonable.Yes the expense was great – even the warm knickers had to be bought! There were about 15 boarders in our year -90 in total in the school . Most of the sad faces were therefore day girls!

  6. What a wonderful reunion story – a reminder of the human rewards that can sometimes be found through technology.

  7. Rosie

    Lovely piece. I was at boarding school too during the 1960s – a Protestant rather than a Catholic one, but the routine sounds very similar. And the list of requirements is practically identical, down to the warm winter knickers, the napkin ring, the work box, and Cash’s name tapes. Delighted you got together with Eithne and that your meeting has reignited your old friendship. Several of our class recently had a reunion (only the second since we left school in 1968) and realized that, in spite of all the years that have passed, we still all had a connection with each other that we’ll never have with anybody else.

    • Rosie. Thank you so much for sharing your similar experience – these were indeed different times and pre free education. There is no doubt that the bond from way back then is stronger than almost any other as we were away from family and only had one another. I feel that it was an unnatural life, ‘incarcerated’ away from society, family, and in our case – members of the opposite sex! Yet, the one thing that stands out for me is the wonderful life long friendships that have endured – even if we do not meet up that often. Thanks for dropping by, Rosie 🙂

  8. What a heart-warming story. I loved this bit: “… how to eat a chocolate cake so that only crumbs remained, then pen a letter of complaint to the manufacturer returning the crumbs, stating that it tasted of petrol.” Quite ingenious.

    Whether it’s boarding school or college, special bonds are built that time cannot erase. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Old friends are the very best. How wonderful to share a childhood and then a long life. I also went to school in Dundalk for a short time, by coincidence. I found myself shuddering a bit especially the photos of those nuns!! Later I went to Dominicans who had abandoned the veils and they were a lot more human! Great post….

  10. Mara

    Aw that’s a lovely story! I’ve just discovered your blog and read this and I find it so touching! A similar story happened to me recently and I know how you feel, it’s such an amazing feeling to reencounter an old friend after such a long time and yet be able to spend time together as if time had stopped. Really happy for you!

  11. Claire(McKewon)Byrne

    Hi Angela,

    What a heart warming story of renewing an old friendship. I was a day girl in St Louis Dundalk from ’66 to ’70 . I LOVED every minute of it. Fond memories of sneaking out letters to home and notes to boys for some of the more daring boarders. If I remember rightly your letters were ‘scanned’ by the Sisters.

    We had a big 21yr reunion in Dublin in 1991 where we had nearly 70 ‘girls’. Then another one, a 40yr reunion. Much smaller number but great craic. I suppose reunions aren’t for everyone.

    We have a small cohort of day girls & boarders who meet up periodically. Each time we meet, it’s as if we had been talking to one another only the day before. Lovely to still have these friendships from so far back.

    Best wishes,

    Claire

    • Hi Claire

      Delighted you had a good time in Dún Lughaidh. It was often tough enough being a boarder – strange food, not being allowed to wash hair for weeks on end because it was ‘too cold’ when in reality it was to save money on heating the water – we had only cold water from Sunday to Friday evening.
      The contents of letters were closely scrutinized although some nuns did not read our letters to our parents. I recall once when a Sr Treasa arrived to our school from Monaghan and I put in a letter home that ‘she is lovely’. My letter was handed back and the page had to be rewritten as the comment was deemed ‘inappropriate’ Some days girls were good letter posters – but you had to learn the hard way who could or could not be trusted. Your clandestine letter could end up in the office rather than in a post box!
      That said the friendships forged were great ones that have endured. We have only ever had one class reunion – for our 25th anniversary. Have never been invited to a reunion at the school for some reason! Those of us who do meet up from time to time often wonder what became of everyone else! Every now and again I do a trawl on Facebook to see if anyone turns up.

      Thanks so much for visiting my blog- am pleased to meet you !

      Angela

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