This piece as written for the Omagh CBS 150th Anniversary Book and Appeared in Edited Version There. Here is the original piece.
“The river was the colour of oxtail soup. . .”
This, claimed Lewis Meenagh, would be the opening line of his book. The words had come to him in a moment of inspiration, when he was teaching in the Tech, breaking for a moment to gaze out over the Strule. He taught me English for four years, did Lewis Meenagh, and I heard this many times.
The line has stuck with me over the years, like indeed has much of what I learned in Lewis’s A level English class. Likewise many of the happenings in the class. There were ten of us there. He seemed to like having ten pupils. At one stage there were eleven but the number was pruned back to ten.
There were the others that were present, large as life. Stanley Kowalski, Stella, King Lear and the Fool, the Knight, the Mayor of Casterbridge, Heathcliffe. . . Blanche DuBios certainly wasn’t the sort of girl you might meet at the disco we were told, “but you never know Passmore!” Lewis would add as a tantalising aside.
We slipped seamlessly from one text to another, all brought to life with his startling local perspective. Whether that was explaining the intricacies of the rhyme scheme of Wordsworth’s sonnets, or Chaucer’s Wife of Bath brought to live as if she were some woman bringing her shopping home from Wellworths before heading off on a wee trip down to Canterbury along with the other pilgrims.
The classes were nothing if not entertaining. Lewis had the remarkable gift of making you think global and act local. Breathing life into Tennessee Williams Streetcar as if the characters were a colourful group that inhabited Bogan’s bar. “Could I take Stanley… ehhh think I could.”
In Lewis’s worldview , a savage kick up the rear would have put a swift end to Stanley Kowalski’s predatory behaviour and saved Blanche a lot of bother. I think though even he thought her beyond redemption. He liked Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in the film version, certainly we watched it often enough.
Another memory, Lewis on demonstrating the meaning of the word onomatopoeia: “The moth battered softly at the window.” Simply brilliant.
He took great delight in one lad who, when asked which football team he supported, replied Carrickmore and United. Of course to Lewis, Carrickmore was bad enough but United, without the ‘Manchester’ displayed an arrogance that he, as a self-proclaimed Arsenal supporter, gleefully pounced upon.
After I left the Brothers and was studying for my degree in English at Queen’s I met him up the town one day, and he invited me to come to his house for a chat. I duly obliged, something to lubricate the evening tucked under my arm. We talked about life and literature, the Brothers, my father. The teachers he liked and disliked. The special opprobrium he reserved for one or two.
It was the last time I was talking to him. For a man who had such an impact on my life I felt in several ways I had let him down. Once he asked me to help him with something and I was unable to do so. That bothered me and still does. Yet in my working life there is a hardly a day goes by when I don’t use something or other I picked up in Lewis Meenagh’s English class.
And I recall those days spent reading King Lear, or the Changeling and all the guys that shared the class with me. He said to my good friend Declan Coyle, who was gone too before he reached the age of thirty, “You don’t like me Coyle, do you?” Whilst Lewis couldn’t have been further from the truth, Decky froze before spluttering a terrified “I do like you sir.” Lewis chuckled, he may occasionally have got angry, but on this occasion he was toying with us.
My time at the CBS began long before I turned up in September 1979. My father had taught there for much of his working life, in fact right up until he had a heart attack in the school on December 1977. It was like a second home to us. School stuff littered our home, setsquares, large timetable plans, geography books, homework, you name it.
When I was at St Colmcille’s, after school I enjoyed going into the Brothers to see my father and get to run about the place. When I was young I went on various CBS school trips with my parents and remember the older boys being unfailingly kind to me.
So, when I pitched up at the Brothers in 1979, there were more familiar faces among the teaching staff than there were among the pupils. There was Mickey Grimes, and Stevie McKenna and PA. And Gerard Haughey, Cormac and Mick O’Kane. Paddy Groogan, Seamus Woods and Vincent McGill. Men my da held in the highest regard and I still do.
Looking back it was as if I had a posse of guardian angels watching my step. People like Seamus Woods, who reproached me for some act or other once by saying “I’m disappointed in you.” I knew what he meant, It was his way of saying “your da would be disappointed in you”. He was right.
The Christian Brothers themselves too were fundamentally decent guys. For all the criticism they have shipped over the years, it was a lay teacher that turned me off one subject. I have now returned to the subject almost thirty years later, so even that wasn’t a permanent effect.
The school then was different than it is now. The entrance is different now, and the entrance process itself is likely to change. In our time there was a place called the Smoking Shelter at the rear of the gym where pupils went to smoke. If this activity wasn’t actively permitted it certainly was tolerated. There a regular gang gathered to talk, slag, cadge cigarettes and generally have the craic. On the coldest days there we would be found in a fugue of smoke, happy as sandflies talking about everything and nothing in particular.
Since then I have had the honour of being asked back to the school a few times to functions and events. It is different now. Once seated at a function, I gazed up at the ceiling in the assembly hall, above which some of the lads used to bunk off classes via doorway they had discovered, the adventure almost ending in disaster as one of them put a foot through the wooden roof one day.
As I walked down the corridor the last time I was there, corridors I had walked and ran thousands of times, they all of a sudden seemed older. I had a flash on my inward eye of a burly figure in a brown tweed sort of jacket, with thickish glasses, brown briefcase in hand, head down, driving down the corridor through a sea of boys who knew to step aside out of his road. For all his bluster he was a hell of a guy. Like most of them.
And I remembered a line from Wordworth that Declan Coyle used to recite when he’d had a few in the Union Bar at Queen’s, having learnt it by heart for Big Lewis’s English class.
‘The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more.’
So. Here’s to Lewis, my mate Decky Coyle, Mickey Grimes, Paddy Groogan and my da of course, and the rest of them who each bestrode those corridors like a colossus over the years.