Being the youngest of three boys is a great start in life. When I arrived, mother and father had already been house-trained as parents. If toys or ornaments were broken, I rarely get the blame. I quickly learned that a frown, a sob and then a few tears yielded a dividend of hugs for you and a scolding for your brothers. All around my little frame was a melodramatic cast of bigger people talking, singing, shouting, smoking, sulking, bossing and posing. In this drama, mother played the lead role. Her lines ran like this. "Pull up your socks, wipe your nose, take your elbows off the table, go to the toilet. What are you doing so long on the toilet? Don't say dis an dat, it's this and that. Where did you hear that awful word? Sit on my lap, give your mam a kiss."
These commands were punctuated by mother's songs, recollected from her time in the chorus of Cork Operatic Company. By the age of four I could give a fair rendering of Lehar's Girls were made to love and kiss, and who am I to interfere with this? This was often followed by Thomas Moore's pledge of love in Believe me if all those endearing young charms.
Father too was an unwitting voice coach, loudly leading the chorus of We stand for God and To Jesus' heart all burning at Sunday Mass. He had been a member of Herr Fleischmann's choir in The North Chapel, and he showed it. Our parish priest, Fr. Coveney, also had dramatic flair. He would have made the final auditions for The National Theatre, given the rhetorical flourish of his sermons. "Think well on the four last things: Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven" he warned. Home might have been music-hall, but church was high drama.
I soon developed a habit of mimicking these words and melodies, often to the amusement of the adults round about. I made up love songs, jumbled up the words of hymns to comic effect, and preached hellfire and damnation to puzzled aunts. Mockery and mimicry were my cheeky response to authority. Mostly, I got a laugh, and occasionally a clip around the ear. "Just wait until you go to school. That will soon knock the corners off you". I was warned. But they had not reckoned with Sister Rosario.
It was official policy that boys to the age of seven be taught by female teachers. That explains why I started in the girls' school of The Presentation Sisters in 1947. They were a jolly lot, including Sister Patrick who liked to hitch up her skirts to play football with the boys, and Sister Rosario whose teaching tool was not the bata (cane) but the tuning fork. Much of the Sister's body was covered by a veil, a linen hood, and a starchy breastplate over a black shapeless frock, held at the waist by a rosary bead girdle. This ensemble left only face and hands on view. With these she could control and conduct fifty four- year- old boys. She loved music so much that she used it to teach virtually anything. We sang the alphabet, our prayers, our arithmetic tables and our geography.
Her big production was First Communion Day 1950 for senior infants, aged seven.
There we are. All forty nine of us are beautifully dressed and groomed. I now know that Sister Rosario had a discreet store of outfits on standby for lads whose families could not afford the cost of the clothes and shoes. We practised first confession with her, and even rehearsed receiving the host, using cream crackers for the Eucharist. Come the day, and we sang like angels: Tantum ergo sacramentum, veneremur cernui.
Next Autumn we moved next door to Scoil Chríost Rí (Christ King Boys' School), a tougher regime in every way. Class sizes were now in the low 70s, controlled by Presentation Brothers and some male lay teachers. My giddy humour was quickly curbed, as any tendency to show off would be hammered into place in the school yard.
Sister Rosario made a comeback into my life in 1954, designated a Marian Year. She and Brother Bonaventure organised a show involving her Communion Class of 1950. It was actually three Acts, to ensure that every boy took part. Act 1 was a choral verse account of the life of St. Bernadette of Lourdes. I landed the part of narrator. This was enhanced by a coloured slide show, drawing gasps of amazement and fervour from the capacity audience. In a bold contrast, Act 2 featured a lively medley of cowboy songs, to cover the time taken to set up the Big Production Number of Act 3. This one put Walt Disney to shame with our (all-boy) version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which I was cast as the wicked stepmother. I spat out my lines with venom: "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" I relished the hisses and boos from the packed audience.
The first night was a triumph. Brother Bonaventure and Sister Rosario came round to the dressing room as we wiped off the stage makeup with Ponds Cold Cream. I sat back and waited for the compliments. "Very good, Aidan. But could we make you a little more um.. ladylike?" he said. Sister Rosario nodded discreetly, and next evening I was give two fine Jaffa oranges to stuff in my bosom. I was transformed! Venus de Milo would have been jealous of me. Next evening, Act 1, the humble life of St. Bernadette Soubirous, tugged their heartstrings again. But disaster struck when I returned the dressing room. My bosoms had been peeled and eaten by the cowboy chorus! If I could get my hands on that Old cowhand from the Rio Grande, I would have lynched him. But I rallied, stuck out my bony chest and went right on stage again, an even more villanous wicked stepmother. There's no business like show business, like no business I know! Thanks, Sister Rosario. You gave me my first big break.