The rector was pink-fleshed and chubby-cheeked, and had a very short white beard, a trimmed tuft on the chin by way of an answer to his moustache. He had an almost bald pink pate, and was generally chubby: the roundness of his belly was emphasised by his all-of-a-piece brown habit, and he had the sloped look of one of those solitary standing stones that you can see in the French countryside, except of course that he wasn't as tall, and even in human terms he was only of medium height. He was rather volatile of mood, temperamental, given to sudden punishments, and often suddenly changing his mind about them. However, he was popular with the boys, and of sound judgment on the whole, despite his faults. He was more inclined to be soft than strict - a great relief to us all, given the severity of the dean.
The rector wasn't a bad English teacher, even though he preferred Catholic authors such as Francis Thompson and G.K. Chesterton to anyone else. His digressions from the set texts aroused my curiosity, particularly his tirades against the moral shortcomings of the literary greats. It seemed from listening to him that depravity was an occupational hazard among poets and writers. Shelley and Byron were scoundrels. Wilde led an unspecified kind of extremely wicked life for a long time and as a result found himself in prison, where fortunately he learned to repent his ways, so that he died a Catholic. James Joyce, on the other hand, was totally depraved, and died cursing the Catholic Church. The rector had seen Joyce's death mask in Paris and it was terrible to behold - the face of a demon. No boy in his class should ever dare to read a single paragraph of the corrupt and corrupting works of James Joyce.
The rector's condemnation of Joyce was probably why I went out of my way to buy A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the following summer. The book disturbed me with recognitions of the past five years of my life, seen from a point of view that was difficult to grasp at first because of the strangeness of style, but soon became amazingly obvious: the story was being told, not from the perspective of a grown-up looking back, wise and wizened, but from the perspective of the boy himself, as a boy. So this, then, was the wicked James Joyce? OK, so he went to a prostitute; but he was sorry and confessed to a priest afterwards: he didn't seem all that wicked. Quite the opposite, Joyce's book seemed to be telling things as they really were for an adolescent boy, and wasn't that a good thing to do?
But the rector actually had a feeling for literature, although his taste was limited. He could also be a bit of a buffoon, and occasionally indulged in play-acting. You'd know from the way he grimaced that he didn't like a poem he was about to read. He didn't care much for the Anglo-Irish poems on the course, and particularly disliked one by Seamus O'Sullivan:
My sorrow that I am not by the little doon
By the lakes of the starlings at Rosses when all is still
And still in whispering sedges the herons stand....
He read this poem with a screwed-up face in a stage-Irish accent, causing an outbreak of hilarity. Then, realising that he had gone too far as some joker felt licensed to imitate his voice and facial expression, he reddened and shouted a petulant 'Silence!' And that was it: Seamus O'Sullivan, prescribed Leaving Certificate poet, had to be treated with respect, and English Class was English Class.
The rector also taught elocution. There were sessions on occasional Saturday mornings to which classes were summoned at a moment's notice. We didn't at all like these impromptu sessions, since Saturday morning was supposed to be free time, when you could write letters and engage in activities such as polishing or not polishing your shoes, cleaning or not cleaning your locker. The elocution class was held at the bottom of the study hall, and the students sat on the tops of the desks, which were backwards relative to the position taken by the rector. The whole business had an untidy, disorganized feel to it.
Both chorally and individually, we were put through the recitation of such great lines as Matt and Pat broke the lath, and Bob Beckett's big baby bounces and bawls. His fondness for elocution was probably the reason why the rector had a liking for such awful poems as 'Lepanto' by G.K. Chesterton, with its deadly alliteration:
Dim drums drumming in the hills half-heard....
Maybe he nursed a hope that one day he would wield together a group fit to perform 'Lepanto' in some competition for choral recitation. Unfortunately, the boys' accents were on the whole very thick, and the elocution lessons often ended with the rector losing his temper at the stubbornness of Munster pronunciations.
Here's the rector coming into the study hall just before suppertime, beaming a silly exaggerated smile, and summoning one of the boys in an affected superior accent: Tony Ronayne, come heah. There's a bell-saliva response to this among the massed ranks of the unchosen: a huge sucking noise, a coming together of individual sucking sounds, rises from all sides. Ronayne blushes furiously walking down the hall. As the commotion continues, even the timidest are encouraged to join in, and the din grows louder. Eventually, some idiot roars at the top of his voice. We can see the rector's face change, and silence falls again. But he's in enough of a good humour on this occasion, and lets the offence pass. He resumes his play-acting, but in a more sarcastic way, proclaiming in an exaggerated Cork accent: The savage love his native shore. Oh God, he do. Meaning, of course, that we are all a bunch of ungrammatical savages, particularly whoever has shouted and roared. Noisy, obsequious laughter follows, and the rector flaps his arms like a bird, hissing Boys, boys... boys! Back to your study!
This flapping propensity probably accounted for the rector's nickname: Birdie, or The Bird.
From 'The Hungarian for Cheese', a memoir, ©Ciaran O'Driscoll 2011