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The English teacher's drink of choice



I served under some outstanding headmasters in my teaching career, certainly in Australia. Becoming a headmaster in the Irish system however, was as likely to be down to political affiliation as pedagogical excellence.

Hip flaskThere were many schools in those days in which the headmaster had little ambition beyond the need to keep inspectors happy while he served out his few years to retirement.

I have one particular head in mind. His most mordant critic was his secretary, possibly because she regarded his dour personality as cover for an uncertain mastery of his job.

'He goes about as if he is holding up the roof,' she would complain, and indeed he did have a way of shrugging his shoulders as if he was moving some heavy load from one to the other. But for all that, he had not completely lost the common touch and could behave like a human being in ways that surprised.

Which leads me to our head of English, a man who had risen to that position through seniority. I will call him Paddy though that is the least likely name he would have been given by his once affluent merchant family.

He was a mediocre teacher, even if that is the unreliable opinion of a colleague who has great sympathy for what must go on in an English class — all that marking of essays and dealing with the musings of bores like Eliot and Joyce. Life can be much easier when you can get by with, 'Did you get the answer in the back, Mullins? No. Then you are wrong. Do it again.'

Anyway, Paddy had a weakness not uncommon among the literati and which may well have been a reaction to the rigid pieties of his Tory background. There was a notable difference, however. In his case, the consumption of alcohol caused him to become tiresomely scrupulous, seeming to lose the capacity for dissimulation and verbal artifice that are necessary qualities for life in the modern world.

During the course of a few drinks he once explained to me that he was determined to take his senior classes to a performance of Waiting for Godot. 'How can they understand Beckett,' he reasoned, 'if all they have is words on a page?' I could only wonder how the rest of the audience would cope with the slow handclap and cries of 'Why are we waiting?' coming from his bored students wondering whether anything was ever going to happen on the stage.


"The general opinion was that processes would be set in train which would result in the appointment of whoever was next in line as the new head of English. But we were wrong: Paddy was back at his desk on Monday."


At any rate, on one particular payday — always Friday in those times — Paddy took himself off during lunchtime to a nearby pub. One whiskey led to another and he returned to school before the last class, a little worse for wear. He got to the door of the staffroom, supporting himself on the jamb and looking wistfully towards his desk at the far end of the room, across an expanse of floor bereft of even a supporting table. I persuaded one of his colleagues to take his class and steered him towards the front of the school and on to a bus, while listening to his earnest plans for setting up a reading group among the unemployed in the nearby block of public housing flats. 'We'll start with Dickens,' he assured me.

He must have got off the bus at the next stop, because some time later, there was what playwrights call 'noises off' on the corridor outside the head's office as his secretary tried to extricate Paddy from the ruins of a large geranium plant. 'He's had a turn,' she explained to the head who had come rushing from his office. 'That's a lie,' came the slurred response, 'I'm drunk.'

At this, the head moved him unsteadily to his office. He sent for a taxi and had him off the property before the bell went for the end of the day. The general opinion was that processes would be set in train which would result in the appointment of whoever was next in line as the new head of English. But we were wrong: Paddy was back at his desk on Monday.

You only had to see the misery on his face, the head bent to hide his shame, to realise that he understood his degradation better than anyone. Certainly better than the interfering fools who tried to pass him a prayer card or pious novena to help him fight his cravings.

So I come back to the head. My amusement at his permanent state of anguish changed to admiration for someone who had the sense to understand weakness and to leave the rule book on the shelf. Paddy remained at his post long after I left and the last I heard he had moved from an unsteady footing at the side of the wagon to a quiet non-proselytising seat at its centre.


Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired Canberra school teacher.

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, alcoholism



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Existing comments

A triumph of Irish literary legerdemain. Where has this writer been all my miserable and questing life? Great thanks to ES for putting him on.

Michael Furtado | 10 July 2017  

What a lovely parable in which teacher and principal provide mutual redemptiveness. Thank you Frank, and great to see you come out from under your rock.

john murphy | 10 July 2017