In August 1971 I was given the piece of paper I needed to move from full time education into the world of work. That document was my Leaving Certificate.
Given that the failure rate in the 1971 exam was the highest ever, I should have been grateful for the pass result I managed to scrape. But any sense of relief I felt was due to the fact that I would not have to go to school anymore. That was all that really mattered to me, although I think my mother felt differently.
It must have been in 1967, during the summer break, that she mentioned the possibility that I would have to leave school following my Intermediate Certificate exam. The issue was money. In those days my parents had to pay fees to the Christian Brothers’ school I attended. To this day I don’t know how much my education cost. But given that I went to an inner city school catering for a working class clientele, I suspect it was not a huge sum, maybe £5 a term.
It doesn’t sound like a lot of money but, when every penny counted, keeping me in school was a luxury we could hardly afford. My father was the sole breadwinner and his modest wages had to sustain our family of two adults and two children. As youngsters themselves my parents had followed the widespread practice in our neck of the woods of leaving school at the age of 14 in order to get a job. And their parents before them, and so on. The fact that I had been allowed to progress beyond primary school was a privilege I don’t think I appreciated at the time.
Everything changed when free secondary education was introduced in Ireland. The man responsible was Donogh O’Malley, Minister for Education from July 1966 to March 1968. Described by one commentator as “tempestuous and energetic” and “revolutionary by temperament”, O’Malley somehow gained the political and religious backing he needed to bring about this historic reform in Irish education.
I recall none of this personally but O’Malley’s decisive act changed my life. Those two extra years I spent in school after my Inter may not have been terribly pleasant, but they did allow me to obtain that all-important Leaving Cert. Even with a pass, I had a chance of a permanent pensionable job in the civil service or the bank. And so it transpired. By October I had made it through the application and interview process to join the staff at one of the big financial institutions.
Much later I discovered one of those extraordinary coincidences that confirms the truth of the phrase, “it’s a small world”. When they married, Donogh and Hilda went to live in Sunville House, a mansion located in Limerick’s fashionable North Circular Road. Half- a-century earlier, Sunville had been the home of Sir Thomas Cleeve, founder and managing director of the Condensed Milk Company. Cleeve built his business into one of the world’s leading suppliers of dairy products. His great-nephew was Brian Cleeve, the writer and broadcaster. It was my good fortune to know Brian during the last 20 years of his life. After he died I wrote his biography, which I published in 2007.
An interesting connection between two men who, in their different ways, exerted a huge influence on the course of my life.
But I suspect an even greater influence was operating behind the scenes. After she died I learnt that, during those early years, my mother had been praying constantly for my success. In particular, during the late summer of 1971, she stormed Heaven with Novenas in support of my job applications. I suspect now that her prayers also contributed to the almost miraculous result I achieved in my exam. Even more fascinating is the thought that her religious devotions may have been instrumental in keeping me at school a bit longer.
I have no idea how prayer actually works, but I believe it does. Of course I am grateful for the intervention of that political whirlwind, Donogh O’Malley. His action opened a door for me that otherwise might have remained closed. But I also owe a great deal to my mother, a debt I may be allowed to repay one day.
 Irish Independent, 18 Aug. 1971.
 Fergal Tobin, The Best of Decades: Ireland in the 1960s (Dublin 1984), pp. 172-4.
 Limerick Leader, 31 Oct. 1981.
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