If Master O'Malley was the best part of a century ahead of his time when judged by the width and depth of the real education he provided for his pupils in St. Patrick's country primary school when my friend Finan was one of the lads in the desks then, all these years later, Andy Finan definitely knows why.
You see, the illuminated lessons would happen in the little slated school by the banks of the Sligo river after lunchtime on the last Friday of each month. Finan still
remembers that when the boys and girls were out playing in the schoolyard that afternoon that the postman O'Dowd would stop at the gate on his way home.
He would have an old oilskin shopping bag on the handlebars of the big bicycle he had earlier used to deliver all the mail through the parish. He would carry the bag into the school where the master would be sitting having his lunch by the black stove that was the only heating source for the single-roomed school which would be the only school all the children of the parish would ever attend at that time.
They would leave and go out into the world when they were 14 or 15 years old. The lucky ones would inherit the home farms that patchwork-quilted the landscape around.
The others would emigrate, mostly to England or America. About all of them had family contacts out there. It was the way it was.
Finan's older brother Tomas said he once saw the master and the postman taking swigs out of a bottle of water beside the stove one Friday. The pupils loved it when O'Dowd came because they got a longer lunch break that Friday before he would come out again with the shopping bag to cycle home and the master would call them within for what was always a specially interesting class, delivered from his high stool beside the stove,
usually with the clear bottle of water still in his hand.
He would refresh his voice with it sometimes as he talked to them, always, about the end of the world that could come as soon as their lifetimes. That was strong stuff and Finan never forgot it.
The master's message all those decades ago -- and read this carefully now -- was that they all
knew already that the center of our Earth was a roaring eternal fire, hotter by far than the hell mentioned on every second page of their catechism books, and their farms and homes and all Ireland were set upon only a thin crust which was being burned away day and
night below their feet.
He told them there were parts of the world where the fire actually
exploded through the thin crust and created yokes called volcanoes which vomited up melted rocks, totally melted, that flowed down the mountains like the Curlews they all knew well and killed tens of thousands of decent people.
There were other places in the wide world where there were yokes called earthquakes created by the same central inferno and there were
relations of several of them, living in America, past pupils of the school, who had experienced those woeful earthquakes over there.
After another swig of the bottle one Friday the master told them that the fire at the core of the
earth was getting hotter every year. In their lifetimes, he said, they would see the Arctic Circle's snowy overcoat actually melting away, the same at the South Pole, and the polar bears would disappear just as the huge dinosaurs had.
The only thing that could slow down the end of the world, the old master said, was for all children in the parish, and in all of Sligo indeed, to avoid committing mortal sins as much as possible and, in
this way, ensure that there was less fuel for the fires of hell which, in some mysterious
way, were connected to the earthly fire burning away, even as he spoke, underneath their school.
Finan tells me he remembers every word of those special Friday lessons. There would be a silence in the desks far more total and shocked than he ever heard afterwards anywhere.
As for the bottles of water he chuckles when he recalls it was years later, when he was working in England on the building sites, that he read in the Sligo Champion newspaper his mother sent him how the postman O'Dowd was eventually unmasked by the police as a major moonshiner in the district and was sent to jail for two months.