Born a Ciotóg

By Mary Shiel

My late father suffered greatly at school because of being left-handed, or a ciotóg, as we say here in Ireland. He was beaten regularly and forbidden to use his left hand for writing. The result was that he taught himself the most beautiful script with his right hand, though he never received any acknowledgement from the teacher for his efforts.

While still in his teens, he became skilled at watch and clock repair tasks, which require a high degree of double-handed dexterity. His little workshop in a tiny built-on shed became the ‘go-to’ place for the family’s faulty timepieces, all of which were returned to their owners in pristine condition.

I was the eldest of six children, and the only one to follow in dad’s left-handed tracks. You might have thought that the schools’ attitude to such children would have changed for the better in the interim. I have to admit that it did, but only fractionally! I still have vivid memories of being hauled up to the blackboard and made to write sentences with my right hand. Of course my attempts were pathetic, and resulted in quite severe beatings with the cane, and a growing hatred on my part for that particular teacher, and for the school in general, if I’m honest.

Secondary school was slightly better as we had different teachers for each subject, and some of them were happy to leave us ciotógs to our own devices, once we were able to produce legible homework. The rest seemed to regard us as freaks who would never amount to anything and who were best ignored! Fortunately for me, there was another left-hander in my class and the two of us spent whatever free time we had comparing notes and generally feeling martyred!

Next was secretarial college, which was the greatest hurdle, I have to admit. My goal was to reach the required standard in shorthand and typing, to sit the entrance examination for a position as a lady clerk in Guinness Brewery. After the Civil Service, this was considered to be a very close run second, and well worth striving for, which I was more than determined to do.

Little did I know that I was very soon to run into a pretty tough obstacle in the shape of a shorthand teacher! She patrolled up and down between the rows of desks, dictating text which we students strove to take down in shorthand. Some of the class seemed to be making quite a fist of it, but to me it was even more difficult than tackling Mount Everest. I very quickly discovered that Pitman’s Shorthand was most definitely NOT designed for ciotógs, and to make matters worse, a few errant tears regularly slid down onto my jotter and turned the squiggle of characters into what you might call alphabet spaghetti.

It didn’t take the teacher long to discover my total ineptitude, and she immediately labelled me as being completely unsuitable for shorthand because of my “stupid left hand”. When I arrived home from college that day, I immediately burst into tears and poured out my tale of woe. Mam nearly exploded with indignation and ordered me to “go back tomorrow and show that horrible woman that you can learn to write shorthand as well as anyone else”.

Of course I had no option but to return, though I didn’t of course carry out Mam’s instructions! I was banished to the back row of the class, and when the teacher patrolled up and down between rows, she deliberately raised her eyes as she passed my seat and completely ignored me. I soldiered on in some sort of fashion, inventing my own symbols when necessary. As the term wore on, I was grudgingly accepted back into the class, though there was never an apology from the teacher or even a “good-bye” when we finished the course. Thankfully, I did manage to sit the Guinness exam successfully, and was welcomed into those hallowed halls, with all their much envied perks!

Later on, married life brought its own challenges, mainly with things like potato peelers and kitchen knives, which were all designed for right-handed people. The worst of the lot, though, were dressmaking scissors. Try cutting through a double layer of thickish material with something that is absolutely not designed for a left-hander, and you very quickly develop a crop of welts on that same poor appendage. As I did a lot of sewing for economy’s sake, this was a regular penance, but had to be endured. I did hear that there was a wonderful shop in London that sold every sort of tool or gadget in left-handed versions, but I never managed to go there, much to my regret.

An illness early in our married life left me unable to have children, but we were blessed with an adopted family of four great kids, two boys and then two girls. Imagine our total surprise when our first little girl turned out to be left-handed. As if that wasn’t unusual enough, number 2 daughter was another ciotóg. So there we were with two little girls, not our blood children, but very decidedly also members of the left-hand club.

Thankfully we were now living at a time when left-handedness was not regarded as something that had to be stamped out in children as early as possible. Family members, teachers and friends encouraged them to use whichever hand came naturally to them for all activities, and life was every bit as happy and fulfilled for them as it was for any other child.

We had many caravanning summer holidays while our children were young, and loved that free and easy way of life. The two boys slept in a little tent next to the caravan, while the girls slept inside with mammy and daddy. That worked well, but meal times required a bit more organising. Space at the table was quite limited, with six of us to accommodate. The only way we could manage was for the three ciotógs to sit on one side, while dad and the two boys sat on the other. Then, if we all remembered to keep our elbows tucked in, and use our knives and forks in harmony, we could manage not to stab each other or knock our neighbour’s plate onto the floor. Every mealtime was a mini challenge, but did provide a lot of fun!

Our two daughters are now well married and have their own children, but ne’er another little ciotóg amongst them. It seems as though that particular link has now come to an end, but it’s been a happy experience to have had in our lives.

Oh, and one last thought. I had my anti-Covid vaccine and the charming young doctor who administered it was also a ciotóg, as I discovered when explaining why I’d like my injection in the right arm. A very good omen, I think!

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