By Patrick Devaney
A striking feature of St. Ciaran’s Diocesan College was its sturdy, square tower that rose from the main, two-storey building. At right angles to this building was the new wing, a flat-roofed, two-storey addition that had on its ground floor a chapel and on its second floor classrooms and a general-purpose hall.
The tower was off-limits to students, except for Donny McGreevy, who in his free time was employed to print Christmas cards, concert programmes and other items on a hand-operated press. The Christmas cards were for Fr. Tom French and were embellished with extracts from his poems, such as:
“Then from the sky suddenly there fell
Voices of angels robed in white,
The shepherds heard ‘Noel, Noel’.”
Starting in November, Donny sent out bundles of those inspirational cards to various groups and individuals, the profits being paid to Fr. Tom, who probably donated them to charity.
Naturally, this exclusive eerie attracted the attention of Colin and his small gang of mischief-makers, ‘The Secret Four’. Since Donny was a classmate he could not in good faith deny them entry, though he mentioned that Fr. Tom would not be too pleased if he knew uninvited students were pawing through his printed material.
Knowing that Donny was not fundamentally adverse to their company, Colin’s gang, that comprised himself, ‘Freddie the Fearless Fly’, ‘Brian Boru’ and ‘Ginger Nut’, started to frequent the tower in the evenings, making their way cautiously up the many flights of stairs before arriving at the door to the inner sanctum.
In this room, as well as the printing press, there was a long ladder leading up to a skylight, probably an escape feature in case of a fire. Nearby there were also two massive water tanks with another ladder leaning against them. When Colin mounted this ladder he was amazed to find a dead bat resting on a strut.
THE VENUE AND ESCAPE ROUTE
Now that they had a venue, ‘The Secret Four’ were determined to protect their meetings from ‘Hawkeye’, the Dean of Discipline. With this in mind they planned to string a cord from a lower landing to a hand bell in the printing room. The idea was that in the event of ‘Hawkeye’ being spotted mounting the stairs, the person acting as lookout would activate the warning bell.
Immediately they would all scramble up the ladder and through the skylight onto the roof. What they were then to do was never thought out, though they hoped to be able to climb back inside once ‘Hawkeye’ had left. Another decision was to develop a secret language so that they could communicate with each other without the general student body knowing what they were up to.
‘The Secret Four’ might not have accomplished most of its stated aims but Colin was fascinated by the challenge of the escape ladder. Should it not be possible to make ones way down the slates and onto the flat roof of the new wing? Before this he and Freddie had climbed one of the tall evergreens fronting the science hall.
Unfortunately, when they were happily perched on an upper branch ‘Hawkeye’ had spotted them. Ordering them to, ’Get down from there this instant’, he had made them stand out that evening in study, announcing to the other students, ‘We have a pair of monkeys in our midst.’ It was a mild punishment, but descending the college roof wouldn’t be treated so lightly. If caught, it would almost certainly mean expulsion.
One afternoon, Colin decided he had hesitated long enough. Asking Freddy to tell the other gang members that they wouldn’t be meeting that evening, he mounted the ladder and squeezed out through the skylight. Once in the open the danger of standing on the steeply sloping roof hit him, but if he hesitated now he would lose his nerve. It shouldn’t be impossible to keep his balance while descending towards the flat roof of the new wing?
Drawing a deep breath, he set out, arms outstretched, moving carefully, step by agonizing step, luckily his shoes didn’t skid. After a few extremely tense moments, he reached the low wall surrounding the top of the new wing and clambered from the slates onto the concrete roof. He’d made it! Now he just had to get down the stairs to the ground floor without being detected.
Luckily, the door opening onto stairs leading from the roof to the top floor wasn’t locked. Tiptoeing down, he made his way past the first classroom and along the corridor. He was walking through the hall where their Irish teacher, Fr. Walsh, used to teach them group dancing, when his heart almost stopped beating. There, coming towards him, like a medieval inquisitor in his black soutane, was ‘Hawkeye’.
“What are you doing here, Master Scott?” ‘Hawkeye’ demanded.
Thinking quickly, Colin said, “Looking for my fountain pen. I must have lost it doing The Siege of Ennis.”
“Did you now?’ ‘Hawkeye’ gave him a withering look. “I’m sure Fr. Walsh would have discovered any missing items after dance practice.”
Knowing silence was the best strategy Colin gave him a sheepish look.
“In fine weather like this, Master Scott, you should be out playing football or handball, not mooching around indoors.” ‘Hawkeye’ snapped. “Now get out of here, and if I find you again in places where you’ve not supposed to be, by jingoes you’ll be dealt with accordingly.”
So it was that that Colin was probably the only student in St. Ciaran’s who had risked his neck by doing something that he had to keep hidden from all, except from his sidekick, Freddie. As for Freddie, he shook his head in amazement before declaring, “Scott you’re a right eejit,” which, coming from the ‘Fearless Fly’, was a major compliment.