Celtic Illumination, part 36, Finn Mc Cool & the Salmon of Knowledge
Of course football was not the only sport at Violent Hell and if you think about it I, as the future King of Ireland and Master Candle Maker, would not have been sent to a school that was so focused on one sport, especially one that I was so useless at. It didn’t occur to me then but I was very good at one specific sport. I was quite good at tennis, as I had been playing for years in Belfast, however not many of the boys at Violent Hell had the sophistication to play tennis, they really did prefer the rough and tumble and pure brutality of Gaelic football. Tennis may have fared better at Violent Hell if they had made it a contact sport.
There was handball with a senior, junior and prep alley. I loved handball and was quite good at it. It was a very pleasant pastime on a summer evening and truthfully had the same effect, I expect, as would hammering nails into a plank of wood. Basically it was like a squash court, without a rear wall. There was a rubber ball, quite hard, about the size of a tennis ball which you hit with the palm of your hand, or a closed fist. Of course our hands were quite tough with all the caning that we, especially me, received.
The prep handball alley was a different affair. The side and rear walls were tiered, so it was like a seated arena, however this is where student disputes were settled. As we were being prepared to be proper little gentlemen any dispute between boys was agreed to be sorted out at a specific time on the prep alley. The two boys would face each other, watched by the rest of the school, and the matter was sorted out with fists and then forgotten about. I suppose it also introduced us, in a way, to the bare knuckle fights which were such a tradition within the traveller community. I can remember seeing one bare knuckle fight in the square in Crossmaglen. Two huge men beating lumps out of each other, their bare torso’s steaming like dray horse’s on a cold day.
For some crazy reason we also had a croquet lawn. I’ve seen some boys using a croquet mallet as if it were a driving iron, needless to say the sport never really took off among the boys, but the priests seemed to enjoy it. The only other sport worthy of mention was hurling and that is what I was good at. Again, with the benefit of hindsight, I could now understand why I had been sent to Violent Hell. Finn Mc Cool the original High Chief of Ireland used to travel the countryside with his two hounds, a hurling stick and ball (sliotar) which he would hit before him and they would all chase. I can tell you it felt good to eventually see how I had quite naturally followed in the footsteps of my royal Irish ancestors.
I was captain of the school hurling team and even played for a Newry senior team while still a junior. I remember one match I played for Newry for we were playing a senior team from Kilkeel in the grounds of a monastery outside Warrenpoint at Moygannon. From the off I became aware that the level of violence was greater than anything I had experienced before. One fellow, on our team, had his skull opened by a member of the opposition. He was taken away by the monks and had his wound closed with stitches only to return to re-enter the match.
Despite the violence, I loved hurling and one of my favourite memories is in Glenarm, early Sunday evenings, hearing the crack of the sliotar against a hurley stick, while standing on the villages main bridge, watching the fish in the river below. I also enjoyed fishing and when possible would escape along the Newry canal, which ran along the back of the school grounds. Now I can see more connections with Finn Mc Cool as he is reputed to have eaten the Salmon of Knowledge. And if the truth be told, my interest in fishing was linked to attaining knowledge as did Finn. There were two reasons to go fishing along the Newry canal. One was to get a bit of respite from the priests and the constant threat of violence, and the other was because there was a swimming pool there where the local girls would gather.