The old Cavan Vocational School, now Breifne College.

WordSmith: Into the woods and out to school

He walked with hunched shoulders, dragging the shackles of double maths behind him while carrying the weight of Monday morning on his slight shoulders. I saw a fleeting familiarity in the lad enroute to Breifne College – yet, I didn’t know him.

School was my spectre. Primary school was a vast Victorian building that loomed over my Manchester home; unnerving me.

My escape from the ghoul of school was Cavan. I longed for summer, to run into the woods by my country-granny’s house in the townland of Cullies.

On arrival in Cavan I’d be like a dog unleashed; sprinting through the woodland until a sight, sound, or smell forced me to stop and investigate. Alas, those school-free days would fly by in the blink of an eye.

One fateful day as summer began its fade; I sauntered down the lane towards granny’s tea and soda bread – a strange sight stopped me in my tracks. I squinted to decipher what I saw in the distance. My skin prickled at the sight of a monster, surveying its prey, preparing to pounce.

I watched with horror as the mechanical jaws of a gargantuan digger opened like a hungry dinosaur devouring all in its wake. The sight of this man-made machine amidst the natural beauty of woodlands I loved was startling. I resumed my saunter to discover more.

Hearing a rumble I spun around to see a fleet of mechanical beasts ascending the hill. Standing back into the bush and bramble, I watched: Diggers, dumper trucks, and tractors pass me by, a marauding herd that shook the ground beneath my feet.

My heart sank when I considered their intentions. I lifted my nose to the air, the usual forest fragrances: Wet earthiness, the sweet bouquet of wildflowers, the subtle woodiness, were all gone – overpowered by the pungent odours of petrol and other fuels used to sustain a mechanical army.

Most of the mechanical-cade was parked in a roadside clearing. With engines switched off, the machines gently heaved and hummed as they cooled from their march. Their masters, dressed in workwear and hard hats, jumped from drivers' seats to enter the woods, propelled by their working purpose.

Leaning against a tree, I sighed a sad lament, “You won’t be here next summer.” I knew I had much to learn about life. But I found learning difficult, because forgetting was easier – I’d forgotten about the school.

There’d been much talk about the new school being built directly across the road from country-granny’s house. I hated school. And what I loved most about summers in Ireland was my freedom from the institution's authority. Now, its scholastic-spectre sullied the final days of my summer freedom. I’d completely erased the school's impending build from my boyhood mind.

I looked at the snake of machinery by the roadside, a stark reminder that the landscape I loved would soon be gone, forever.

This was our final moments together. My sadness deepened with the realisation that, when I returned a year older, my beloved woodlands, wherein I felt safe and cosseted from the world, wouldn’t be altered or changed, they’d be obliterated. The trees I talked to, up-rooted and rolled away – the slow undulate of the land that soothed my mind, flattened – the flora and fauna that intrigued me, dug up and dumped – my boyhood joys, the tears, and fears, bulldozed into oblivion.

And as I looked from tree to condemned tree, my melancholy grew. “I’ll probably forget about you when I’m a grown-up,” I said, addressing the place as though it were a person.

My land of freedom was being replaced by a place of restraint, a school – Cavan Vocational School, colloquially called: The Tech.

One late afternoon my great uncle Lofty stared out the window; turned to me and said, “You could be going to that school, yet.” Taken aback, I asked, “What do you mean?” His stare remained fixed on the woods, “I mean what I said, you could be learning in the school taking over the woods.” I dismissed him with a shrug, “No I won’t, I live in Manchester.”

Six years later, I walked with hunched shoulders, dragging the shackles of double maths behind me while carrying the weight of Monday morning on my slight shoulders enroute to The Tech – now, Breifne College.


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