In Fifty Years Ago, this “engaging Irish storyteller,” recounts a lively and entertaining childhood in County Limerick, Ireland in the 1830s and ‘40s. He recalls every school he attended, his teachers, many of his childhood friends, quite a few adventures and occasional encounters with authority. In the following selection, young John, playing hooky from school, recounts how he and his comrades–in-truancy passed their stolen hours, before being unceremoniously caught and returned to face the music:
Ah, how much pleasanter it was to a gang of truant boys to be in hiding under bushes than to be too conveniently near the tip end of the master's cat-o’-nine-tails! The covert in which we hid was thickly set with tall pine trees, to which the furze was an undergrowth. There we climbed trees, looked for birds’ nests, ran races, played hide and seek, masqueraded grand Turk and Indian chief, our heads turbaned with pine plumes and rushes. Our biggest boy, the most stalwart fellow amongst us, we threw down on the ground on his face and hands, then we stretched him lengthwise across a steep water-drain, and on his long back enjoyed ourselves, chasing each other over and hither, as in the picture in our books we saw squirrels running on a log.
But our hey-day was soon to come to an end. We had been missed from school. Search was made for us. Ah, the mean scouts that betrayed us! Like snakes, they crawled on the grass and hid behind bushes until they spied us. Then they went and told the master. A posse comitatus of big boys from the school was sent to gather us in. We were surrounded, trapped, captured, and marched ignominiously into the master's presence. Without formalities, we were sentenced to die the death. I began to make a speech from the dock. Before a word was out of my mouth, I was grasped, as in a vise, by the rough hands of the biggest boy in school. That fellow’s back was the common gallows, on which truant boys paid the penalty for their misdeeds, and when the execution was over, it was considerable time before the felon that died the death showed himself anyway lively again