This post is untypically non-political. I heard today that a former classmate of mine, Ben Clingain, died in Cleveland, Ohio yesterday. I did a book of interviews ('Tales Out of School: St Columb's College, Derry in the 1950s') last year and Ben was one of those I interviewed. Like himself, the interview turned out modest, funny and lovable. Below is a short excerpt from it. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam - May he rest in peace.
Religion never got rammed down our throats in the College. We had religion class once a week but I wasn’t too conscious of that. When you were involved with an outside church as we were in Creggan, and your mother drags you to Mass every Sunday, and your granny tries to drag you to Mass every bloody day, you get to the point where it wasn’t a big factor for me. But boarders had Mass every day.
During the retreats you had to walk around pretending to be holy. I was in the choir and the choir occupied the balcony during the retreats. So for some reason on this occasion everybody was quiet. And you know when boys are together, it’s quiet and then suddenly, somebody sniggers or sneezes or, God help us, somebody farts. Well, somebody farted in the choir that day during a sermon. We all gagged laughing. As soon as we started, we put our heads down behind the balcony so nobody could see us. The whole choir had their heads down behind the balcony giggling like kids – which we were. And then I heard this voice going ‘Um – Clingain?’ Somebody at the back had come in, it might have been Keaveny, and I was the only one he recognized. I just looked at him and went ‘Yes Father?’ He didn’t say any more. I straightened up and so did all the others. So we all got serious again. But at those retreats you’d walk around. We were all good Catholic boys. All I could see was the boarders walking around all serious – nobody cracked a smile. You couldn’t talk. But we talked. The sermons, what I remember of them, were the worst ever. Like the Jesuits, telling you about the perils of masturbation, the dangers of gonorrhea. We were all good Catholic boys.
Father Flannery told me about the facts of life - we got called in one by one to his room. He was very serious about it. So he’s sitting there and he’s got a poker in his hand, and he’s telling us about the facts of life. and I’m looking at the poker and …I had no clue. I was so innocent. But afterwards I was walking down Bishop Street with Patton and McCann, because McCann knew everything about it and Patton certainly had done it. They’re trying to explain to me that the woman’s sperm and the man’s sperm – and I’m still confused. McCann eventually says ‘Look, you eejit – they both pee in a bucket and the woman drinks it! Are you happy now?’ I went ‘Oh, that’s so gross!’ I couldn’t think about that for weeks afterwards.
I was kidding around one day and Hammy McMahon pulled me out.. Remember the desks that you had – the top came up and it had an inkwell? I was fiddling, drawing a footballer in his class. After the class was finished he said ‘What do you want to be in life?’ I said ‘I dunno – I might be a priest’. McMahon said ‘Clingain – you’ll never amount to anything. You’ll certainly never be a priest, as long as priests are in this country!’ I said ‘Thank you’. I was terrified, because he was having a real go at me.