The day my marbles disappeared like chalk dust

As skilled in the debating chamber as he had been in the classroom, Cllr Michael Gleeson this week announced his intention to retire from active politics after a remarkable contribution to public life. And while I have been there to take notes of his wonderfully articulate contributions to so many debates, on so many occasions throughout his political life, my standout memory of the footballer turned politician goes back much further than that. Now read on…

An ode to Michael Gleeson

Cllr Michael Gleeson enjoyed a long and hugely distinguished career in political life.
Picture: Eamonn Keogh

I HAD the lyrics of Boulavogue off by heart long before I lost my marbles in the Presentation Monastery in Killarney.
A tough disciplinarian clad in a well-worn black cassock ensured the former; a learned gentleman who wore the green and gold with distinction took care of the latter.
The rousing ballad commemorating the role of Fr Murphy from old Kilcormack in the 1798 Rising was just one of many wrap-the-green-flag-round-me-boys rebel songs close to the heart of Gabriel Noone, a no nonsense Presentation Brother who was charged with the very considerable double task of attempting to teach me and control me in third and fourth class.
Broad in stature, straight-backed with a uniform of a chalk-stained, frayed soutane, he had a complexion that could change from ashen to puce in 0.2 seconds, depending on the level of provocation or irritation he encountered. But when he demanded absolute silence he certainly got it.

Under his watch, traditional rebel songs like Boulavogue and The Rising of the Moon were afforded as much prominence on the curriculum as Buntús Cainte, English compositions and long division but there was nothing unusual in that. In the mid 1970s, it was a Mon thing.

Passing on the wisdom: A passionate environmentalist, Michael Gleeson teaches boys from the Presentation Monastery in Killarney how to maintain a vegetable garden.

The saga of the lost marbles is a tale of an altogether different nature and, in some ways, it was even more daunting than having to remember the correct narrative when sticking Máire, Seán agus Bran on the adhesive Buntús blackboard.

It is probably a reasonable comparison to suggest that marbles, which came in net bags in a kaleidoscope of colours and were in big demand in Cally McCarthy’s wonder emporium on New Street, were to the 70’s schoolboy what the Playstation 5 and Nintendo Switch are to the class of 2021.

For those not chasing a football aimlessly around the back field of the Mon, endless competitive and fun-filled “sos” hours were spent ensconced in a far corner of the schoolyard shelters striving manfully to build an empire made exclusively of taws.

Whatever about thumb and index finger compatibility, accuracy and agility, it soon became clear that the real power-masters of the code were those fortunate enough to be able to call on relatives working at the Liebherr crane factory to ensure a regular supply of solid steel and shining ball-bearings. They became the ultimate immovable objects in the chalk-drawn marbles ring and ensured great trade-off material given that one ball-bearing could be swapped for anything up to six regular taws.

Michael Gleeson’s Confirmation class of 1976 with his star pupil and marble master on the extreme right of the front row

But then a young teacher by the name of Michael Gleeson, fresh from his legendary exploits on the GAA fields, walked into our fifth and sixth class lives and imposed a strict and unprecedented marbles etiquette that caused consternation in the classroom and chaos in the corridors.
The written-in-stone solitary rule was simple but devastating – any marble that fell from a trousers pocket, tumbled from a badly packed schoolbag or dropped through the ripped lining of a duffel coat during lessons would be confiscated and sentenced to life in a Tupperware box, usually without parole.
We all suffered agonising losses from this zero tolerance approach but, on occasions, we almost felt grateful for the confiscation commandment as we sniggered and sneered as our great marbles rivals loosened their grip and fell into the trap.

Again, it was a Mon thing.
But all previous suffering and loss paled into complete insignificance when compared to the fate that awaited the undisputed and all-conquering runaway table-topper in the sixth class taws league, one spring day in 1976.

Back to school: Former Mon Boys visiting their alma mater for the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2008, from left, Brian O’Leary, Gerry Galvin, Diarmuid O’Donoghue and, at back, Kevin Tarrant and John O’Mahony.
Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

Having almost casually demolished all rivals with a devastating display of power play, the said student – whose identity shall remain classified – was racing triumphantly back through the door of the prefabricated classroom when a paper bag containing his huge haul of glassy orb-shaped trophies burst under the weight and sprayed around the classroom.
The response from behind the copy-laden desk at the top of the room was swift, decisive and devastating for the pupil in question. And I’m convinced that it left such a serious dent in the stock of marbles in the greater Killarney area, that it took almost a generation for the boyhood game to recover lost ground and for supplies to be replenished.
The Mon of the 1970s, of course, was about much more than marbles and chalk-dust, history and geography, algebra and an enthusiastic recital of The Angelus at noon. It was about so much more than rehearsing pronouns and verbs, exciting nature walks and cosy classroom talks, Fr Murphy from old Kilcormack and Seán South from Garryowen.
In that small building on New Road many wonderful, meaningful and enduring friendships were formed and many valuable life lessons were learned and remembered by those fortunate enough to have been in a position to pass through the narrow but character-rich corridors. In the process, they were guided every step of the way by teachers like Michael Gleeson who helped to build their character and fill their heads with fascinating facts.
So many people in so many places have marvellous memories of the five years or so that they spent in the Mon and whenever I meet up with former, now greying and balding classmates, despite the fact that over four and half decades have passed by since we last squeezed into those narrow double benches with the dried out inkwells, the talk invariably returns to the simple but magical Mon moments.

Hands off: The jar of marbles from Michael Gleeson that almost made up for the devastating loss of many years earlier

I returned to the old classroom briefly, with several other Mon Boys, in 2008 to mark the golden jubilee of the opening of the New Road building and although my eyes darted every which way, there was no trace of that blasted Tupperware box anywhere.
A decade or so ago, when Michael Gleeson was stepping into retirement after well over three decades of dedicated and passionate service in the classroom, I dropped him a brief note, wishing him well, thanking him for the role he played during some of my formative years and reminding him that, by my reckoning, he still had a bag of marbles that belonged to me.
Some weeks later, on the day of my birthday in fact, a small and carefully wrapped parcel arrived on my desk. It contained an empty coffee jar filled to the brim with the finest taws you could ever hope to get your thumbs behind and it was accompanied by a birthday card with a wonderfully composed poem which was titled An ode to marbles. The sender was Michael Gleeson.
It was a Mon thing.

I still keep that jar packed with marbles close to my desk as an everyday reminder of carefree boyhood days when the world was a far less complex place. I’ll continue to treasure it and it will always prompt a smile.

Michael Gleeson, meanwhile, is welcome to his precious Tupperware box and he’ll have plenty of time on his hands now to find a better use for it.

  • The Presentation Monastery Confirmation Class of 1976, pictured above, were, front from left, Donal O’Leary, Johnny Coffey, Michael Stack, David Hurley, Ger O’Shea, Ian Courtney, Michael O’Callaghan, James Cronin, Kieran O’Connor, Barry O’Sullivan, Denis and John Greene, Michael O’Sullivan and John O’Mahony with, second row from left, Paul Murphy, Dan O’Callaghan, Michael Joy, Tony Trant, Seán O’Mahony, Jerry Murphy and Denis Coleman with back from left, Martin Darcy, Michael Hennessy, David Downey, Patrick Sugrue, Micheál O’Doherty, Denis Cremin, Ronán Long, Michael Leahy, Patrick O’Connor, Donal Horgan, John Wrenn, David Randles, Michael Coffey and Eamonn O’Brien.