A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Cub

By Brendan Brassil

A whimsical letter recalling a beloved Irish Marist.

Dear Father Byrne

After my visit with you, I realised that there are memories that have always given me pleasure so here are my imperfect recollections of the events surrounding: 

The First Summer Camp

In 1957 after my father died, summer stretched into a bleak holiday-less infinity. I was appointed family cook for that summer! Dinner (now we call it lunch) was to be on the table at one o'clock.  Tea was at 5.30. 

My pre-teen summer pastimes did not, in my view, include cooking! 

All of us in the class were for some reason cricket mad, possibly because the ‘Cub’ was our cricket trainer. Towards the end of the summer term, a group of us asked the ‘Cub’ if we could borrow the school cricket gear for the “holliers”.

By the way, nicknames were awarded to all of our teachers. The elder Father Byrne was as grumpy as a ‘Bear’; the younger naturally became the ‘Cub’ as he loved to play games!

He offered to go up to the Sports Ground at 10 am the first Monday of the “holliers” with the gear and “let’s see what happens”. He might have had doubts as to our ability to look after the gear.

The ‘Cub’ taught mathematics in the junior school. He was happy, unlike many of his priestly peers. He had a sharp ascetic face with twinkling eyes, squinting to avoid the smoke from the permanently smouldering “fag”. He was mad about sport of any kind but Cricket was supreme. 

On that first June Monday at 10 o’clock, the eager cricketers arrived. We saw the gear arriving on the back of a diminutive two-stroke motorcycle, driven by the 6 ft plus ‘Cub’. All knees, fags, and bags. We were delirious.

The pitch at Milltown was “challenging.” Normally a rough rugby pitch, it was bumpy, furrowed, tufted, and despite our valiant efforts at rolling it a full toss was the only ball that did not ‘move off the surface’.

‘The Summer Camp’ was an inclusive group containing school and street friends. The ‘Cub’ welcomed all, as long as we vouched for them. We had representatives from the English Public Schools and Irish Industrial Schools playing in the teams.

The ‘Cub’’ umpired, coached and kept order, always with an encouraging word and sharp wit.

At 11.30 on that first morning, the Cub stopped proceedings. He produced biscuits (memory fails a bit here -  maybe they were ‘Marietta’) and Mi Wadi!!!! This was a drink pretending to be orange, diluted with water to spread the sugar around. We thought it was a fantasy! This, we immediately threw back. It became a part of the tradition: the 11.30 break.

We did wonder how and where did he get the supplies.  He was subject to a vow of poverty which WE took very seriously. It was a source of endless speculation and concern to all. It didn’t stop us from eating or drinking, but as many of us had naturally larcenous natures (I recall there were future lawyers, accountants, chefs, and, at least, one bankrupt in the group). 

One day Gene swore he saw him coming out of a shop with this big bag! Gene was our expert at swearing!

We wondered as only boys can, was he doing a spot of shoplifting? - for us?  Being a priest they wouldn’t collar him, would they? Perhaps this was an unadvertised benefit of wearing the collar. You know like the Franciscans hopping on the buses and not paying - maybe?

We had confidence in the ‘Cub’ not to be concerned about him disclosing our own larcenous pastimes. Occasional offerings from one of our other summer activities (scrumping) were shared out with aplomb.

Perhaps we boasted a bit amongst our peers. We were truly grateful to have the best religious cricket coaching shoplifter in the business. Our ‘street cred’, as it would now be described, skyrocketed. Out of curiosity even some Gaelic Athletic Association-ers came to play ‘foreign games’.

After our 11.30 repast we played ‘French cricket’ to improve our fielding, - and cunning. This was a game introduced by the ‘Cub’. 

One person protected his legs with the bat, while everyone took turns trying to hit his legs below the knee or snick a catch. The one who got him out then took his place! It was fast, furious, and occasionally painful! Nowadays they have gentler if less exciting ways of improving hand-eye coordination.

That summer I cheerfully played cricket in the morning.  Unfortunately, it sometimes went on past the one o’clock deadline. My witching hour! By the time I got the bus or cycled home I had to face the wrath of the ‘workers’, my brothers and sisters, all expecting a cooked lunch. Although why they persisted after my clear ineptitude heaven knows.

The only dishes I did not burn were ham salad or tinned salmon (!) I have vague memories of throwing spaghetti against windows to see if it was cooked. It made interesting patterns but was a bit chewy when put on the plate.

I built up a liking for crispy meat in this period. I was the only one who would eat it. Even I struggled to eat burnt-onto-the-pot potatoes. Congealed carrots were also not a success.

 I suppose the difficulty was that I sometimes put everything on to cook before I went to cricket, two or three hours earlier!

I spent the afternoons playing for Merrion under-19s, or cycling out to Sea Point or Blackrock for a swim. A year or so later we won the Leinster Junior Cricket Cup. We beat Belvedere (the premier cricket college in Dublin) by two runs. The suicidal fielding, learnt playing French cricket did it!

This was I believe the first ‘Summer Camp’ in Ireland.

I shared a laugh with you about it the other day - nearly 50 years later, (you ended up in hospital after the Junior Cup - too many fags.)

This is written to remember the many boys ‘Cub’ introduced to cricket, rugby, Gaelic football, and hurling and who remember him still with gratitude and affection.

By the way, you nearly taught me Maths as well. Peace and in the Past is great healing.

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