A debut fictional memoir recounts a teen’s experiences at an Irish boarding school in the 1950s.
Much to his mother’s chagrin, Willie Doyle fails the exam for his primary certificate, a test designed to be passable for even the meanest of intellects. Determined that one of her eight children become a classical scholar, Willie’s mother enrolls him in the Academy of the Yew Tree, a boarding school in Dublin run by the Brown Order of mendicant priests. But his mother neglects to reveal his exam results. When the priests give him another opportunity to pass, he fails yet again, but they find it impossible to get rid of him since his mother refuses to acknowledge any communications. The novelistic remembrance is split into several nearly stand-alone essays (each concludes with a definitive “The End”) that cover the various elements of boarding school culture and are written in a buoyantly comedic style. Willie reflects on the penury he is able to mitigate by operating his own lottery, evidence of the business savvy he inherited from his pub-owning mother. He also relates his incurable insomnia, a serious matter if conflated with sleepwalking, which is an expellable offense. Some of the essays tackle more serious subjects, like the withering physical abuse zealously meted out by the Dean of Discipline, a brutal practice that ends after students stage a kind of mutiny and leave the official bloodied on the floor. Another theme mined is youthful sexuality, especially homosexual desire in the cloistered corridors of a religious institution. Sheehy conjures a surprisingly candid narrator—Willie is especially unabashed discussing his own erotic experiences, particularly a crush he develops on one unusually attractive star rugby player. The author is a keen observer of human relations and writes with quick-wittedness. But sometimes the prose becomes bloated and strident: “In the fifties, our Academy would not be the first or last to recognize that patriotism and religion—two self-delusions—were the two adoptions that were parasitic, not just for Ireland and England, but all.” Nevertheless, this is an insightful peek into the state of Irish education in the middle of the 20th century.
A funny and perspicacious account of Irish adolescence.