5 high-profile people look back on their first day at school

Starting school can be one of the most traumatic or exciting events in a young life. Arlene Harris talks to some well-known faces about their first day in class.
5 high-profile people look back on their first day at school

IT’S that time of year again when children up and down the country will excitedly or nervously be preparing for their first day at big school — and with good reason too as it’s a momentous occasion which most of us will remember for the rest of our lives.

We caught up with some well-known faces to find out what they recall from their big day and what advice they would give to their younger selves.

Phil Coulter — musician, songwriter and producer

“I had two older brothers, Joe and Brian, who were also at the Christian Brothers Primary School, known as The Brow of the Hill, so it was they who walked me there on my first day and I was probably a bit tearful — and would have got less change out of them than out of my gentle mother.

Phil Coulter and right as a boy. The musician still meets up with old school friends when he returns to Derry. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
Phil Coulter and right as a boy. The musician still meets up with old school friends when he returns to Derry. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

“But by the time we’d reached the school gates on the Lecky Road the tears had probably given way to a sense of excitement at joining the big boys.

"Also I remember being somewhat intimidated by the size of the school, housed in several buildings on different levels and by the long walk up the hill —the place seemed enormous.

“My first teacher was Brother McNamara and I remember him, looking the picture of Catholic authority in his soutane, even though he was quite a gentle soul.

He was from somewhere down South and his accent was, to my five- year-old ears, pretty exotic.

He seemed to have a soft spot for oranges — and in post-war Derry they were pretty exotic as well.

"For whatever reason he had perfected the art of peeling the orange with one hand, while it was still in the pocket of his soutane and producing individual segments whenever he felt peckish.

"We all wondered if this was a trick practised by every teacher.

“One or two classmates actually soldiered onwards with me through secondary school and Queens University in Belfast and I still meet them on my not infrequent visits home.

“Luckily, one of them, Hugh McDaid, owns the best bar in Derry, called after his nickname ‘Badgers’. One sure way of revealing my friends from those early years is that they still call me Philip.

Looking back: “If I could travel back in time I would tell my young self not to pick his nose in public.”

* Phil Coulter is playing at the National Concert Hall on November 30.

Fiachna Ó Braonáin of Hothouse Flowers is also a presenter on RTÉ Radio 1’s Late Date

“My memories are largely impressionistic at this stage but my overall feeling is that I was a very happy boy on my first day at school.

"There was a warm welcoming feeling in Scoil Lorcáin in Monkstown and I remember that much pretty clearly. I also remember being minded on arrival by a girl from the older classes.

Fiachna Ó Braonáin and as a school boy. Picture: Kasia Kaminska
Fiachna Ó Braonáin and as a school boy. Picture: Kasia Kaminska

“I was relaxed and not at all upset and I verified this with my mother in a recent conversation as she recalls looking in the window having dropped me off on my first day and seeing me settle into things easily even though I hadn’t been to preschool or anything resembling the school structure.

My teacher was Bean Uí Choimín. She was from the West of Ireland and brought with her a warmth and a sense of kindness and fun that is particular to that place.

“I remained lifelong friends with Colm Ó Snodaigh, who took a musical path through life like myself and is a member of the band Kila.

"Fíona Uí Chomáin has also remained a lifelong friend, with who I was delighted to reconnect during my recent years living in Paris where she has lived and worked since she left secondary school – but I am sure there are others who will shoot me for not mentioning them.

Looking back: “I don’t think I could advise myself on anything as I don’t think my first day at school could have gone any better.”

Rachel Allen — chef and food writer

“The over-riding memory I have of my first day of school is someone giving me a bag of cheese and onion Taytos.

"It probably was the teacher but I also had a Club Milk in a yellow wrapper in my lunch bag so it was a very big day for treats.

Rachel Allen and her big sister Sophie during her first year at school.
Rachel Allen and her big sister Sophie during her first year at school.

“I don’t remember feeling particularly anxious but I suppose there was a mixture of nerves and excitement there as I got to head off with my big sister Simone.

"One of the first girls I met was called Jenny and we stayed friends all the way through school and because we started in kindergarten in Alexandra College, Dublin, we all stayed within the same school the whole way through to senior college, so I made some great friends that I am still in touch with – but unfortunately don’t see often enough.

Looking back: “I remember thinking that my teacher was nice which made my first day go really well and the rest of my days at school were also very happy so I wouldn’t really have any advice for my four-year-old self and if I could do it all again, there is nothing I would change.”

Maria Walsh — former Rose of Tralee who represented Philadelphia, USA in 2014

“I will forever remember walking up to the front single panel door and being greeted by my principal Mr Dooley when I was aged seven.

Maria Walsh with a photograph of herself as a schoolgirl in Co Mayo after her family relocated from Boston. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Maria Walsh with a photograph of herself as a schoolgirl in Co Mayo after her family relocated from Boston. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

"He jokingly welcomed us in an American accent and was kind to my siblings and I — it was probably hard for him to believe that four children, hailing from Boston, Massachusetts would be at his school in a small village in Mayo.

“My teacher’s name was Mrs Keane and as I think back I wonder what she thought or felt having a new pupil in her class who didn’t comprehend the Irish school system yet.

"She had me sit to the left side of the classroom, towards the back. She was a strong tall woman and I believe I only got put in the bold corner once for talking back.

“Since I moved to the community of Shrule with my family in 1994, the friendships I developed started out of interest from my classmates in my accent and curiosity of who I was and where I moved from.

"If memory serves me well, the first person I sat beside was Mark Ronaldson, a Mayo footballer, who would ask me to his debs 10 years later.

Looking back: “ I would whisper to the young Maria to be kinder to herself.

"I would also remind her that when she goes to take that famous penalty on the little patch of green grass beside the school, to lift her foot higher which would avoid a broken wrist and a heavy cast in a rare hot summer in Ireland.”

Melissa Doran — illustrator

“I remember being a bit stunned seeing so many children of my age in the one place and I was delighted with the little chairs and tables.

"I hadn’t gone to play-school so it was all very new to me but a little boy took a shine to me and I was a bit put out about that.

Melissa Doran with a photo of herself as a schoolgirl in Herbert Park, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Melissa Doran with a photo of herself as a schoolgirl in Herbert Park, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

“ I was extremely excited as going to school meant I was finally big. I had been looking forward to it for over a year; putting the cool orange pencil case set my big sister gave me for my 3rd birthday in an old leather satchel and pretending I was going to school.

“My teacher was Miss Finnegan and I remember her being very kind to us and everyone loved her.

"We sang loads of songs — there was also lots of praying at the start of the day which I liked as I was big on holiness. Overall, I was delighted to be in school.

“I made lots of friends and even though I don’t see them too often there’ll always be a connection.

"I’m still friends with the coolest twin sisters ever — Mary and Nuala Whitney, who were just the best fun aged four and still are now they’re all grown up.

Looking back: “I might tell my four-year-old self not to tone down her crazy enthusiasm for life because that’s her magic power.”

* Melissa Doran’s latest book is Naturama, Gill Books, €22.99.

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