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16 October 2014
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Stephen Brown
Stephen Brown

Stephen Brown comes from Derry and is currently teaching at a Secondary school near Oxford. He has published one novel to date, 'Under the Devil Tree' (available through the website) about teenagers growing up in Derry in the 1980's and is working on his second novel.

The Great Lawn Run by Stephen Brown

‘What is the real name of this dear dirty town that you all live in, or around?’ the teacher asked before
pausing dramatically.

This is clearly a trick question, Richard thought. Although this was an English class it was being taken by the Irish language teacher. He did not expect the answer to be Londonderry. So Richard ventured his hand.


‘Derry, what?’

‘Derry. Sir.’

The teacher shook his head. ‘That is, at least, more correct than…’ The teacher’s face contorted in disgust. ‘Than that bastardization that some people use, by adding the name of the inexorable English capital. But still, no, not correct.’

The boys were now all completely baffled.

Kieran Burns lived across the border in Burt. He was almost fluent in the Irish language and showed a confidence in Irish lessons that he lacked in all other subjects. He raised a hand, his brows furrowed in concentration.

‘Doire, sir.’

The teacher put his hand on Burns’ shoulder tenderly and patted.

‘Doire, certainly, is… half right.’

He turned, and paced back and forth, rubbing his chin.

‘But the full name, the proper name, the true name, is… Doire Colmcille.’

He said these words slowly and wrote them on the blackboard.

Richard had seen this first word before somewhere, but he had thought that it was pronounced ‘Dour.’ What the teacher said was something more like ‘Dirra.’ ‘Dirra Columkilla.’

Richard uttered the name under his breath. It seemed both harsh and exotic. It reminded him of the bitter taste of marmalade.

‘Repeat after me,’ the teacher said.

The boys chanted the name like a kind of mantra. ‘Dirra Columkilla. Dirra Columkilla.’

‘Doire,’ the teacher said, ‘means oak grove in Gaelic. And an oak grove once stood on this very spot where you are sitting today. And over a thousand years ago Saint Colmcille founded a monastery on this spot and that monastery grew into the city that we have today. And so you don’t live in Londonderry, and you don’t live in Derry, and you don’t even live in Doire. No. If anyone asks you where you live, you should give the full grand title of this historic city. Doire Columcille. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.’

A pupil entered with a note, which he passed to the teacher.

‘Richard Green. Go to see Mr McGilloway at once.’

Richard stood outside the room, waiting for McGilloway to emerge. He looked out the window, down across the valley, the Brandywell, the Bogside, the houses packed tightly together, the cemetery, and up towards his home in Creggan. There was a pall of smoke on the horizon beyond the cemetery.

McGilloway came out of his room and signalled with his finger for Richard to follow. ‘I’ve been talking to your father. A civil fellow. And we’ve been discussing your… prospects.’ McGiloway halted. ‘Remember, that we only have your welfare in mind. You might not thank us now but in a few years you will understand. The progress you have been making is steady. But nothing special. Average is a word that springs to mind.’ McGilloway grinned. ‘But there is nothing wrong with average.’

McGilloway stared momentarily out the window and towards the estates. He looked at his thumb and index finger. They were coated with chalk. He licked both in one deft movement and seemed to savour the dryness in his mouth. ‘If you stick with it, and you’re lucky, you might end up with a job in the civil service.’

The floorboards creaked under Mr McGilloways’ soft grey shoes. His hands were clasped behind his back and he stooped a little as he walked slowly down the corridor. The air was musty and reeked of McGilloways’ pipe tobacco.

‘That’s what you should be aiming for. A good steady job. Find yourself a good wife, a good Catholic wife mind you, and you’ll be set up rightly.’ McGilloway patted Richard’s shoulder.

‘Yes, Sir,’ was all that Richard could manage.

The pipe smoke filled Richard’s lungs. He nodded and wondered what the civil service could be. He imagined it to be some sort of army.

It was the last day of term. Richard wanted nothing more than to make his way down through the great lawn in front of the college. The boys were normally not allowed on the lawn, but it was an end of term ritual to break the rule. He wanted to exit the main gate and be free for the summer.

He walked with McGilloway back towards the English classroom.

‘Your father seems to agree with me that that’s what you should be aiming for. You should be aware that you’re…’

The bell rang out from the tower just one floor above.

When he arrived back at the English classroom Richard found that the others had already left. He packed his exercise book into his worn out leather sports bag and hurried to the front door where he met Ronan, Anthony and Brendan. He would walk part of the way home with them. They stood by the big wooden door watching the other boys gathering before the great lawn.

‘Come on, Green,’ Brendan called. ‘We’re waiting on you.’

St Columb’s was a grammar school and the boys followed strict rules imposed by the priests who occupied all the important positions. There were only first and second year students on the site. Older boys attended another site at the other end of town. Richard and his friends were in the first year. They had all heard of the tradition of running the lawn as the last act of the school year. Normally boys might receive a strapping for cutting across the corner of the lawn when moving between lessons. Today’s licence was a symbolic opening of the floodgates for the summer.

‘Start as you mean to go on,’ Ronan said. ‘This is gonna be one hell of a summer. I’ve had enough of this place.’

Although he knew that the teachers could not punish all two hundred boys for this flagrant breach of school rules, Richard still felt a pang of guilt in his stomach. He wondered where the teachers were now. Most had finished their classes. Since the school day was ending early there were no buses. The boys had to make their own way home. That meant that there’d be no teachers by the front gate on bus duty. They must have all headed for the staff room, relieved that the term had ended and turning a blind eye for once to the boys’ high spirits.

‘Maybe we should burn the whole place down,’ Ronan said.

‘Start with the stairway,’ Brendan said. ‘Then they’d never get out.’

The boys noticed Father Wallace walking towards the main building from the Gaelic football pitches. There was a stir amongst the main crowd.

‘I hope he comes over and tries to stop us,’ Ronan said. ‘I hope he stands in the middle of the lawn. We’ll stampede over him. We’ll trample that black dress of his into the mud.’

‘Sure he’s not the worst of them,’ Richard said.

Father Wallace waved to some boys who had called to him and then walked around the side of the building.

‘Right,’ said Ronan eagerly. ‘What are we waiting for?’

‘They’re making sure everybody’s here,’ Brendan said. ‘There’s one or two classes yet to get out.’

‘Safety in numbers,’ Richard said.

‘We should go on without them,’ Ronan said. ‘I’ve got an hour’s walk ahead of me.’

Another two groups of boys had joined the crowd and there was a distinct movement towards the edge of the great lawn. Richard, Anthony, Ronan and Brendan darted out to the main group and pushed their way to the front. The mass of boys heaved forward, and then stopped, hesitant, as if struggling with the instinct that said that this could bring punishment.

The sound of the bell ringing once more from the tower behind them was the signal the boys needed. No one knew who had rung the bell or why, but no one asked. They glanced to each other, with a delighted expression on each face. It was Ronan who headed out into the lawn first. His bag bounced up and down on his back as he jogged nonchalantly down the slope. The others followed and within seconds one hundred boys were charging down the lawn. Many of the boys lumbered under the weight of heavy bags full of the books they had to empty from lockers.

Kevin Burns ran alongside Richard. Kevin laughed hysterically and Richard could hear his high pitched shrieks above the roars of the other boys. Then the shrieks stopped. Richard glanced round and saw Kevin tumbling head over heels. Another boy tumbled over Kevin. Richard almost tripped up as he twisted his body to see behind. He felt exhilaration, being part of the great charging crowd of boys. All the despondency he had felt during the year seemed far behind. The pain of long hard winter days in Maths lessons and Latin lessons, and the chill of playing rugby in the snow, receded with each pace. He dug his heel into the ground deeper as he got closer to the far end of the lawn. He thought of all the telling offs he had received for taking a short cut across the corner of the lawn when he was late for a lesson. He thought of the strappings he had received for not doing homework, for not learning his Irish verbs, for not learning his Shakespeare recitation. With a last skip over the low chain at the end of the lawn he left all that far behind. He emerged out on to the road outside the school gates and slipped out of his blazer like a shed skin.

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