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SCHOOL DAYS

IRISH FOR ALL

Newry was a very different place in the 1950's when fifteen year old Suzanne Grosset left her native France to start a job at Our Lady's Grammar School, but it was such a memorable time in her life that the now 85 year old remembers it all so vividly. Newry.ie is privileged to be able to tell her story.

A young Suzanne Grosset (now Ayala Meron) in 1955.
A young Suzanne Grosset (now Ayala Meron) in 1955.

Now Ayala Meron and living in Israel she recalls her adventure and hopes her grandchildren will make the journey to Ireland "that country I loved and still love so much."

The story starts in France back in 1952 as Ayala explains "I was born in a tiny village in the N.E of France. By the age of eleven I was educated at St Mary's Boarding School held by the Sisters of St Joseph. As my parents could not afford to send me to a secondary school I started working in a factory with my mother. I was only fifteen years old. When they heard that I gave up my studies, the nuns tried to find another job for me.

Suzanne Grosset in 1955

"On an autumn day in 1952 sister Alain rode to the village on her bicycle to my parents and shyly let them know she had some good news that could help me leaving the hard work in the factory, but they would have to agree to let me travel alone a bit far from home, even across the sea…to Ulster…A boarding school was looking for a young French girl as a help to the french teacher…

"Ulster was quite an unknown place to us ! How could I dream of such a journey from our distant village? And how is the climate over there? Also what was I supposed to do in an English speaking school? Was I prepared enough to live among a new society with such a poor knowledge of the language? The lessons we had at school mostly dealt with the Big Fire, the Plague, Kings and wars…No practical studies at all ! But I was so excited that my mother entrusted the nun and consented to the project"

A Wooden Trunk

Plans were made and as Ayala recalls "We immediately planned my departure; in Paris my uncle would buy my train and boat tickets- entirely refundable by Our Lady's School - Mum started to sew good warm clothes and filled a small green wooden trunk (not a mere suitcase, a trunk). And so, at the end of a cold October day, I left home and a long lonely way started via Paris, Dieppe, Newhaven, Dundalk, the border between the Irish Republic and Ulster…"

Ayala Meron today.
Ayala Meron today.

With a trunk carrying all her posessions ending up on the platform at Dundalk Railway Station as the train for Newry departed,  the young girls adventure began with ... a cup of tea!

Ayala explains "At the checking post my trunk remained on the train platform and I missed the coming train to Newry. The stationmaster took me under his protection, hurried to call  Our Lady's School to inform I would be late but safe in the next train, then he bought me a cup of tea (my first cup of tea…) a sandwich and even a magazine to comfort me.

"At last I arrived at Newry station. Two young girls in blue uniform - pleated skirt, black stockings, blue jumper with a celluloid white collar, blue and white striped scarf- waited for the new guest in "frenchy" clothes. A taxi drove us to Our Lady's School, an impressive building in Canal Street …"

Fitting in with the locals!

Recalling her job Ayala says "A few days after I arrived, Sister François de Sales gave me to understand that I would have to look more or less like the boarders, therefore give up my "frenchy" clothes, but not meaning a uniform;  it took me a few days to knit a nice sweater to  wear on a skirt of mine.

"All I had to do was to attend Miss McConville's french lessons , read french texts and correct the girls' mispronunciation. Also teach the junior ones some french nursery rhymes that I played on the piano. In return I was paid two pounds a week and I could spend my spare time at leisure.

"Day after day I got quite accustomed to the boarding conditions and activities. the weekly walk, the dormitory with the senior girls, the dining hall with the long tables and white table cloth and everyone's fork and spoon wrapped all the same way in their white napkin, the evening general meeting in the vast room and Greta playing the piano for the girls to dance; the night prayers in bed; the early awakening at dawn to join the nuns at the convent for the first  Mass. On Sundays, the priests invited me for a friendly chat. I still remember Father Boyd…Once a week all the boarders gathered to watch series on Sir Galahad. Though I did not really share their enthusiasm I would join the group not  to be by myself.

"When all the boarders were sent to their families to celebrate the great feasts I was invited by some of them: for Christmas Mary and Veronica Hughes took me to their village where I spent a few marvellous days, and for Easter it was Brenda to Warrenpoint "

The Nuns

Remembering some of the nuns at Our Lady's Ayala explains "The nuns were very nice to me and I felt very sad when Sister Patrick left for another convent. Sister de Sales once found me playing the piano; she sent me to the music teacher for a few lessons. She also let me take part in the domestic class. Once back home I was very proud to try the buns and scotch egg recipe and for years I wore the shirt and skirt I sew there. ( I still have a picture of myself standing in the garden at the foot of the Virgin statue)…Another event I will never forget is the day when we all assembled in the garden to pray for Mother Columbanus' soul; it was so moving, so impressive!"

A major part in my life

Explaining how in a roundabout way her time in Newry contributed towards getting back to studying Ayala adds "That year 1954 I remember there lived at the boardng school a nice widow whose name I have forgotten (she had a daughter Veronica). I here mention her because, unconsciously, she played a major part in my life. June was getting near and I had a project before returning home, A friend of mine who was sorry I had given up my studies sent me a large parcel of books hoping I had time and desire to perfect my culture. Lille in the north of France was associated to London: it means that there was a French secondary school where I could register and sit for the french bachelor examination. As London was on my way back home it was worth trying.  But I had nowhere to spend the requested time. Mrs….recommended me to her relatives, her own sister Mrs Scruby. Though having four children, the Scruby couple kindly entertained me some three or four weeks. Thanks to their hospitality I later could take my first steps to the university…And I was lucky enough to wach on their TV the whole ceremony of Queen Elisabeth's Coronation Day…"

Memories so Vivid

Ayala concludes "I long languished those ten months I spent at our Lady's School; I had opportunities to return to Ireland but never to Newry; yet my memories remained so vivid. Today I am an eighty-five year old woman. I live in Israel, have four children and nine grandchildren. I wish everyone of them to take a long tour to Ireland, that country I loved and still love so much  - Ayala Meron (born Suzanne Grosset)"

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