Mary and the Master

Mary's account of life as a monitress in an Ulster national school at Cogry Mills, Co. Antrim, in 1903 was described in her autobiographical book Roses to Rainbows written in 1972. Mary was an orphan, aged 15 years with three younger brothers and sisters, when she became a monitress in Cogry National School in 1903. Her vivid account written in the third person illustrates the reality of life in a rural national school in a way not available in the official reports of the period.

The master, John Parkinson McNally, a hard man, who often showed kindness to Mary, was a stickler for both cleanliness and godliness and so,

Each morning, every pupil presented hands and face for inspection, in dubious cases, necks and ears, and bare feet and legs also. The unfortunates who did not pass the inspection were lined up. The leader was handed a bucket of soft soap (a gift from the mill) and a towel. The line about-turned and headed for the river bank and a perilous climb to the river below. Even in the depths of winter, these children had to remove the cause of offence. The soap and towel were passed along the line of culprits until all had at least the appearance of cleanliness. The towel was sodden when it reached the last child. The river provided the towel itself with a final rinse. This sopping cloth was spread on the big room fire guard to dry for the dirty children of the morrow. To Mary it was a puzzle to decide where cleanliness began and hygiene ended!
Florence Mary McDowell, Roses to rainbows, Belfast, 1972, p. 24.

Corporal punishment was frequently inflicted and the master's word was absolute. He drove himself and everyone else without mercy and,

... found no difficulty in reconciling the love of God with soaking a bucketful of canes in cold water on Friday, ready for the slaughter of the innocents, dirty or stupid or both on the coming Monday. Swish! Swish! Swish! went the wet canes on trembling bony fingers thrust out with pale-faced bravado.
Florence Mary McDowell, Roses to Rainbows, Belfast, 1972, p. 25.


  1. Describe briefly the character of the Master of Cogry N.S. in 1903.


  1. Class groups are assigned short scenes from the experiences of Mary at school. Role play the scenes, one after the other.
  2. Paint or draw any scene based on the experiences of Mary at school.
  3. Compose a diary entry or a journal entry that Master John Parkinson McNally might have made in 1903.
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