28 May 2009

More than one side to the Irish Christian Brothers

The Ryan Report, published in Ireland last week, shows the Christian Brothers, founded by Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice (picture) in 1808 and known as the Irish Chrstian Brothers when I was young, in very bad light. A question that troubles me now, in the light of the Ryan Report, is, did these men to whom I am so grateful, who influenced me so much, in whom I saw dedication and commitment, did they know what was going on in Artane, Letterfrack and Tralee? And if they did, what did they do about it?

One of the most influential persons in my life was a Christian Brother.

The Brothers always had a reputation for toughness. My late father, who went to North Brunswick Street School, ‘Brunner’, in Dublin in the 1920s used to tell us stories of some teachers, brothers and lay, unmercifully beating up boys. (Strictly speaking, religious, both men and women’ are part of the laity). However, he’d also tell us about the teachers, both Brothers and lay, who were kind. I don’t think that Dad himself ever got excessive punishment. When he’d tell his stories he didn’t show any anger or seem to question what he had seen, though he himself was the most gentle of persons who never raised his voice to anyone, including the men who worked under him on construction sites for years.

When I was with the Irish Sisters of Charity in Stanhope Street, Dublin, from 1947 till 1951, I think that the teachers, all laywomen, used a short stick now and again on our hands. But I don’t associate those years with fear or punishment. Sister Margaret Stanislaus, the principal of the boys’ kindergarten, who prepared us for First Holy Communion, once told me to stay behind after school for some misdemeanor or other. I walked out right under her nose when classes ended and never heard any more about it.

My parents wanted me to have the best education they could afford and had me apply in O’Connell Schools, founded in 1828 and named in honour of Daniel O’Connell, ‘The Liberator’, largely responsible for Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom in 1829. The whole of Ireland was part of the UK at the time. Most of the Penal Laws against Catholics were repealed then.

The Brothers had a reputation for narrow-minded Irish nationalism. My very first teacher in O’Connell’s, the late Brother John Dobson, who left the congregation some years later and with whom I renewed contact when in the seminary, gave me a great love for the Irish language. I learned later that he was English, though of Irish parentage. I remember very clearly our class praying, in Irish, for the repose of the soul of King George VI when he died in February 1952. So much for narrow-minded Irish nationalism.

I didn’t have Brothers teaching me again until my last year in primary school, 1955-56. I was in a scholarship class and, unlike any other section in the whole school, we had two brothers teaching us, Brother Morgan Felix Donnelly, with whom I have kept in contact ever since, and Brother John Felix Kelly, who left the congregation some time after my ordination. Both were present at my First Mass, as I recall, certainly Brother Kelly. We had our scholarship exam, given by Dublin Corporation, now known as Dublin City Council, during Easter Week 1956. The two Brothers gave themselves heart and soul to us during that year, wanting only the best for us. Some of my classmates weren’t eligible for the scholarship exam, for which there was a means test, but they got the same attention as everyone else.

One incident I remember vividly was a few weeks before Easter. Brother Kelly gave me a couple of slaps on the palm of the hand with the leather strap that teachers in the school used. (I never saw any other kind of instrument used by anyone and our parents approved of its use, provided it wasn’t excessive, and in my experience it never was). Strictly speaking, Brother Kelly was wrong as I was punished for my work, not for misbehaviour. Then he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘The sooner this exam is over the better’. I saw there a teacher, a fellow human being, who was undergoing tension like the rest of us. That's what has remained with me for 53 years, not the momentary sting from the leather.

As it happened, all of us won scholarships to pay for our secondary education, eight of us in the Top Ten, as I recall, with yours truly at the very top.

During my primary school years I came to know an exceptional person, Brother Mícheál Ó Flaitile, known as ‘Pancho’ from the sidekick of the Cisco Kid, a syndicated comic-strip that we used to

read in The Irish Press. Our 'Pancho', like the Cisco Kid's friend, was on the pudgy side. He organized an Irish-speaking club and arranged for me to be secretary. I don’t think I was too happy at the time to get that job but I realized later that he had spotted my ability to write. Other teachers had encouraged me in this too.

My class was blessed to have had Brother Ó Flaitile in our last two years in secondary school, 1959 to 1961, when we were preparing for our all-important Leaving Certificate examination. He taught us Irish and Latin. He probably should have been teaching at university level. What I remember most of all about him was his character. Everyone described him as ‘fear uasal’, the Irish for 'a noble man' – as distinct from 'a nobleman’. A stare from him made you feel humbled, but not humiliated. He had the kind of authority that we read in the gospels Jesus had.

I remember one event in our last year. ‘Pancho’ used to take the A and B sections for religion together in our last class before lunch every day for religion class. One day he scolded a student in the B section for something trivial or other and the student himself and the rest of us took it in our stride and forgot about it. We were nearly 70 boys aged between 16 and 18. The next day Brother Ó Flaitile apologized to the boy in question and to the rest of us because he had discovered that the student hadn’t done what he had accused him of. Whatever it was, it had been very insignificant. But ‘Pancho’’s apology was for me a formative moment. I mentioned it to him many years later when he was in his 80s. He told me he didn’t remember the incident, but he smiled. He died in the late 1980s.

About three years ago a classmate told me about an incident between himself and Brother Ó Flaitile in 1959 when we were on a summer school/holiday in an Irish-speaking part of County Galway. If my friend had told me the story at the time I wouldn’t have believed him. He got angry with ‘Pancho’ over something or other and used a four-letter word that nobody would ever express to an adult, least of all a religious brother and teacher whom we revered. The lad stormed back to the house where he was staying and before too long felt remorse. He went back to ‘Pancho’ and apologized. The Brother accepted this totally and unconditionally and never referred to the incident again.

After my father, I don't think that anyone else influenced me more for good when I was young than 'Pancho'.

I remember the annual Gilbert and Sullivan operas, pure English Victoriana, that we produced every January in school, spending a good part of the Christmas holidays rehearsing, some of the Brothers painting the scenery, helping with the music and getting involved in many other ways. This wasn’t narrow-minded Irish nationalism.

Did 'Pancho' and the others know what was really going on? What I experienced between 1951 and 1961 and what was going on in other places during those years don't fit together for me.

New logo of Christian Brothers.

1 comment:

Michael Downes said...

Yes, I do recall some kindly Christian Brothers but the education than I and many classmates remember from our time at Prior Park Preparatory School, Cricklade, UK, in the 1950s, is full of horrific memories. Do take a look at http://millstonesblog.blogspot.com/ if you can bear it. Those experiences of course, were relatively mild compared many others.