Christian Brothers left their mark on me and many of my old pals

I suspect the reason why the violence ebbed was because as the boys grew bigger, they hit back and, on more than one occasion, got the better of the teacher.

Very occasionally I got a thump, too, usually for speaking out of turn. You learnt quickly, though, that the best way of avoiding assault was to keep the head down

THE Christian Brothers left their mark on hundreds of thousands of Irish boys. From personal experience I can say they did so by choosing from a range of weapons including leather straps, metre-long wooden sticks, bamboo shoots and their fists.

Their targets included the hands, backsides (where the edge of rulers were used in slicing motions, in an action known as a “cheeser”) and heads of the boys in their classes.

The memories came back this week when I read of the decision of the Christian Brothers to hand responsibility for the near 100 schools under their control — both primary and secondary — to a special lay-administered trust.

There are too few brothers of teaching age left to carry the responsibilities. So care has been left to a group of eminent figures who have undertaken to uphold the ethos and traditions of the schools. But their list of aspirations bears little resemblance to what I remember as being the practice. My main memory is the culture of violence and control.

I’m not exaggerating. I went to the North Monastery CBS in Cork from 1978 to 1983 and witnessed the assaults regularly. I saw some boys get pretty serious beatings, although not enough to require hospitalisation, sometimes for the most trivial offences. Even when the boys did things seriously out of line, they didn’t deserve the physical punishment that was sometimes meted out, most usually in the early years of secondary school.

It didn’t happen often by the time we got to Leaving Cert, possibly because the culture changed for the better as the years went on under a more tolerant principal called Brother Tallon, a man I can’t remember even threatening to resort to violence. But he didn’t know all of what was going on in his classrooms.

I suspect the reason why the violence ebbed as we got older was because as the boys grew bigger, they hit back and, on more than one occasion, got the better of the teacher.

Very occasionally I got a thump, too, usually for speaking out of turn. You learnt quickly, though, that the best way of avoiding assault was by keeping the head down and toeing the line. You were disciplined through fear. You were controlled.

The brothers gave every lay teacher a leather strap that all kept in their lockers and which some brought to their classes to put to frequent use. Corporal punishment in schools was made illegal about that time, but that didn’t stop many teachers from continuing to administer beatings. But the brothers were among the worst at it. Some seemed to think it was their right because they were always right. One particular brother was notorious for it, particularly when he gave up smoking for Lent or on Monday, the day of the week when he was not charged with bringing classes to the playing fields during the afternoons for hurling.

He was likely to administer a hiding if he found any miscreant away from his desk or doing just about anything to incur his displeasure. It seemed to improve his mood. He was feared, but never respected. I doubt if he cared.

Some of the brothers may have enjoyed the violence; others used it as the only way they seemed to know of enforcing control. It rarely occurred to them to reason with teenage boys. They rarely considered that the bad behaviour of the children could have been caused by a range of reasons, including difficult domestic backgrounds and learning problems, and that beatings were not going to change any of that.

Worse, they gave the example to many impressionable boys that the way to establish control or to settle disputes was by the use of assault. Violence begets violence, after all.

Sometimes, though, the boys preferred a thump to the verbal tirades a few of the teachers used to administer as their new-found alternative to the strap once corporal punishment was banned officially. Two in particular had replaced their legendary preference for use of the leather strap — which they both boasted of once using — with lashes from the tongue. Sarcasm was the preferred weapon as they denigrated us as stupid and worthless and bullied us into performing as they wanted. The idea may have been that it created strength and character. It worked for some, but for others it wrecked their self-esteem.

Strangely, one of the teachers helped us to achieve spectacular results in what was then the Inter Cert, making sure everybody learnt the Latin syllabus by rote and resulting in all but two getting A grades.

But everybody hated their treatment so much that all but 12 abandoned the subject for the Leaving Cert, even though it held out the promise of relatively easy points. Our reward was a new teacher, a brother, who was at retirement age and in poor health. He hit us as a matter of routine, but was too feeble to do any real damage. We regarded him as mad and laughed even more at him, although on one occasion he did actually inflict serious harm on one of my friends, at which stage the laughing stopped.

All of that said, I don’t regret having attended the North Mon for my secondary schooling, although it was a complete shock compared to the much more sedate St Joseph’s national school on the Mardyke, run by the Presentation Brothers, where I had gone previously. (As an aside, the BBC’s Fergal Keane, who was four or five years ahead of me, wrote in his memoirs of how tough a school he had found St Joseph’s to be after moving from Dublin, and how much more civilised he found his senior school, Presentation College, to be. I’ve told him I found that memory astonishing, that St Joseph’s was soft, as it should have been).

I HAVE very good memories of most of the people who were in my class at the North Mon and the height of respect for most of them, too. They drove themselves to succeed in spite of, not because of, the culture at the North Mon. Some remain very good friends — including one who is godfather to my one of sons. Some of the teachers — most particularly a young man from Kerry called Vincent Healy, who was new to teaching, went out of their way to encourage us, doing what we might have expected of the brothers and other lay teachers.

But unless we were talented hurlers — and few in my class were — the school did not inculcate a culture of ambition. We were to be controlled, reminded of our Catholicism and to subscribe to a brand of Irishness that distrusted anything alien, especially the despised foreign games (notwithstanding that nearby Christian Brothers College played rugby).

It may have been the way of Cork in those times, but I think it was more a case of us being written off because we did not come from privileged backgrounds. Of the 37 in my class in 1983, a teacher discovered that for 21 of us, nobody in our homes — father, mother, sister or brother — was working. The idea was that any job would do. The idea of a career was hardly ever mentioned. The North Mon had a tradition of producing many top public servants and the most famous past pupil was Jack Lynch, still Taoiseach when I started in the school. But I never remember being told that we too could succeed like him — unless it was in winning hurling medals.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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