At its best, a Christian Brothers’ education was second to none
Nostalgia may not be what it was but it is hard to escape its grip on occasion. Forty years ago I was entering my final year with the Christian Brothers in Belfast. Three A-level exams and an uncertain future after that awaited. I was born and raised in the city and was at the Christian Brothers from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s.
To describe Belfast at that time as abnormal would be to downplay it. It was always tense and, too often, violent. You would not get through a day without seeing a British army or RUC patrol of one sort or another and the paramilitaries, of all shades, operated in the shadows, destroying life and property as they wished. There were shootings, there were bombings – and life went on.
It is in this context that I, and many like me, went to school. Very often the Christian Brothers are discussed in a negative context. The horror stories that happened to some children under their care are there to be seen and should not be ignored. Violence leaves a very deep scar on people and one can only hope that legal remedies and support will offer some resolution to those affected.
Yet I am one of those who got an education second to none. My father had been schooled by them in Belfast too, back in the 1930s when the schooling was dog rough as indeed was much else for working-class Catholics in an Ireland that had only recently been partitioned. Rough as it was, it did not stop him from sending me to the Christian Brothers and I, in turn, sent my son to the school I attended.
Oddly too, given that this is August, the Month of Internment, another contemporary popped into my head. His father was one of those interned. The British army smashed up the house and left my classmate and his family in bits as they carted off their father – who was not in the IRA – to Long Kesh. The father made sure that his sons also attended the Christian Brothers, being firmly of the belief that they instilled Irish culture in their students.
(There is an added irony here. In the odd way that the Irish media have it, being abused by a Brother is wrong – it is absolutely – but having your pan knocked in by a British squaddie is just one of those things that must be understood in the context of difficult and challenging times that are now behind us and we should all move forward.)
The Brothers did promote Ireland – in the cultural sense. There were no tricolours at the school – they would happily have seen us go into the priesthood but not the Provos – but Irish was there and so were Gaelic games. The first words of Irish I was taught were from a Brother. He is long dead by now and I often wonder how he and his fellow Brothers, with their strange, soft southern accents managed to survive Belfast and its barbarians.
With languages come books, of course. First Steps in Irish would have been the first Irish-language book I ever read and the Christian Brothers’ New Irish Grammar is one that I still have on my shelf and often refer to. (Languages brought prayers too. Once upon a time, I could recite the Hail Mary in Irish, French, German and Italian.)
The odd thing, I suppose, was that they put no bar on us learning languages, or maths or music, art, chemistry or physics. The fact that those who went before you had had no, or very little, formal education in this field was neither here nor there. That was then; this was now. They wanted you to learn, to get on, to get to university. Why wouldn’t you read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock or Wilfred Owen’s poetry? It was all there for you and was taught so that you might better understand the machinations of politicians and patriots who would, happily, throw your life away while not risking theirs.
Those books had a profound effect. Irish was the language I married and German the lover who got away – though not entirely. We read Heinrich Böll as part of our course and one of those books still sits on the shelf, Doktor Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen, a collection of his short stories.
Is it too melodramatic to suggest that, even aged 17/18 in Belfast, the simple line from the story “Damals in Odessa” (At that time in Odessa) where the Wehrmacht soldier says: “Wir wollten nicht sterben”/ “We did not want to die” struck a chord? (Damals i mBéal Feirste, you would have seen soldiers every day.)
Or the very black humour in Mein teures Bein (My expensive leg) where the one-legged veteran must show up to the office to prove that he is, in fact, one-legged and ends up berating the official that he, the soldier, was sorry he had not been shot dead as they would have saved money.
It is life-changing literature and, funnily enough, Böll mentioned the North in his speech when accepting his Nobel prize for literature: “Even in the extreme western reaches of Europe our rationality is in opposition to another, which we simply label irrational. The horrifying problem of Northern Ireland nevertheless consists of the fact that here two kinds of reason have been entangled and hopelessly attacked one another for centuries.”
Yes, we were on the “extreme western reaches of Europe” but he, at least, recognised we were of Europe. There were those, a few miles further south, who would not – and do not accept – that we are even of Ireland. What always amazes me is that he felt the need to mention the little Irish field in which I lived. Yes, he had been to Achill by then and through Dublin but he obviously had not got the memo on partition. Yet the education we were receiving was not just Irish but European, that is to say, continental in its reach. Those studying languages to A-level, Leaving Cert roughly, were going to read writers who were not, by any stretch of the imagination, doctrinally Catholic. But they were read and discussed.
That said, there is no cachet in being taught by the Brothers. It is not like the Jesuits, I think, which has a little more appeal to the middle class. The Brothers educate those generations of Irish – before, since and now – who belong to that class of the Irish who veer between owning next to nothing to owning absolutely nothing. You know the vast majority of rural and urban Irish people, then and now.
Edmund Rice opened his first school in 1802 in Waterford. Almost 180 years later, I entered one of his schools in Belfast. The Brothers’ education system survived the Great Famine, uprisings, world wars, partition and sectarian violence. It borders on the miraculous that I was caught up in their net. My great-grandfather was born in Newbridge in Co. Kildare around 1862 – which means his mother, my great-great-grandmother was alive, possibly, when Blessed Edmund Rice died in 1844. (I have no exact date for her birth or death.)
My paternal great-grandfather ended up working on a country estate in Donegal where he married my great-grandmother who was from Gleanarm in County Antrim, a village that is as picturesque as it is remote. Their son, my grandfather, was born in Donegal, laboured in Scotland’s fields during the Great War and ended up in Belfast just in time for partition and the pogroms. My father was born in the city and went to school with the Brothers and had to leave school at 14, as did many of his generation. The Rice boy from Kilkenny and the Murrays from Kildare had finally collided together a hundred or so years after Rice’s death, Leinster meeting Leinster in Ulster.
I apologise if this all seems a little second-hand Sebald but there is no other way to tell the story – and this is only one story, from many, that pertain to the Christians Brothers. Others, tragically, have ones that break your heart. This is no defence of that which cannot be defended but another strand, the story of the many who were offered an education and hope. Get up, go on, get to university.
It was men’s liberation in many ways, an escape from fields and factories – God bless the patriarchy! – for the Christian Brothers’ boys who learned how to read and write as well as the best of them and who were, bit by bit, able to work in arenas which had been beyond their ken before.
In the end, I suppose, there can only be prayer, thanks for the good fortune and remembrance for those who were not as lucky:
Je vous salue Marie
Atá lán de ghrásta
Der Herr ist mit dir…