Tinteán commissioned DANNY CUSACK, Freelance Irish Historian, to tell us more about the significance of the School Featured in the film, Sing Street.
A recent RTE TV documentary Last Orders which examined the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland over the last 200 years opened with a scene in which 82 year-old retired RTE TV and radio personality Gay Byrne was filmed strolling amiably around the grounds of his alma mater Synge Street Christian Brothers School (CBS) while sharing with his audience his memories. They were for the most part unhappy ones. A portion of the programme which followed was devoted to a consideration of the role of the Christian Brothers in Irish education, with special attention to the ‘Synger’.
The geographical Synge Street is located in south inner city Dublin. It is named after Church of Ireland bishop Edward Synge (1671-1762) who owned land in the area at the time of his death. The bishop was the great great great granduncle of playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909), author of Playboy of the Western World. Not much more than 300 metres in length, the street traverses three blocks and runs north-south parallel to Camden Street. Travelling southwards it crosses Harrington Street, where it is bounded by the landmark Harrington Street Church, before terminating at Lennox Street in Portobello, once the tiny Jewish quarter of Dublin. The Grand Canal forms the southern boundary of Portobello. Nearby Harrington Street soon becomes South Circular Road.
Despite its name, Synge Street in fact has a direct connection with an even more famous playwright: George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw was born at 33 Synge Street on 26 July 1856 and his first home served as the GB Shaw Museum from 1993 until 2012. Its current status is indeterminate pending repairs and the resolution of custodial issues.
Founded in 1864, Synge Street CBS has for most of its history been one of Dublin’s best known boys schools. It boasts many famous ex-pupils. Writers, musicians, politicians and media personalities feature prominently. Appropriately enough given the Shaw/Synge connection, the ‘Synger’ has produced a host of significant literary figures.
Writer James Plunkett (1920-2003) and poets Pearse Hutchinson (1927-2012) and John Jordan (1930-88) were all taught by one of the school’s best known teachers novelist/broadcaster Francis Mac Manus (1909-65) who gives his name to the Francis McManus Awards presented in conjunction with RTE Radio’s annual short story competition. His Australian namesake and contemporary, DLP Senator Frank McManus (1905 – 83), was himself a Christian Brothers boy who attended CBS North Melbourne. Tyrone-born writer and satirist Brian O’Nolan [alias Flann O’Brien] (1911-66) was another distinguished ex-pupil of Synge Street, his family having moved to Dublin during his boyhood years.
Well-known actors who attended the school include Milo O’Shea (1928-2013), Noel Purcell (1900-85), Donal Donnelly (1931-2010), David Kelly (1931-2010) and Eamonn Morrissey (1943- ). Musicians include the jazz guitarist Louis Stewart (1944 – August 2016), singer/songwriter Pete St John and Derek Warfield (1943- ) of the Wolfe Tones.
Amongst political figures are republican leader Harry Boland (1887-1922), a member of the first Dáil in 1919 subsequently killed during the Civil War, former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave Jnr (1920 – ), former President Cearbhaill Ó Dálaigh (1911-78) and prominent ministers Fine Gael’s Richie Ryan (1929- ) and Fianna Fáil’s Michael Woods (1935- ). The late Tony Gregory (1947-2009), independent TD for Dublin Central from 1981, taught at the school for a short time after graduating from college.
Prominent media personalities, apart from Gay Byrne, include renowned BBC TV presenter Eamon Andrews (1922-87) and RTE broadcaster Mike Murphy (1941 – ). Historian Robin Dudley Edwards (1909 – 1988) was another Synge Street boy. So too was historian Daire Keogh, current president of St Patrick’s College Drumcondra (in which role he succeded fellow historian Pauric Travers, well known to many of our readers).
The socio-economic background of Synge Street boys would have been overwhelmingly working-class or lower middle-class. Our roll call of some of the school’s luminaries has served to underline the enduring influence of the ‘Synger’ on Irish public life and culture. Needless to say, there is not a single female in sight amongst the all-male line-up.
Synge Street itself has however come to reflect the changing face of 21st century multi-cultural multi-faith Ireland. In 2007 one of the older buildings owned by the Christian Brothers (no. 15 Synge Street) was converted into The Lantern Intercultural Centre whose stated purpose is to ‘facilitate the emergence of a truly multicultural society by bridging the current cultural and religious differences’ in Irish society. The Centre whose principal sponsor is the European Province of the Brothers hosts immigrants from up to thirty countries, some of whom are ‘amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in Ireland’.
The website of the Centre currently lists nearly sixty groups using the premises – groups and activities as diverse and varied as, for example, the Bhajan Singers, the Brazilian Mothers, the Estonian Folk Group, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the International Women’s Support Group, the Iraqi Community, the Muslims’ Organisation Forum, Silence in the City (part of the New Monasticism Movement), Shiva Yoga Classes, the Tamil Community, the Togolese Community and Zen Buddhist Meditation.
Based on a couple of visits to The Lantern, this writer can attest personally to the welcoming atmosphere and the quality of the facilities on offer. In this respect at least the modern day Synge Street – both the street and the school itself ‒ would be scarcely recognisable to the young schoolboy that Gay Byrne was in the 1940s.
West-Australian born Danny Cusack completed a Ph.D at Murdoch University in 2002 on Meath-born West Australian senator Paddy Lynch. He has lived and worked in Ireland as a freelance historian for several decades. He is available to undertake research projects, including family history, and does much research for Australian-based historians, academics and writers. He also has a keen interest in Irish literature, especially poetry. Whilst living in Melbourne in the early 1980s he began one of the earliest discussion groups in Australia on Heaney’s poetry. He now lives in Kells, Co. Meath can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.