A word for the Brothers

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An essay by Frank O’Shea

He did not shout, he did not clout,
But went his gentle way
To bring the light to souls that stood
Full ankle-deep in clay.
He locked the leather in the press
And burned the hazel stick;
‘Twas then we all threw doubts upon
The mind of Brother Mick.
(Sigerson Clifford 1955)

He had glasses originally, but they did not survive a lifetime of packing and moving. He was a gift from a young woman after she found out that the man she was dating and would soon marry was a maths teacher. Looking at him now, more than half a century IMG_0540.JPGlater, the thing that strikes you is not the duster in his pocket or the maths book in his right hand but the stick in his other hand. He was a teacher and in those distant days, a stick or cane was as much part of his uniform as the white toque of the chef or the stethoscope around the doctor’s neck – ‘a sign of your profession’, as Shakespeare put it.

‘They whipped and we learned’ was how Johnson is said to have described his 19th century schooling and it was still basically the story of instruction in Ireland and everywhere else a century later. It was the accepted – the expected – way of doing things: the teacher who might have raised blisters on his students’ hands during the week would mix easily with their parents at church or pub or football game at the weekend.

But back then, we realised that the champions at the strap or cane were the Christian Brothers. Their schools were harsh places, we believed, and if our parents ever got a complaint that we were not doing our schoolwork, the ultimate threat was that if we didn’t improve, we would be ‘sent to the Brothers.’ The image of the Christian Brothers was that they were champions in the use of corporal punishment.

Historians of the Brothers show that their founder, the Kilkenny merchant Edmund Rice, was in fact strongly against the whippings and floggings common in his day. He and his schools were counter-cultural in their attempts to curtail the callous cruelty that was

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Blessed Edmund Rice 1762-1844

then common. That his attempts did not survive him is reflected in the reputation for harshness that his brothers would take with them wherever they went in the world.

Incidentally, Rice was not the only founder who tried to remove corporal punishment from his schools. His contemporary, Marcellin Champagnat, founder of the Marist Brothers, was equally determined that his teachers would use kindness and encouragement rather than punishment. Knowing human nature, he made small rules to help cut down the opportunities for his teachers to beat their students, by ordering that pointers used to pick out work on a blackboard or places on an atlas, should be attached to the wall. A century earlier, John Baptist de la Salle also tried to take beatings out of his schools.

Both of those French priests have been made saints by the church, but Rice is still playing with the reserves. As Brendan Behan said about any Irish organisation, the first item on the agenda would always be ‘the split’, and so it was with the early Christian Brothers. They tried to push Rice out of the order he had founded and a group of them in Cork broke away to form the Presentation Brothers; some of them even tried to suggest that they were really founded by de la Salle. If you thought that Cork-Kilkenny rivalry started with Christy Ring and Ollie Walsh, you should read the history of the Christian Brothers.

So we go forward a hundred years to a time when Sigerson Clifford wrote in praise of one of his teachers at the Christian Brothers school in remote Cahirciveen Co Kerry.

From the day Br Mick arrived until the morning he took the 11.30 train across the railway bridge he never laid an irate finger upon us, and, God knows we often deserved it for we were scoundrels and rapparees at heart.

The quotation is from a letter Clifford wrote to a young Christian Brother, a former pupil of the school, then teaching in South Africa; he had written to Clifford asking whether Brother Mick was a fictional character or a real person.

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Sigerson Clifford (1913-1985)

To answer your question, Brother Mick was and is Brother Flatley, a native of Mayo, I think.

It is not a common Irish surname and he may well have been a relative of a teenager with the same name at that time a pupil of the Brother Rice High School in Chicago who would one day be known around the world as a dancer and choreographer. In his letter, Clifford continued,

Before he came, the ‘leather’ ruled the academic roost and we were bate like donkeys stuck in a bog hole. Of course we were as tough as donkeys too for we got the hobnailed boot in the posterior from our fathers at home as well.

I often marvel at how Ireland survived the early years of its new independence. There were occasional spot fires of old civil war feuds but ordinary life went on through it all. Somehow the country managed to endure isolation, the great depression and a world war, to emerge a little behind everyone else to the freedom of the swinging sixties. Some credit for lasting that journey should be given to the teaching orders, the nuns and brothers who were told they were special, while being occasionally reminded that, medieval garb notwithstanding, they did not belong in the clerical elite.

In his long letter to the young brother in South Africa, Sigerson Clifford recalled those days.

We didn’t want to learn for there didn’t seem much sense in learning for learning’s sake. There were few vacancies for the civil service or teaching or army and you couldn’t get into the bank or university unless your father had an oilwell in the backyard.

The teachers and nurses and gardai, the civil and civic leaders, the people who did the hidden work so that the country would slowly find its feet, came from those brothers schools, almost all of them run on a shoestring. Post-school progression into medicine or law or finance was rarely an option until the century got well into its second half, by which stage education was free and the Brothers were no longer needed.

It is a great pity that the debt owed to them is so seldom acknowledged.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective. He is a retired  teacher, all in Brothers’ schools – DLS 5 years, CB 3 years, Marist 32 years, in Waterford, Dublin, Sydney, Canberra.