Profile Picture

An Irish Education

Some years ago, Professors Judith Harford of University College Dublin and Tom O’Donoghue of the University of Western Australia invited me to contribute a piece to a book they were putting together based on the memories of those who had attended secondary school in the Republic of Ireland before 1967 when the system was entirely private, sectarian, and fee-paying.  I hesitated at first since anything resembling autobiography was dangerously close to the vanity press pseudo-research that emanates from the hermeneutic/curriculum theory/postmodern movement that has done so much to damage the scholarly reputations of Canadian faculties of education.  Moreover, sentimental reminiscences about “going to school through the fields” are all too common in Ireland and have never been taken seriously as a genre of writing.  Despite these understandable misgivings, I decided to contribute.  The Ireland that I grew up in was unique for its isolation and suspicion of modernity.  Its school system reflected this mentality and feudal deference was built into its structure and operations.  I sensed that my experience was worth recording.  Judith and Tom’s book was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016 as Secondary School Education in Ireland: Memories and Life Histories.  Here is my piece:

An Irish Education Remembered:

Coláiste Chríost Rí, Cork, 1958-1963

The South Presentation Convent – a massive complex of odd-shaped buildings and high walls – occupies an extensive swath of land between Douglas, Evergreen, and Nicholas Streets in a tough working-class area of Cork City.  Nano Nagle, founder of the Presentation Sisters (or the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) opened a convent and school on the site in the late 1770s and you can visit her grave in a shady part of the garden.  By the 1950s “South Pres” housed a large body of Sisters who operated a primary and secondary school for girls and a pre-school with a few primary classes for boys.  The boys’ school was named after St. Finbarr, a popular local saint.  Everyone called it “the Conny.”  It was here, at the age of five, that I had my first encounter with Catholic education in the old Irish mode – untouched by what was happening in early childhood classrooms elsewhere in the western world.

The head nun was known in religion as Sister Stanislaus, but since the name was completely unfamiliar to us, and youngsters in Cork would not have been acquainted with Poland’s patron saint and martyr, we called her Sister Santa Claus.  My classroom teacher was the unforgettable Sister Benedict – a formidable woman of undetermined age who matched perfectly the stereotype of the nasty nun who ruled with a ruler.  Her crude methods did impart some of the basics of literacy and numeracy and we were introduced to the Irish language, which I enjoyed.  My most enduring memory of this class, however, was the catechism.  There was a new question every day that had to be answered first thing in the morning, and you never knew who would be called upon to respond.  This random system kept everyone on edge and few would take the chance of turning up unprepared.  I suspect that a modified version of the Penny Catechism was our text: Who made the world?  Who is God?  Why did God make us?  Who was the first man? And so forth.  Sister Benedict liked to spice up this barren fare with stories about Jesus, including a yarn from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas about him fashioning birds out of clay that took to the air when he released them.  Just as we left for home before Easter she assured us that on the Sunday morning, if we were up early enough, we would be able to see the sun dancing for joy in the sky in celebration of the resurrection.  In fairness, she did advise us to protect our eyes by gazing heavenward through a piece of coloured glass.  Many of us tried, but the celestial miracle eluded us.  We might have had a better chance to catch the Easter Bunny doing his rounds.  My education was off to a great start.

South Presentation Convent no longer functions as it once did.  Many of the buildings are shuttered and a few elderly nuns, now in secular dress, are still in residence.  The schools are all gone and the classrooms in which young boys struggled with the four Rs long ago are in the hands of a lay community group that teaches English and work-related skills to immigrants.

My primary education (Classes 1-6) took place in Scoil Chríost Rí (Christ the King School), a boys-only institution run by the Presentation Brothers.  The school was popularly known as “Turners,” since it was located in city neighbourhood of Turner’s Cross.  There were only two lay teachers employed there at the time.  The Brothers, who comprised most of the staff, had rather odd names that often matched their personalities: Anselm, Borgia, Columba, Dermott, Eunan, Jarlath, Munchin, and Norbert.  As a general rule, they were not that bad a bunch, and I suspect that they worked very hard and for little reward to instill the basics of an education in two languages and two orthographies.

Brother Dermott, however, was a monster and I doubt that any other country in Europe would have permitted him to be in the same room as children.  His classes proceeded in a regular pattern of drill, repetition, and a crack of the cane on the bare legs if you did not respond with the accuracy and alacrity that he demanded.  The ridiculous-looking short pants we were obliged to wear made his tactics all the more terrifying.   This was Fifth Class and it was here that we were introduced to Irish history and geography through the medium of the Irish language.  History consisted of memorizing word for word stories from a textbook about Ireland in the bad old days of Norsemen and Normans.  Geography meant learning by heart lists of the seven major towns in each county.  We began with County Clare: Inis, Cill Rois, Cill Dalua, Cill Choai, Inis Díomáin, Cill Fhionnúrach, agus Lios Dúin Bhearna.  We got through most of the Munster counties that way.  The lists of towns and rivers to be memorized were always seven in number and always in the same sequence.   The memorization was achieved through repetitive chanting in unison.

This technique continued to be employed in Sixth Class and even in secondary school.  There were the seven woolen manufacturing towns of England: Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Dewsbury, Barnsley, and Wakefield; and the seven major rivers of Europe: the Rhine, the Rhone, etc.; and let’s not forget the seven Deadly Sins, although they were not part of the geography curriculum.  If you wanted to have a bit of fun – which was hazardous in the extreme – you could deliberately mix up the lists when called upon to rattle off one of them as long as you were ready to switch to the right list before being pummeled.  This primitive pedagogy served to fill up our minds with useless facts and precluded any possibility of meaningful understanding.

There was not much in the curriculum that might be described as either arts or culture.  There was some choral singing, but it was exclusively religious in nature and connected with such events as our Confirmation ceremony.  A small group in the class, myself included, could not really sing but we were obliged nonetheless to remain in the choir and to memorize the words of the prescribed hymns.  “The Crows,” as we were labeled, were instructed to pretend that we were singing by opening and closing our mouths in sync with everyone else while not making a sound lest our cacophonies offended God.

In the later years of primary school, an interesting phenomenon appeared: the threat of Greenmount.  About once a year an inspector from the Department of Education turned up to check on our progress.  His name was Mr. Riordan, he wore a long green coat, and he seemed to make the Brothers nervous.  Inspection meant entering classrooms and questioning us on the things we were expected to know.  I suppose we could have engaged in sabotage by providing deliberately stupid answers to the man, but there was little danger of that.  And just in case such an idea had occurred to us, we were warned by the Brothers that Riordan had a van parked outside with which to transport troublemakers to Greenmount.  There was much speculation about all this, including the capacity of Riordan’s van, and although nobody knew what sort of a place Greenmount was, it did acquire a fearsome reputation.  The threat, it turned out, was meaningless since Greenmount was actually an orphanage/industrial school run by the Brothers in another city neighbourhood and you could only be sent there by social welfare or the juvenile courts.  Over the years I sometimes wondered if Riordan had even been aware of the threat hanging over us as he quizzed us on the seven major market towns of Clare and other knowledge of such vital importance.

Sixth Class was the year of the Primary Certificate, an exam that I took in June 1958.  For most of the boys in my class, it was the end of their formal schooling.  If you wanted a secondary education you had to write an entrance examination to a school offering such a program and there were very few of them around.  Secondary schools were all fee-paying and all privately owned, for the most part by Church entities – dioceses or religious orders.  They were under no obligation to accept you no matter how much wealth or intellectual prowess you had on your side.  Secondary education was a privilege of the favoured few, something we were reminded of even before we got there and something that was constantly before us as we experienced it.

There was, however, an easy way into secondary school: show a serious interest in becoming a religious brother or priest and an education would be forthcoming in a junior seminary at little or no cost to your parents.  This message was conveyed to us consistently throughout Sixth Class, and in particular by visiting religious recruiters who regaled us with tales of heroism and adventure enjoyed by their members in carrying the message of salvation to ignorant heathens, savages, lepers, and cannibals in exotic locales around the world.  One of my classmates bought into it, John M., and he was spirited away to a boarding school somewhere in County Kilkenny.  When he emerged two years later he admitted that he had not listened to the radio or read a newspaper since the day he had entered.  John had a lot of catching up to do.  The Brothers had not given up on recruiting some of us to the religious ranks.  The pressure would return towards the end of secondary school.

In some ways I was fortunate to be in the Primary Certificate class of 1958.  The Presentation Brothers were about to expand their operations by building a new secondary school in the vicinity and we would be among the first to avail of the opportunity thereby provided.  The new school, to be called Coláiste Chríost Rí, was going up on Capwell Road and would not be ready for occupation until January 1960.  In the meantime, those of us who had passed the entrance exam and whose parents were willing to pay the fees began our secondary studies in an old industrial school building on Sawmill Street not far from the South Presentation Convent.

It is well to remember that the Brothers already had a secondary school in the city: Presentation Brothers’ College on the Western Road.  “Pres,” as it was called, was for the sons of the Catholic bourgeoisie, charged higher fees to maintain exclusivity, and had rugby as its official game since, for some mysterious reason, brutish scrambling in mud for an egg-shaped ball was considered a prestigious pastime.  There was no question of such an institution admitting to its classrooms the working-class products of Scoil Chríost Rí.

Coláiste Chríost Rí was a bit of an enigma.  On the one hand it offered a select group of proletarians an escape route from lives of pick-and-shovel drudgery; on the other, it was clear that our opportunities would be limited, for the most part, to low-end bureaucratic rather than professional careers.  The one exception to this rule was careers in the Church, and, as we shall see, much of the culture of the school was constructed with this objective in mind.

CCR did fill a void.  There were very few secondary schools for boys in the city at the time, and in particular on the south side.  The new school not only took in those of us from Scoil Chríost Rí who had passed its exam (quite a small group, in fact), but also boys from primary schools ranging all the way from Douglas Village to the inner city.

The teaching staff at CCR was split about evenly between Brothers and laymen at the inception, but as the years passed, the latter became more numerous.  I can remember the names of six of the Brothers: Bonaventure, Dennis, Fanahan, Felix, James, and Mannix – strange enough, but not as strange as the names assigned to those in the primary school.  And even if their ranks thinned out in time, there was never any doubt that they were the ones in charge and deserving of a special deference.

Brother Bonaventure was the head.  We all called him “Joe,” based on the rumour that his name before entering religion had been Joe Murphy.  Tall, shiningly bald, portly, and with a flabby neck that jiggled wildly when he shook his head in disapproval, which was often enough, Big Joe dominated the school like a colossus in every sense of the word.  And, as if to remind us that he was no ordinary Joe, he arrived at the school every morning riding in a limousine hired for the occasion from Sullivan’s Funeral Services.  Even though there was room on board for several passengers, the other Brothers had to travel to work on foot or by bicycle from their monastery, which was actually at one end of the South Presentation Convent compound.

Joe was a religious zealot who believed his school should conform to monastic codes of discipline.  Accordingly, we had to walk silently and in single file between classes as if we were friars in procession.   Prayers punctuated the day and a statue, holy picture, or holy water font was never far from view.  These elements of interior décor were designed to create a monastic atmosphere, but the ugly modernist buildings on Capwell Road were too much of a challenge to make it convincing.  It never really felt medieval, in spite of the Brothers’ best efforts.

Religion, or Christian doctrine, was Joe’s teaching specialty and, even though it was not a subject on state examinations, we had a class on it every day, including Saturdays.  (Yes, we had to attend on Saturday mornings!)  In fairness, there was nothing slipshod or sentimental about the syllabus and it ranged over heresies (and why they were wrong), the Bible, devotions, indulgences and how to accumulate them, sacraments, the lives of saints, Papal encyclicals, the doctrines of Papal infallibility and the immaculate conception, the Syllabus of Errors (Joe was a big fan of Pio Nono), persecution of the Church by evil communists, the different categories of grace and sin, descriptions of hell, smatterings of Church history, demon possession, and everyday dangers to “holy purity.”  It was quite the program of studies, when you think about it, but a solid foundation, along with the compulsory Latin (a completely stupid waste of time), for future clerics, and there was a plan to recruit a few of us.   There were often interesting and complicated discussions in class that I recall clearly.  And whenever we encountered a contradiction or conundrum, Joe would fob them off a favourite line of his: “It’s a mystery of faith.”  This was hardly satisfactory to inquiring minds, and there were a few among us.

Whatever his faults, and they were many, Joe was a good storyteller and had a way of engaging the imagination that was difficult to resist.  I can still remember his vivid description of the death of Arius the heretic, a contemporary of the Emperor Constantine who claimed that Christ was made of a similar substance to God, as distinct from the orthodox view that they were both of the same substance.  This evil idea that subverted the Trinity called out for divine retribution and God did not disappoint.  As Joe told it, one day Arius arrived at a square in Constantinople where he was about to address an adoring crowd of his supporters.   Suddenly, he was cast to the ground, his stomach burst open, and worms crawled out.  Martin Luther, King Henry VIII, and others who challenged the authority of the Church were also given negative portrayals.   The horrible deaths they allegedly suffered were said to be sure signs of divine displeasure.  The message was clear: mess with God and his Church and trouble will surely follow.

For every villain, there were several saintly heroes, some of whose portraits adorned the classroom or corridor walls.  They tended to be people who had died young and the assumption probably was that we could more easily identify with saints of our own age.  Strangely enough, two of the most popular figures here were actually female, although they were not the kinds that a guy might get all wound up about.  Santa Maria Goretti, we were told, preferred death to sin, and we were advised to think about that when temptation came our way.  Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, on the other hand, preferred death to life and God rewarded her by taking her at an early age.  This saint was also lauded for becoming a Carmelite at the tender age of 15 – a not very subtle hint that teenagers like us should be thinking about life in cowl or cassock.  The most popular male in this pantheon was Saint Dominic Savio, an abnormally pious type who preferred praying to playing and who died at the age of 14 while studying for the priesthood.  In spite of Joe’s best efforts, there was little about these people that we (I mean my friends and I) could admire, although we could acknowledge the heroism of Father Damien for his work among the lepers of Molokai.

The school flag was modeled on the Irish tricolor, but in shades of green, white, and black.  Joe assured us that the colours had been chosen for the following reasons: green for Ireland, black for the fallen patriots of 1916, and white for “holy purity.”  What exactly was this “holy purity” that so obsessed Joe?  In effect, he expected us to live as if we were monks under vows of chastity.  He railed regularly against impure thoughts, impure desires, impure actions and anything that resembled an “occasion of sin.”  Masturbation, or what he called “bodily pollution,” was one of the great enemies of youth, he said, since the Devil was always inducing you to do it in order to secure your soul.  In fact, 90 percent of those suffering in Hell for all eternity were sent there for sins against “holy purity,” or so he claimed.  The source of Joe’s infernal statistics remains a mystery although I suspect they came from the ever-fertile imagination of St. Jerome.  Or perhaps there is a sociology of damnation out there that I am unaware of?  The message, nonetheless, was unmistakable: unless we disciplined ourselves to the standards of monkish celibacy as we negotiated the many pitfalls of adolescence, our immortal souls were imperiled.

One of Joe’s favourite characters, whose story was trotted out from time to time to inspire us, was Matt Talbot.  Matt was a Dublin dockworker whose heroic piety was only discovered after his death when they removed his clothes to find ropes and chains tied around his body as a form of discipline.  He was probably a poor choice as a paragon of purity since his problem had been, as the Americans would put it, “booze rather than babes.”  I suspect that his love of pain may make him a candidate for sainthood one of these days, or he may already be there for all I know.  Matt may well have been brought to the attention of the long-serving Pope John Paul II whose agenda included a massive expansion in the number of saints and a simplification of the process, perhaps ultimately with his own canonization in mind.  A school named after St. Matt of the Bloodied Ropes and Chains would probably have no trouble keeping boisterous youngsters in line.  I wonder if Joe ever thought of that?

Another favourite in Joe’s pantheon of saintly celibates was St. Anthony, one of the early hermits who fled into the Egyptian desert in order to avoid the temptations of the world.  The saint, in spite of the extreme physical austerities he endured in the middle of nowhere, was sorely tempted by Satan who even appeared in the guise of a beautiful woman.  Joe was trying to convey to us that women, or in our case teenage girls, were a problem requiring cautious vigilance.

In spite of Dominic Savio, Matt Talbot, Saint Anthony, and Joe’s best efforts to terrorize us about Hell, there were girls around, although not at CCR, and some of us were interested in making their acquaintance.  Girls generally attended convent schools, some of which were located near the centre of town.  They were to be found after school in their distinctive uniforms on Patrick Street, the main thoroughfare, hanging around before catching buses homewards.  Strolling up and down Patrick Street, popularly known as “doing Pana,” was a favourite way of encountering them.  Once the Brothers discovered this custom of ours, they simply banned it without justification or explanation.  It was an extraordinary intrusion into our private lives.  But that didn’t seem to matter to men who had appointed themselves as the religious police of youth.  Brother Fanahan, nasty, brutish, and tall, was Joe’s principal enforcer, and he took to patrolling Pana after school hours in order to ensure that the prohibition on our passiagata was observed.  No parents dared to object to such nonsense; they were all terrified of the men in black.  If this evokes images in your mind of the Taliban, you are not far from the truth.

Keeping us away from girls was supposed to limit the incidence of solitary vice and to prevent it from evolving into participatory vice, a much more serious problem.  “Company-keeping,” the old-fashioned term used to describe dating, or “jagging” in Cork argot, was the ultimate “occasion of sin,” in the Brothers’ eyes.  Not only could it lead to sin, but it could derail the dormant religious vocations that some of us were presumed to have and were awaiting revelation.  The good news is that it didn’t work.  The Brothers’ attempt to control our social lives ultimately failed.  We met girls in our own neighbourhoods and at the numerous dances and record hops held in tennis and rugby clubs across the city.  It was possible to have a normal adolescence, but it took some effort.

Irish was the lingua franca of CCR and it was used as the medium of instruction for subjects such as geography, history, and mathematics.  We were supposed to address the staff at all times in Irish, except when we had classes on science, Latin, English and religion, which were taught in English.  The Brothers favoured Irish not just because it was our own historic language – a reasonable proposition – but also because it was allegedly free from the sort of filthy literature that plagued the English language and that was being kept from our shores by the vigilant Censorship Board.

The extensive us of Irish added a strong nationalist flavor to the school culture and this was reinforced further by the sports program.  In truth, there was no sports program worthy of the name or anything that might resemble physical education.  Walking or cycling to school was probably the most exercise that the majority of students ever experienced.  The Brothers had no interest in encouraging fitness or healthy participation in a variety of sports or activities.  Lack of resources was not the problem, but their single-minded focus on Gaelic football.  If you had no inclination or aptitude for this game, which was true for most of us including me, there was nothing for you at CCR.  In my own case, and having no shortage of aggressive energy to burn off, I solved the problem by joining a boxing club in the inner city that was named in honour of – and wouldn’t you know it – Matt Talbot.  I even bloodied a few ropes there from time to time.

Gaelic football fitted well in the nationalist-tinged muscular monasticism of CCR.  It was not played by girls or women, and they were not even interested in it as spectators.  The strictly male nature of the sport probably endeared it to the Brothers, unlike tennis, for example, where males and females even played together on occasion.  The idea at CCR was to develop a winning school team rather than encourage general love of Gaelic football.  This meant that that very few boys were actually playing while the remainder were reduced to supporting roles.  And the ultimate objective was to have the best school team in the country by winning the Hogan Cup.  It was not achieved in my day but a competent team did emerge when I was in the last two years of secondary education and made it into the Munster final.  The Brothers were ecstatic.  As they rallied the entire student body around the team in anticipation of imminent glory, Brother Fanahan took it upon himself to compose a school song.  The words were in Irish – of course – and were sung to the tune of John Phillip Sousa’s The Washington Post.  I can only remember one stanza and it went with the second movement:

Do bhuamar ar an Mhanistir Thuaig
Ar Phort uí Shúilleabháin an Cé
Is ar Choláiste Bharra Naomha
Is ar gach foireann eile ins an Mhumhain, ó ins an Mhumhain

Sousa’s marches have a quirky, almost comical quality to them and it is no coincidence that the Monthy Python group later adopted his Liberty Bell as their theme song. And there was something of the comic opera about the sight and sound of adolescent boys singing Fanahan’s words to cheer on their team.  Perhaps it was a good thing that we lost in Munster and were spared putting on the spectacle elsewhere in the country if we had moved to further rounds of play.

Although the Brothers were quite aware that the vast majority of us would never join their ranks or go for the priesthood, the structure and culture of the school was designed to snag at least a few candidates.  During Christian doctrine class, Big Joe never lost an opportunity to extoll the virtues of the religious life as the surest ticket to Heaven and the propaganda in favour of this career choice intensified during the two final years leading up to the Leaving Certificate.  There were detailed discussions of the nature of a religious vocation and how to recognize it.  Joe assured us that God called in unexpected ways and that we should not be waiting to hear a voice, to be confronted by a pillar of fire, or to be knocked off a horse or a bicycle.  In the end it all came down to one simple premise: were you willing to do God’s work in return for the hundredfold reward in the hereafter?

As these matters were being clarified for us, the recruiters for religious orders returned in earnest to make their pitches to captive audiences.  We had no choice but to listen. These “vocational talks” usually began with a stirring account of the evil state of a world under siege by the twin forces of “pleasure-loving paganism” and “godless atheism.”  These forces were even penetrating Ireland’s pristine shores through English newspapers and radio broadcasts, it was claimed. We were urged to put the Church’s need for more soldiers of Christ at home and abroad before our personal ambitions.  Foreign missions featured prominently in these appeals, and especially in Africa where it was said that entire tribes had never learned to renounce nudity, polygamy, witchdoctory, and the worship of the moon, the sun, or green-eyed yellow idols.  Keep in mind that there was no such thing as career guidance at the school; careers in religion were given no competition as we tried to figure out our futures.

The recruitment drive was enhanced by an event in which we were required to participate in each of the two final years of school: the religious retreat.  It took place at the Dominican Retreat Centre in Montenotte in the north eastern part of town.  Most of us looked forward to it since it was an opportunity to sleep away from home for two nights in the company of our friends and in private bedrooms, a rare luxury for people of our social class. Besides, the monastery had extensive gardens and woodlands that were spectacular.  The attractiveness of the place may have been part of a crafty ruse to entice us to join.  We were given a sense that monks lived well, at least as far as their physical surroundings were concerned.

The retreat followed a tight schedule of meals, recreation, devotions, sacraments, “spiritual counseling” (actually a probe into our private lives), and sermons, including the sex sermon.  It was, in fact, an anti-sex sermon with the usual harangues against the Devil, the weakness of the flesh and how your own personal Guardian Angel was always hovering about ready to restrain your hand before it gave pleasure to you or to someone else.  A “profound silence” was supposed to prevail throughout the retreat and you could tell the holy types by their tight-lipped determination to stick with it to the end.  Many of us gave up on the idea early on when we realized that supervision by the priests was a bit lax at times.

How many were recruited into the religious life?  Were any of us ready to become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven?”  Let us first consider some numbers.  There were around 60 boys in the cohort that entered CCR in 1958 and we were divided into two classes of approximately even size based on results in the entrance examination.  Some dropped out or were expelled along the way.  By the time we reached the Leaving Certificate year, there were around 50 of us in all.  As far as I can recall, everyone passed the Leaving exam in the summer of 1963, although the spread in the distribution of honours in individual subjects would have varied greatly.  What did we all do?

At the time the Leaving Certificate opened many doors and everyone found employment who sought it.  Our class produced a newspaper reporter, an air traffic controller, a medical lab technician, two army officers (one with the British army!), and clerks with Bord Fáilte, the Electricity Supply Board, and the various banks and insurance companies.  At least seven of us, including me, went on to University College Cork.  And there were two priests or four percent of the total, no less.  This was a considerable success rate from the Church’s perspective.

Con O’D. was accepted into Maynooth to study for the diocesan priesthood.  His decision came as no great surprise to anyone.  An altar boy from an early age, and an avid member of the Legion of Mary throughout secondary school, he would not have known what to do with a girl if she had thrown herself at him.  Tony Q., who joined the Dominicans, gave us more of a surprise.  He had dated girls from time to time, but his ardour had always been tempered by a deep-rooted piety.  I suspected that he had been roped in during the last of our retreats because the Dominicans had not been among the recruiters who had visited us in school.  Or perhaps he had become enchanted with Soeur Sourire, Belgium’s Singing Nun, whose one-hit wonder, Dominique, a song about St. Dominick, was climbing the charts at the time.  When Tony told a group of us about his decision, I recall joking that he should keep remain vigilant lest the Albigensian Heresy make a comeback.  He said he’d pray for me.  I do not know if Con and Tony stayed the course until ordination.  I never heard about them again.

Coláiste Chríost Rí provided a bare-bones academic education that was narrow in substance and purpose.  But it was the only game in town for ambitious working-class boys at the time and most of us were keenly aware that if we stumbled along the way, it was off to pick-and-shovel land.  There would be no second chances.  The Brothers had us over a barrel, so to speak, and they knew it.  There was no need to threaten us with Greenmount since they could simply kick us out the door at will.  Nor was there any point in objecting to the long list of stupidities imposed on us.  And parents, who were not welcome at the school, were far too intimidated to intervene on our behalf.

I was a few years into my studies in University College Cork when word came that Joe had moved away from CCR to found another school on the same model in the expanding suburb of Bishopstown.  The new school was to be called Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh.  Joe was on a roll and I figured he would go for three in a row to round out the Trinity.  Having named institutions after the Son and the Holy Ghost, God the Father was the obvious person to be honoured in the next expansion of the franchise.  Coláiste an Athar Mhóir sa Spéir, perhaps?

Big Joe’s empire-building was good and bad news.  On the positive side, it looked as if there would be vacancies for secondary teachers if Brothers remained in short supply.  And I was hoping for a career in that field.  But the thought of working in an institution run by Joe or people of that ilk for too much for me to stomach.  Besides, it was increasingly improbable that they would have hired the likes of me.

With few realistic options available, I left for Canada where teaching jobs were plentiful and under dignified terms and conditions of employment.  It was goodbye Joe, or so I thought.  Some years later, just after Christmas 1972 to be exact, I was having dinner with my wife, Jane, in a Killarney restaurant.  Quite unexpectedly, a large figure approached our table out of the shadows.  It was Joe, and to my astonishment he was dressed in civilian attire.  When I attempted to introduce him to Jane as Brother Bonaventure, he quickly corrected me and said his name was Joe Murphy.  We had been right about his real name all along!

I was astounded to say the least.  Could it really be, I asked myself, that Joe had forsaken holy purity for “the fleshpots of Egypt”?  Had he abandoned the youth of Cork to reckless experimentation with bodily pollution and other violations of the law of God?  Seeing the puzzled look on my face, Joe explained that while he had indeed left the Presentation Brothers, he had done so in order to pursue a long-held dream: to study for the priesthood.  His suit and tie were but temporary; soon he would be back in dog collar and soutane.  I wished him well with his ambition.  But I was greatly relieved that he was no longer in charge of an educational institution.  There would be no Trinity or Rosary of Joe-like schools. Once he was gone it was time to raise another glass in celebration; there was a glimmer of hope for Irish education.

Brian Titley, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Education
The University of Lethbridge