As I said yesterday, I watched Michael O’Brien on Q&A on Monday night in my local with about four other customers, the owner and his wife (and by the way, it’s great to see the way the clip of his heartfelt outpouring has travelled around the blog world).
When he’d finished, we all sat in silence for a few seconds, then started to clap.
Then we all started to tell stories of when we were at school. None of us had been boarders, or had been at “corrective” schools, so we were all thankfully spared the buggery or rape which so many kids, from the same generation as us, had to endure. But we were all at school in the sixties, when corporal punishment was still allowed and indeed enthusiastically embraced, and each of us had a least one story of a savage beating.
This is mine.
Back in those days we used the type of pens with a sharp metal nib that you had to dip into an inkwell, the belief being that this would improve your handwriting, which would be essential for your future job prospects (the arrival of the computer keyboard come as a total surprise to the curriculum setters of my generation). In a class of giddy young boys it was considered the height of wit, if the bloke sitting next to you stood up to answer a question, to hold your pen just below his bum and then pull it away just as he sat down again.
And one day, when I was about ten, I got the timing of this disastrously wrong.
The results were spectacular. My deskmate yelped, leapt in the air, and then started to cry. There was no way of hiding what I’d done, and the teacher produced his leather strap and beat me with it. Since I was horrified at what I’d done, and knew I was in the wrong, and since this was how we were punished in those days, I regarded this as my due. Then he marched me to the headmaster’s office, told him what happened, and the headmaster beat me too. Again, I fully accepted that I deserved this. There were some crimes that demanded that the class teacher’s punishment alone was not enough, and this was clearly one of them.
Then the two of them took me to every other class in the school, told the teacher and the whole class what I’d done, and each of those teachers in turn beat me as well, in front of their own class.
Somewhere in the middle of this even I -ten years old, shocked at my behaviour and full of guilt – started to think “well, this is a bit much”. But they kept telling me that the guy was bleeding (which I realise now was unlikely), that he might get blood-poisoning from the ink on the nib, that he might even die, so I said nothing.
And I said nothing at home. When I related this story in the pueveryone said “no, because you’d have got the same at home”, and, while I certainly know I wouldn’t have been beaten, I’m not sure that they’d have taken my side.
Because that was the way things were then. If children misbehaved, they got slapped. We were all sent off to school to a bunch of people who our parents didn’t fully know, but to whom they’d given tacit permission to punish us physically if these strangers saw fit.
And by the way, not one of the people who beat me that day was a priest or a brother. The school – Harold Boys’ in Dalkey, may it burn to the ground – was under the overall control of the parish priest, but all of it’ s teachers were lay people, married, with children of their own.
An awful lot has been said in the last week about the behaviour of the religious organisations at the time. And rightly so. As followers of God, their’s should have been the benchmark, the standard of care for the young which lesser lay organisations aspired toward. Instead they merely led the rest of the herd in cruelty.
But people have asked how it could have happened. And, while the ordinary people of the time would have had no idea that their priests and nuns could reach such depths of sexual depravity, they have got to admit that they knew and accepted that these people would beat children of both genders, starting from the age of four. They would say “well, I was beaten at school, and it never did me any harm”. In many cases they would beat their own children. They would certainly slap them.
Ireland was indeed a terrible place in those days. But it wasn’t just the religious that were responsible for that.