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From Patrick Pearse to Brother Mick


From Patrick Pearse to Brother Mick        Gerry OShea

 Most Irish people would name Patrick Pearse as one of the greatest Irish heroes. He led the Easter 1916 Rebellion in Dublin that lit the flame for the Irish War of Independence which led to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. This was considered a successful outcome by most nationalists, even though they had to accept that six of the Irish thirty two counties remained under British control.

Some commentators question the wisdom of the 1916 Revolution, arguing that, considering the bloodshed and division that it caused, we might have been better to settle for the watered-down version of John Redmond’s 1912 Home Rule Bill. Following that line and letting the imagination ramble, a Home Rule parliament might have invited Pearse, a prominent nationalist and educator, to serve as the first Minister for Education in a Dublin administration.

Such imaginary ruminations allow us to focus on his commitment to progressive educational principles, which were sadly lacking during the first fifty half century of self-government in Ireland. Pearse founded his own school, St. Enda’s, in Rathfarnham in Dublin, where his philosophy of a humanistic Christian education, anchored in the ancient Celtic myths and heroes, prevailed.

In a pamphlet which he authored four years before his execution in May, 1916, he wrote about the kind of schooling that he envisaged in a new Ireland after the British were finally shown the door. The pamphlet was named The Murder Machine and was a devastating critique of the prevailing British education system in Ireland. He called the schools and pedagogy of that time “a lifeless thing without a soul,” which was an apt description of classrooms that excluded the Irish language and culture. The heroic bravery of Tone or Emmett or O’Donovan Rossa had no place in the curriculum.

 The Westminster government wanted the ideal graduate of their schools to be a proper English boy or girl, well-versed in all their wars and triumphs – the very antithesis of the Gaelic ethos that permeated St. Enda’s. Pearse looked for inspiration to heroic figures from the legendary past especially to Cuchulainn and the Fianna whose members proudly pledged to maintain at all times “strength in our limbs, cleanness of heart and actions in accord with our promised word.”

Pearse was indeed an idealist with somewhat unreal expectations of young boys in his school. However, in the dream world where we have imagined him as the Minister for Education in the new state, the inhumane practice of beating children to instill knowledge and virtue would surely be outlawed.

His conviction that praising and encouraging pupils to be the best they could be was lost on the new educational regime that took over after Irish Independence was achieved in 1921. With few exceptions, the child-rearing philosophy of most teachers and parents could be encapsulated in the despicable dictum “spare the stick and spoil the child.”

Some historians trace the origin of this cynical thinking about children to St. Augustine, whose teachings back in the fifth century were - and still are - very influential, forming an important part of the curriculum in all Catholic seminaries. Evil - in Augustine’s world - could only be explained by reflecting on Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. According to this thinking, her actions in leading Adam to disobey God explains the inherent corruption of human nature.  Blaming Eve found a receptive audience among the leaders in Rome where the anti-woman culture is well documented and continues to the present day.

According to this understanding of the Hebrew creation story, children had to be firmly disciplined to stymie the negative impulses let loose by what the Puritan poet John Milton labelled in Paradise Lost “man’s first disobedience, the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world and all our woe.”

 This pseudo-Christian thinking played a part in leading teachers to believe that they had a license to slap and sometimes beat the living daylight out of children in their care. The Catholic Church in Ireland controlled education at all levels for their own members, and the bishops and priests, immersed in Augustinian thinking, rarely objected to the brutal treatment of children in the primary and secondary schools.

This punitive behavior by public servants who were paid to educate and nurture the young people entrusted to their care is surely one of the most shameful chapters in Irish history. Pearse’s noble reflections were disregarded in favor of teachers, lay and clerical, bullying the students because they felt that they had the power and community approval to take out their anger and frustrations on young children.

There were, of course, exceptions. Many female teachers and some males too resisted this impetus to show off their power by demeaning their pupils. Bryan McMahon, a gifted educator from Listowel in County Kerry, showed in his fine book The Master how to conduct classes that related to the children’s experiences without using a stick. He focused a great deal on the weaker kids and found ways to include them in classroom activities without denigrating and terrorizing them.

Then there was Brother Michael Flatley who taught for a time in the Christian Brothers’ Secondary School in Cahirciveen, County Kerry when Sigerson Clifford, later well-known as a poet and playwright, attended there. In his book Ballads of a Bogman Clifford eulogised  Flatley in a poem entitled Brother Mick.

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 his leather in the press

And burned the hazel stick;

‘Twas then we all threw doubts upon

The mind of Brother Mick.

In answer to questions about this distinguished Christian Brother, Clifford said he had lost contact with him after he left Cahirciveen. He knew that he hailed from some village in County Mayo but no more than that. However, he did explain why he made such a vivid impression on him as a teenager. “Before he came, the leather ruled the academic roost and we were “bate” like donkeys stuck in a bog hole. Of course, we were tough as donkeys too for we got the hobnailed boot in the posterior from our fathers at home as well.”

Another excerpt from Clifford’s writing highlights what an exceptional educator Flatley was: “From the day Bro. Mick arrived to the morning he left on the 11.30 train across the railway bridge, he never laid an irate finger on us, and God knows we often deserved it because we were scoundrels and rapparees at heart.”

 Brother Mick joined the Irish Christian Brothers sometime in the 1940’s, an order founded by Edmund Rice from Kilkenny as the Penal Laws were waning in 1802. In the 1950’s in Ireland they had close to 5000 members; today they are reduced to a few dozen old-timers mostly because they have been disgraced by multiple cases of sexual abuse by Brothers in the many schools that they operated.

Rice, who hailed from Callan, County Kilkenny, ran a successful business in the nearby county of Waterford and married a local woman there. His wife died giving birth to their daughter who was seriously handicapped for the rest of her life. Mr. Rice sold his business and, with a few companions, opened a makeshift school to educate poor local boys in Waterford. From there, two Orders of Brothers emerged, both claiming Edmund Rice as their founder, the Irish Christian Brothers (ICB) and the Presentation Order.

How did two Orders grow from the same time and place with the same founder? I have no definite explanation beyond recalling Brendan Behan’s story about the many branches of Irish republicanism. He claimed that the first item on the agenda when a new Irish political organization is started centers always on how they should deal with the inevitable split!

The Irish Christian Brothers, more than the other teaching orders,  earned the reputation for the rough and tough treatment of students that they considered good discipline. Parents regularly threatened wayward sons that, unless they shaped up, they would be sent to one of the ICB schools where they could expect no mercy.

Ironically, a cornerstone belief of the Edmund Rice educational ethos stressed firm opposition to the maltreatment of children that was prevalent in most towns and cities in Ireland throughout the 19th century.

 There was also Brother Mick and a few others who, in the best tradition of Pearse and St. Enda’s, represented decency, humanity and respect in the classroom.

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com

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