Saturday 22 October 2016

Mary Kenny... neighbourhood watch

It's not just schools that influence kids - the life around them does too

Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

It pains me to hear it suggested that Irish people are religious bigots because they have gone to different faith schools; it just doesn't accord with my experience. Anyway, neighbourhood life is as influential in the formation of attitudes as school ethos, and I applauded Martin McAleese's recent interview in which he said that he had a strong understanding of Ulster loyalists because he grew up in east Belfast.

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This understanding he gained early in life - which included an element of verbal abuse - helped him, when married to the President, to bring about more dialogue and reconciliation.

The neighbourhood in which I grew up had a strong mixture of Catholics and Protestants (in an era when faith identities really did matter); and although we all went to our own denominational schools, we played together harmoniously and the adults mingled and made friends amicably.

Okay, Sandymount in what is now Dublin 4 is rather a different place from east Belfast, but the principle remains the same - it was neighbourhood life which set the tone and formed the influences which often emerge in later life. And some of these influences were indeed enduring.

There was a Presbyterian family whose children I used to play with, the Thompsons, and although their code of values would seem somewhat stern - they were never allowed to play on Sundays - there was such an atmosphere of gentleness and, indeed, love in that home, that even as a child I picked up on it. The father showed such affection and respect for the mother, and the mother had such an attitude of thoughtful attentiveness to her children, and their friends: and despite the strict rules, there was a blithe spirit in that home.

The experience influenced me so much that I have always felt a sense of esteem for the Protestant Non-conformist tradition. I also picked up, from that experience, a key life lesson: people can hold to rigorous standards, and yet, their actual conduct and behaviour can be kind and tolerant. As a child, you learn by example, not precept.

Dublin was never sectarian in the way that Belfast, frankly, was, but "separate spheres" were observed in religious identity. Protestants and Catholics had separate sports grounds and tennis clubs (though rugby usually crossed the divide). Dublin Catholics and Protestants even had certain separate trades - motor car garages were traditionally Protestant. I heard Protestant shops like Findlater's and Leverett & Frye's praised for their fair management and spotless conditions.

Children pick up values and attitudes by chance remarks, gossip, hearsay, even body language as much as by theoretical indoctrination, and the neighbourhood values in Sandymount were genuinely (it seemed to me) warm.

We didn't know any Jews, though we knew about our Jewish Lord Mayor, Bob Briscoe. My elder brother did have two Jewish friends, both (atypically of the Jewish community) Bohemian barflies - Harry Kernoff, the painter, and Billy Noyek, a dude-about-town.

However, if Dublin was less sectarian, it was probably more class-conscious. I was encouraged to play with Protestant children, but not with "common" children. A little girl in our neighbourhood was stopped from playing on a nearby street (yes, kids actually played in the street) for fear she would pick up a "common" accent from a family who had bettered themselves by migrating from the inner city. Ringsend and Irishtown, the neighbouring parishes to Sandymount, teemed with "commoners", as I heard them called (by other kids).

Looking back, I'm not quite sure what the folk in Sandymount had against those deemed "common", but it seemed to focus on speech and "rough" manners. "Roughness" was greatly deplored among the genteel classes. Perhaps there was also a fear of numbers. "Common" folk had much larger families, and, believe it or not, in Catholic Ireland there were disapproving remarks about that. I think couples with large families were considered to be too sexy for their own good. Why didn't they control their urges more carefully? And they also slept in double beds, whereas respectable couples slept in twin beds.

I sometimes wonder if some of these early attitudes remain in the reptile part of the human brain - the primitive part, formed early. But I hope, as Martin McAleese said, early experiences enhance understanding rather than perpetuating division.

There is growing enthusiasm, today, for the Educate Together schools which, among other educational goals, seek to abolish sectarian values and, in some cases, to promote secularism over faith formation. Parents should have the choice of whatever kind of school they wish for their children, although you cannot always have everything you seek in a school. But it isn't just schools which influence a child's life: it's the neighbourhood, the life around them, and, nowadays, social media. And often by what people do rather than what they say.


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