'There were full-on punch-ups in the class' - Gay Byrne, Matt Cooper and Roddy Doyle recount their Christian Brother experiences
Well-known figures have been recounting their experiences in schools run by Christian Brothers in a series for the Review Magazine on Catholicism.
Roddy Doyle says his time at St Fintan’s Christian Brothers School in the 1970s was tough, but at times hilarious.
“If you weren’t isolated and had friendship at the back of the room, you could survive. You’d wonder about the loners and how they got on.
“It was a strange place to be dropped into at the age of 13. At my national school, there was corporal punishment, but it was never meted out with any savagery.
“At Fintan’s there was an unpredictability about it. Justice or fair play did not come into it. There could be a sudden explosion.
“There was a lay teacher who used to wander the corridors, looking for excuses to hit people.
“There were three or four of us messing around, but doing nothing that merited any punishment, other than maybe a growl.
“I was 15, and I was given three slaps on each hand with a leather strap. It was absolute agony.
“His sweat landed on me as he did it — and I have no doubt there was some sort of sexual gratification.
“I once saw a teacher, a Brother, assaulting a boy with a set square. The boy was on the ground and the Brother was hitting him with it.
“Some of the teachers were quite good. Others were shiftless and lazy.
“There was a Brother who would try to be cool. He wore sandals and he used to bring in records to play, and he would tell us the evidence of God in the lyrics.
“One Brother kept his left hand in the pocket of his soutane. He said he was left-handed, and he was afraid of what he would do if he hit anybody with it.
“There was a certain fear, but he was a good English teacher. The Complete Works of Shakespeare could come out of the pocket of the soutane.”
Gay Byrne says he was belted and thumped by the Christian Brothers for one reason or another at school in Synge Street in the 1940s, but he is grateful to the order for giving him an education.
“The positive aspect of the Christian Brothers is that without them, people of my background would not have received any education of any kind.
“The question of fees was never mentioned. Every quarter or so, an envelope was sent home via each pupil, and then sealed and brought back.
“I know that there must have been a good few guys in my classes whose families could not afford to put anything in the envelope. Nobody was put out of the school because their parents could not afford the fees.
“They gave us a good all-round education. The compulsory Irish was a bit of a bugbear, but they were obliged to follow it.
“The downside was corporal punishment for disobedience of any kind, or things like not turning up with your exercise book.
“If they wanted to hit you on the head, they used the hand. They used the leather for slaps on the hand — four of the best, or six of the best.
“They were rough and they were tough, and they all came from the same rural, uneducated background. And of course, they were recruited as Christian Brothers at a disgracefully young age.
“After the Inter Cert, I decided I wanted to leave because I was fed up with being thumped around the place.
“As a bribe, my mother and father bought me a bicycle, which was the first bike I had.
“I went back, and in fifth and sixth year there wasn’t very much corporal punishment, because we were older guys — and we knew what we were about.”
Broadcaster and journalist Matt Cooper says there was still a culture of violence and control through fear when he attended North Monastery CBS in Cork from 1978 to 1983.
“Every teacher was assigned a leather strap about a foot-and-a-half long, and it was used by some of them.”
He says teachers also used metre-long ruler sticks, bamboo shoots or their bare fists.
“I remember one teacher who was fond of hitting out with the metre stick across the knuckles and the hand. On one occasion, I saw him lash out and hit a guy on the cheek, right below the eye.”
He recalls a particular technique of thrashing known as a “cheeser”, where backsides where hit with the edge of a ruler in a slicing motion.
Cooper was himself thumped a few times, but quickly learned to keep his head down.
“There was one teacher who was notorious for using the leather strap for disciplining pupils — and when he stopped it, he turned to sarcasm and ridicule.
“He got absolutely brilliant results for our Inter Cert, and almost everybody in our class got an A. But then, nearly everyone gave up his subject for the Leaving Cert because they were so repulsed by the way they had been coerced into learning the stuff through fear of being mocked.
“Some people would have preferred to take a hit than a lash from the tongue.
“Up until fifth year, the teachers were well able to physically assault and beat up pupils, but by the time we got to sixth year it was working the other way round.
“In fifth year and sixth year, these guys started throwing digs back at the teachers. There were a couple of full-on punch-ups in the class. Others had to get involved in pulling the pupil and teacher off each other — that is no exaggeration. And there was a hatred among some of the Christian Brothers in charge of running Gaelic Games of soccer and rugby as foreign games.
“There was very limited ambition for the pupils. When I told a career guidance teacher I wanted to be a journalist, he scoffed.”
Cooper says he was asked if he had any relatives in “the Paper” (meaning the Cork Examiner).
“When I replied ‘No’, I was immediately told I could forget about it.
“There was this idea that you shouldn’t get ideas above your station.”
The broadcaster says he made good friends in North Mon, including one friend who is godfather to one of his children.
He believes people in his class went on to succeed and have good careers almost in spite of the culture in the school.