Sunday 16 December 2018

Should we really be celebrating the Christian Brothers?

This evening, in Dublin's Convention Centre, former pupils of Christian Brothers schools will come together to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Edmund Rice.

Advertised as "an evening with former President Mary McAleese and guests", its theme is "to reunite, reconcile, give thanks and look to the future".

For many, though, it's impossible to forget the past.

Few names evoke such opposing reactions in Ireland as that of Edmund Rice.

Mention his name to grown men who attended a CBS, founded by the Kilkenny-born educator, and often a shadow will cloud their ageing faces.

Many recall the discipline, the fear, the corporal punishment and the physical and sexual abuse dished out to them and/or others.

In sharp contrast, devout Catholics may bless themselves and think of a man who brought knowledge and religion to the marginalised in Irish society.

They point to the poorest regions of the world where Christian Brother schools cater for those who have nowhere else to turn.

You'll have no trouble finding professionals from Dublin to Dingle who believe the education they received at a CBS was intrinsic in elevating them to heady positions.

Born on June 1, 1762, in a modest bothán, or roadside shed, in Callan, Co Kilkenny, Rice was the fourth of seven sons.

Despite growing up in penal times, when the educational opportunities for Irish Catholics were severely limited, the Rice children were fortunate. A local Augustinian friar would visit their home daily to educate Edmund and his brothers.

Bright and ambitious, a young Edmund inherited his Uncle Michael's merchant business in Waterford in 1785. Trading livestock and other supplies to the British colonies, life was good and, aged 23 Edmund wed Mary Elliott, the daughter of a Waterford tanner.

The marriage ended tragically though, following a horse-riding accident in which his wife was killed and his daughter left handicapped.

A devastated Edmund changed his priorities following the tragedy and abandoned the ambitions of his class.

In 1794 he founded an orphan society to care for the poor children of Waterford and he devoted his time to the plight of prisoners.

In 1802 he established a makeshift school on New Street, Waterford, to cater for the poor. Soon afterwards, with the help of two young fellow Callan men, Thomas Grosvenor and Patrick Finn, the Christian and Presentation Brothers were formed.

News of the new Catholic schools, which embraced the Irish Republican cause, spread across Ireland.

IBy 1838, the brothers were in 17 locations with 7,500 students, including a number in England.

Their motto became 'The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord forever' -- in later years many would see the irony in those words as innocence was lost for young students at the hands of some of the Brothers.

The Ryan report of 2009 found that molestation and rape were "endemic" in boys' facilities (in Ireland), chiefly run by the Christian Brothers order.

"A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from," it said.

The oasis of learning aimed at the vulnerable and disenfranchised created by Rice had mutated into something very different. The founder actually banned the physical punishment of children -- a radical idea at the time but a fact that's often overlooked.

In 1996, Rice was beatified, becoming the 'Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice' and his feast day is on May 5 each year. To be considered for the honour, a miracle carried out by, or in the name of, Rice had to be found.

In 1976, a young Newry man named Kevin Ellison had his appendix removed but complications of gangrene followed. Further surgery was performed but the doctors believed there was no hope of survival. Death would take place within 24 to 48 hours. A relic of Rice was given to the 19-year-old's distraught parents.

Amazingly, the young man survived the next day and after a further operation, he was able to return home after several weeks. Kevin Ellison is still alive and well, and married with a young family.

To mark the 250th anniversary of Rice's birth a series of events are taking place across the country as part of the 'Beyond 250 Appeal', including this evening's reception.

The Beyond 250 Appeal aims to raise funds for "the vital international work being carried out around the world in the spirit of Edmund Rice".

Noble and all as the cause may be, many still find it's impossible to separate Rice from the school system he developed.

"The orders which were responsible ... for the rape and brutalisation of children ... should be disbanded. Those who continue to celebrate the contribution of these orders should examine their consciences carefully," says journalist Malachi O'Doherty.

Irish snooker legend and former World Champion Ken Doherty disagrees. He told the Irish Independent: "I went to the CBS in Westland Row and, honestly, I couldn't say enough good things about the education we received there. It definitely was strict and corporal punishment was allowed.

"Of course abuse went on and your heart would go out to those who suffered. I would have seen some of it in my time but, in the main, the school was excellent and very supportive of me in my career. Inevitably, good Christian Brothers, many who are still doing great work in the community, became tarnished with the same brush as those who abused -- and that's not right."

Former Republic of Ireland striker Niall Quinn believes his schooldays had a lasting positive effect on him.

"I'm very proud to be a Drimnagh Castle CBS boy and during my time there found decency and an ethos which helped me long after I left at the age of 16.

"Of course, I have huge sympathy for those boys who had a hard time but I also feel sorry for the good, decent Christian Brothers whose lifetime of work was diminished because of the recent revelations."

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