by Donal Kennedy
TO READ some commentators, the Irish Christian Brothers were distinguished mainly for personal violence and approval of its use for nationalist ends.
My father and his brother, my mother's four brothers, my two brothers and myself were Christian Brothers' boys so I think I know something about the Order.
I have a photo of my maternal grandfather and his four sons taken about 1910 a couple of years or so before grandfather's death.
The youngest of the boys went missing, presumed dead, in February 1942, when the Japanese captured Singapore from the British. He was a warrant officer in the British army. Neither under the British nor the Japanese was Singapore part of a democracy, and in its time as a state itself I believe it still falls short of democratic status. Whatever this uncle was doing he was not defending democracy.
The next youngest was six weeks short of his seventeenth birthday when a shell from Kaiser Wilhelm's grand fleet landed near him on one of the British North Sea fleet's warships near Jutland in May 1916. The sole survivor from his section of the ship, he suffered wounds that had him in and out of hospital until his death in 1963, but remained in the British navy until he served the twelve years he had signed up for.
In a photograph taken with his shipmates in a wardroom of the cruiser HMS Princess Royal at Christmas 1917, his is the only hairless chin and he looks like a choirboy amongst villainous pirates.
About four years older than him, another brother served throughout the Great War with the Dublin Fusiliers on the Western Front. A week before Britain went to war with Germany he had helped with the landing of rifles at Howth, as a member of the Irish Volunteers. Previous to that he had been a member of Fianna Eireann. He played Gaelic Games, played the bagpipes and signed his name in Irish.
But when John Redmond split the Volunteers and most of them followed Tom Kettle, a Pied Piper if ever there was one, uncle Ned went with them. He was gassed, but not enough to kill him, and survived, in and out of hospital until the eve of the New Year 1964.
There is an ignorant tendency in Ireland which would have us believe that John Redmond and those that heeded him were essentially pacifists.
And that same tendency would describe the eldest of my uncles, who never joined the British forces as a "man of violence."
No, he never joined the IRA. When the Great War broke out, and until his death in 1971, he was an Irish Christian Brother. The very worst of the Irish Christian Brothers were bad indeed, but they provided cheaply or gratis the suffering and humiliation which rich and titled Britons paid thousands of pounds for in British public schools. I was told of one such, barely a stone's throw from Windsor Castle, where young pupils were forced to run a gauntlet of older ones hitting golf balls at them. And that was in the 1990s.
I can remember though one Christian Brother from a garrison town in the north of Ireland who stands out as a bully. He had a habitually angry red face, and he taught ten and eleven year olds. He would ask questions on the Catechism which we learnt by rote. The doctrines had long ago been formulated by Fathers of the Church, learned in Hebrew scripture and classical Greek philosophy, and presented to us in language not normally current in our vocabularies.
In his zeal to teach us the love of Jesus he would box the ears of any boy who stumbled over a polysyllabic and abstract word.
If Brother Mac's face was habitually red, I can well remember when it turned an apoplectic purple. It was when we came to the Church's condemnation of secret societies. He launched into a tirade about the IRA to the puzzlement of everybody.
To us, the IRA was as remote as the Fianna of Fionn MacCumhal and the Red Branch Knights of Cuchulain. Sure, there were the veterans, respected pillars of society, jovial and kindly fathers,uncles, grandfathers and neighbours, but to ten year olds in 1952 the IRA were pre-history.
A few months later three young men, Cathal Goulding from Dublin, Manus Canning from Derry and John Stephenson from God Knows Where, revived the IRA, acquiring enough arms to equip a regular army company of 100 men.
They didn't get these from the Christian Brothers, but Felsted, a public school in Essex, founded by Richard Rich in 1564. The aptly named Rich had been Lord Chancellor under Henry V111 of England, the first such English monarch to proclaim himself King, rather than Lord, of Ireland. Rich's fortunes were the fruit of the suppression of the monasteries of England, which like Henry's Kingship of Ireland was established by violence.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2009 Donal Kennedy