Christian Brothers step away from Irish schools


Infamous today for violence and sexual abuse against pupils, the Catholic order educated a nation

By David Sharrock

WHEN schools across Ireland toll the closing bell of summer term, a proud but controversial tradition will finally draw to a close as thousands of children stream through the gates for the holidays.

The Christian Brothers have for two hundred years been the shapers of generations for “the battle of existence”. Half of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising executed for their part in the Irish rebellion were their pupils. In the latest and arguably most powerful symbol yet of how dramatically modern Irish society is changing, the Christian Brothers are withdrawing from direct involvement in a network of primary and secondary schools that once formed the backbone of the country.

Arrangements to hand over 29 primary and 109 secondary schools to a charity staffed entirely by lay people are being finalised. When pupils return in September the transformation will be complete.

The news has prompted memories — many bitter, but some more generous — from alumni. Nearly all of them focussed on the violence that accompanied their muscular brand of Catholic discipline.

In 1998 the Brothers took out half-page newspaper advertisements to apologise for sexual and other abuse inflicted in their institutions. A year later Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, issued a fuller apology on behalf of the government to the victims.

“Too many of our children were denied love, care and security,” he said. “Abuse ruined their childhoods and has been an ever-present part of their adult lives . . . we must do all we can now to overcome the lasting effects of their ordeals.”

A redress board to offer financial compensation to the victims was set up and a commission to investigate the claims established; it is still hearing evidence. One victims’ group has 1,500 members in Britain alone.

But it is the dramatic decline in religious vocations that has forced the Brothers to take this decision to abandon their prime education role.

Brother John Heneghan, a spokesman, said that while they would continue to be owned by them “the Brothers won’t have direct responsibility for the schools any more . . . the orientation is towards it being it a lay-operated entity”.

As a Pontifical organisation, Brother Heneghan said, they would be asking the Vatican to approve the new structure and with Ireland fast become a secular society, the Pope’s consent is a foregone conclusion.

Pat Kenny, Ireland’s foremost radio and television broadcaster, said that he had received a superb education from the Brothers but their corporal punishment was excessive. “You could get three on each hand simply for being the last to move from A to B and someone had to be last.

“It was, in the odd case, gratuitous cruelty. I’ve always felt the formation of the Christian Brothers was deeply flawed. We were subjected to recruitment drives in the classroom at the age of 12. We all knew in our bones that this was wrong.”

John Banville, the author and winner of the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea, attended a Christian Brothers primary school in Wexford. He said: “Speaking for myself I had an absolutely fine education. I didn’t have any abuse at all, I did appreciate that they were providing free education to a country that was extremely poor at the time in the 1950s and 60s. So it is with a certain regret that I see them disappearing from the scene.”

But Malachy O’Doherty, author of I was a teenage Catholic, recalled schooling with the Brothers in Belfast as an unhappy, dark time. “They brought to West Belfast a sense of a very conservative, miserable, male, rural world.

“The boys’ talk was constantly of, ‘What mood will HE be in today?’ so it was understood by us that they were moody, unhappy people bringing the grief of their own stunted lives into our world.”

Gay Byrne, retired host of television’s The Late Late Show, said: “One went to school most days firmly convinced that you were going to get physically beaten at some stage during the day for some reason or another.

“But people of my class and background wouldn’t have received an education of any kind were it not for the Christian Brothers at that time.”

But Brother Heleghan said that he believed history would judge their work more kindly. “Unfortunately the tendency has been to pick on the negative but I think that when history looks at the overall story of the building of the Irish nation and the emergence of the leaders of this country of ours it will be very positive.”


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