‘Synger’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Synge Street CBS in the Sixties
Christian Brothers’ School at Synge Street in Dublin 8 featured in film Sing Street.
There are times when everyone else seems to be getting their spoke in and you feel the need to have your say. The subject in question is the Christian Brothers’ School at Synge Street in Dublin 8 which has featured in a film where the title is spelt as Sing Street and, more recently, in the documentary programme on RTÉ entitled Last Orders with Gay Byrne.
The most striking part of Gaybo’s narrative was the introduction, where he walked along the railings of Harrington Street Church and turned onto Synge Street while informing viewers that, as a schoolboy, he used to be consumed with “foreboding and fright and anxiety” because, like most of his classmates, he would be the recipient of a right old belting from his teachers during the day.
Gay Byrne left the environs of “Synger” in the early 1950s. Some 15 years later when I did my Leaving Cert there, the infamous leather strap was still in use, though not perhaps on such an intense scale. Once you got into fifth and sixth year, the disciplinary instrument was put to one side. Part of the credit for this may be due to the “Cruiskeen Lawn” columnist in this newspaper, Myles na Gopaleen aka Flann O’Brien. I recall that he was denounced in a talk by one of the Christian Brothers, because he had written in very stark terms about getting slapped during his days at the school.
In psychological terms, I can still feel the sting of the leather on my hands all these years later as I type these words. The most searing memory concerns an episode where one of my fellow pupils was accused of allowing another boy in the class to copy his maths homework in the schoolyard at lunchtime. Unfortunately for the pair, who were aged about 12 years, it was raining at the time and a wet blob or two appeared in their exercise books. This tipped-off the Brother in charge, who administered swift and severe punishment with the leather. As I recall, they got six slaps each, maybe more, while the rest of us looked on in terror. The Brother was a tall man, so the penalty was imposed from a great height.
It has to be said that not all the teachers, lay and religious, were as stern as this, and there was at least one of them who never used the leather. However, there was another Brother, small and rotund in physique, who used to give a little jump in the air as he administered the slaps. He was compensating for his lack of inches and making sure the “biff” had maximum impact.
At the time corporal punishment was widely accepted in society at large, in schools and in many family homes. It was like car-clamping today – you break the rules, you take the punishment, end of story. As we shivered at our desks, there was nobody to speak up for us except Dr Cyril Daly (1933-2015), who regularly denounced the practice in his newspaper articles.
In academic terms at the time, Synge Street was very successful and there was intense rivalry with the O’Connell School, on the other side of the Liffey, to get the best results in State examinations. Teaching orders like the Brothers can justly claim to have brought about a social revolution, propelling children from very modest backgrounds to successful careers and a good standard of living.
Many scenes from the Sing Street movie were filmed in and around the school grounds. It is set in the mid-1980s in what I still think of as the “new” secondary school, which is actually located on Heytesbury Street. In my time an intense fund-raising campaign was launched to help with the building costs. This took the form of a “non-stop draw” with pupils and their parents eagerly selling tickets week in, week out.
Gay Byrne’s programme includes footage of the former archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who blessed the new building as it was opened.
Also in attendance was Donogh O’Malley, who had announced his free secondary education scheme only four months earlier. The minister for education got a loud cheer when he declared that the boys could have the rest of the day off. The stark pallor of his features came as a bit of a shock and, sadly, this pioneering figure died suddenly, just over a year later.
Sing Street is a wonderful evocation of the dreams and ambitions of youth, when everything seems possible and no obstacle will be allowed stand in your way. I was less pleased with the manner in which the school emerged from the production and felt that the complimentary remark about its work as a multicultural school today, at the end of the credits, was an insufficient remedy. It should have been on the screen at the start of the film, or at least at the beginning of the credits.
Synger, like the rest of us, has moved on.