Theory that ‘children are bad’ has not vanished in Ireland
There was an assumption that boys do bad things when left to their own devices
The leather was about a foot long and could deliver a breathtakingly stinging blow when delivered by a strong adult to a child
The funeral of my last remaining uncle, Jim Morrin, brought me to the Church of Our Lady and St David in Naas recently, where I made for one of the side-aisles with a sense of daring.
It’s a big, once-gloomy, now bright church with three aisles.
Why the sense of daring?
Because, back in the 1950s, Brother Larigy, the one Christian Brother I remember with hostility, regarded the side-aisles as places of utter anarchy. If he heard you had skipped the centre aisles for the obscurity of a side-aisle, punishment followed.
Punishment, needless to say, was corporal, administered with a “leather” to the hand. The leather was about a foot long and could deliver a breathtakingly stinging blow when delivered by a strong adult to a child.
So if you were reported to Larigy as having been in the side-aisles during mass, it was no laughing matter. What went on in the side-aisles? Probably no more than giggling and shoving (we went to mass three miles away in Caragh, so I didn’t partake), but the Monday morning side-aisle accusations stuck in my mind.
Behind all this was an assumption that left to their own devices boys would do bad things.
‘We were lucky’
We had other Christian Brothers who had the opposite attitude to Larigy. These men rarely if ever hit a boy and took no pleasure in it. We were lucky in that way as regards Christian Brothers in our school.
So these latter Christian Brothers represented another strand, one that saw boys as needing to be “formed” with guidance, sometimes strict and stern but not with violence.
Larigy represented the strand in which boys need to have the badness beaten out of them.
I think those two strands are always there and that different strands predominate at different times.
My maternal grandmother went to a two-teacher school at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. One teacher was kind and the other cruel. Whichever you got on day one would be your teacher through all your schooldays. She got the kind teacher. She recalled hearing children upstairs with the cruel teacher begging for mercy as they were beaten.
Two strands in one school. My mother went to school in the 1930s/1940s. Again, a two-teacher school. Again, one kind and one cruel. She got the cruel one. She was spared punishment because she spent her days knitting for the teacher. But the atmosphere was one of cruelty – one boy was beaten every day until the teacher’s arm was exhausted because he would not cry. (Note, by the way, that these two cruel teachers were women, not Christian Brothers and not nuns.)
My father recalled with disapproval a man who told him that if you meet a boy on the road you should give him a kick up the backside because he is either coming from doing something wrong or on the way to do something wrong.
There, again, is the “children are bad” strand.
‘Attitudes don’t vanish’
This isn’t just about reminiscing. The point I am trying to make is that the “children are bad” strand is probably lurking beneath the surface in our society just as the “children are good” strand was lurking in the background in the past.
Attitudes, so far as I can see, don’t vanish into nothingness. They become suppressed for a while and when conditions are right they emerge again.
You could say the same about some of the attitudes released by Brexit in a country which used to welcome immigrants, but now makes them feel unwelcome.
Right now we have a very positive attitude towards children in our society. In practice, we fall short, but at least we know we’re falling short.
But there is no reason to assume this can never turn around and that the old harshness will never assert itself again.
The price of decency, as well as of liberty, is eternal vigilance.
Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.