It is a cool morning in spring 1955. An envelope flops though the door of our terraced house in Manchester, landing on the cold linoleum of the lobby. My mother, more anxious than me, beats me to it. The envelope has a crest on the back – it is a cardinal’s tasselled hat. When my mother opens it at the kitchen table, it is obvious that she is delighted.
I have passed my 11-Plus and been accepted as a scholarship boy by St Bede's College, Manchester, at that time one of the best Catholic grammar schools in the North of England. My mother is both proud and glad: proud that I've got the place and glad that, as she sees it, I have moved one step further away from the redbrick streets and a job in the local ICI chemical factory, the CWS biscuit factory, or worse.
All the family on my mother’s side are of Irish descent, from Dublin and Tipperary, and almost all of them work in the tailoring trade in Manchester and Liverpool.
My father, a navigator in the Lancaster bombers, was killed a month to the day before I was born, so my mother has had a difficult time bringing me up on a war widow’s pension; but she is at least able to claim the money for my uniform from the RAF Benevolent Fund. Somewhere in the family archive is a snapshot of me standing in our back yard in my school uniform, ready to set off on that long bus journey across the city on my first day at St Bede’s.
I have a fixed smile on my face, the rictus reserved for photos where you are told to smile, and my hair is slicked down under my cap, which has an embroidered badge of Manchester bees mimicking that on my blazer; both carry the motto Nunquam Otio Torpebat – “he never languished in idleness”.
So on that sunny morning in September, with a new leather satchel and my name sewn into everything but my shoes in Cash’s tape labels, I set off to join 600 other boys in what passes for a Catholic Tom Brown’s School Days – with frankincense, the Latin Mass and buggery.
In the last quarter-century of Victoria’s reign, Catholic priests from St Bede’s on the Rhine founded a school for Catholic boys on Oxford Road, Manchester. In 1877 Cardinal Vaughan, Bishop of Salford, purchased land close to Alexandra Park that included the Manchester Aquarium. Around that aquarium the cardinal built his school.
The building, constructed in Italian Renaissance style, is only half finished. So in spite of its fine facade and its “segmental pediments”, from the front it still looks one-legged and somehow symbolises the half-cocked Greyfriars with priests that it became during my time there.
On that sunny September morning I enter what I later describe as a Roman Catholic Cockayne, a topsy-turvy world where beatings are handed out wholesale. A world where a priest called Coulthard can punch and kick boys (he stands on the backs of my hands with shoes with running spikes when I fail to get my position right on the starting blocks) and where terror can be scented on the air in the Lady Corridor, as strong almost as the reek of frankincense from the chapel.
In my dreams I again walk the building’s ways, across the covered playground into the old school, with its terrazzo floors and dark corridors and the stairs that lead to the dark side of the building, where – when you are sent to the Rector’s study for a beating – you will often find a nun on her hands and knees waxing or washing the floors.
The Hall where tanks of exotic fish once delighted Victorian Mancunians is now the gym where Fr “Willy” Coulthard punches boys in the face and hangs them from the wall bars for punishment until their arm sockets roar in pain.
It also doubles as an assembly hall where High Mass is said and where Msgr Thomas Duggan can sit in his glorious vestments looking down his nose at the hall full of captives beneath him, a long, long way from his grandfather’s Donegal cabin door. The Hall is also where boys who fail the weekly Latin vocabulary test are ritually thrashed on the stage before the assembled school.
Overlying the violence and the terror there is something else. Msgr Duggan is the rector of the college, and word among the boys is that to go to his room for punishment involves dropping your trousers and underpants and is always followed by a groping – and sometimes something worse. He is short and plump, his bald head is powdered to kill the shine, and his eyes are black, cold, dead buttons. He knows we fear him and in that knowledge he hugs his savagely twisted sexuality close – to him the smell of fear is an aphrodisiac.
I learn many years later that he comes from a poor but large immigrant family with Donegal roots who settled in a North Lancashire cotton town. But, strangely, now he has no sympathy with the poor, and loves instead to be seen in the Midland Hotel with the most powerful of the Manchester Catholic businessmen.
For a small boy coming from a working-class home where there are books but no bookshelves and where homework has to be done on the table after everybody has been fed, this daily trip to a middle-class enclave where everybody else knows the rules and where so many of the boys seem perfectly at home is, I now realise, tilted so much against the children of the working class that I wonder why nobody ever saw this.
The police inspector begins to cry, not noisily with great sobbing swallows of air but quietly; his face in the evening sunset is glazed with a patina of tears
I know many boys who, having passed the 11-Plus, have proved their mental capacity but, because the school runs on a “sink or swim” basis they will fail to flourish. This, I presume, is put down to “lack of backbone” or the boys being simply “unfit for purpose”. But somehow I survive it, leave, get a job, get married, have children, get a degree in education and take to the road as a stand-up comic-cum-folk singer.
Spool on 30 years or so and I am in a bar in Bermuda, halfway through a series of gigs at the Bermuda Folk Club. On a free night I’m sipping a beer at the counter with a local police inspector who comes originally from Manchester and who also went to St Bede’s.
The sun is going down on the sea, laying a shaking carpet of burnished gold in a great broad pathway leading out to the west. This is the Yellow Brick Road that inspired Frank L Baum – who lived here – to write his story of The Wizard of Oz, who was nothing but another small man with a large megaphone and the power that fear gives him.
As we sip our beers we talk about our own Grand Wizard who lorded it over St Bede’s in a regime of sexual abuse, fear and violence. The police inspector begins to cry, not noisily with great sobbing swallows of air but quietly; his face in the evening sunset is glazed with a patina of tears.
“That bastard Duggan ruined my f**king life. I’ve a failed marriage and kids I hardly ever see and I’m stuck forever in that room in Manchester with my trousers and underpants round my ankles while Duggan feels me up.”
I go home from Bermuda but the images of the crying man at the end of the Yellow Brick Road are wedged into my soul like spikes.
A decade or so later, Paul, another Old Bedian schoolmate, who left England on the Dublin boat to live out his retirement in Roscommon, begins a blog about his new life in Ireland that holds small nuggets of the life he left behind (but didn’t) in Manchester. Once or twice Paul mentions Msgr Duggan and he doesn’t spare the punches. Pete, my best friend from infant school in St Anne’s, Crumpsall, who also went to St Bede’s and is still, to this day, a great pal, stumbles on the blog and fires a link across to me.
I pass on the links and wires are connected and circuits fire up and, because of this new thing called the internet, boys across the world who are now old men begin to tell their stories. From Australia to America, New Zealand to Spain and both sides of the Irish Sea the stories come, like flakes presaging snow.
And then the blizzard follows.
We talk to each other and the stories keep coming. Paul in Roscommon, most vocal of all, gathers the evidence until he has amassed a dungheap of pain, misery and fear that stinks to heaven.
And the stories, each an individual’s epic scream from the page.
The story of a boy who tells his mother he has been buggered by Duggan, only to be beaten black and purple by his Irish father, convinced that his child is a lying pervert and that a priest (nay, a monsignor) is incapable of such filth and that it only exists in his child’s diseased mind.
The boy whose mother asks him where his underpants are on wash day. He can’t tell her about the blood and sh*t on them and how he’s wiped himself on them and thrown them away.
The boy, a dear friend to Paul and myself, who becomes a teacher but who lives inside his own dark story, telling it over and again until he finds his way to a crack den in Manchester, where he drinks himself to death.
And the story of the man who, holding within him still the boy crippled by St Bede’s, his mind bedevilled by constant reruns of the scene in the monsignor’s study, lays his head on the forgetful pillow of a railway line and there his bad dreams end.
There are so many stories that eventually, in hope of closure for all the men concerned, we send them to the Diocese of Salford. Meetings are arranged. Paul drives over to Manchester from Roscommon but is denied access because his anger and the language he has been using online have alienated the diocese. It is an excuse to keep him out of the game, for what are his words of anger and the clergy’s outrage against the things that were done to boys by a man of God?
Instead, three of us, Pete, myself and Patrick, all friends and old boys, sit at the great table opposite Fr O'Sullivan, the safeguarding officer of Salford diocese, and a group of lawyers and officials representing the interests of the Catholic Church. I ask if the meeting can be recorded and everybody agrees.
During the meeting we learn that no records are kept of priests by the diocese other than those most necessary: the plainly chronological and scholastic – date of birth, schools/universities attended, positions held, date of death etc. Go search for Msgr Thomas Duggan now and all you will find is a name and some dates in the liturgy of forgotten years that is the Catholic Church.
His ghost walks backwards now, existing only in the stories of old men, only in the despair of the abused and the tales they try to tell to those who will listen before they die
Rumour among Catholics in Manchester has it that after an “incident with a boy” Duggan was suddenly spirited away to the northern limits of the diocese, rusticated to the rural North Lancashire parish of Chipping.
He died not long after the move and became a Hollow Man, with no existence other than in the night terrors of a few old men and occasional appearances in old press cuttings in the Manchester Evening News. These variously show him at functions, and of course in the annual school photographs where he sits, centre stage, surrounded by boys and priests and masters, close on 700 men and boys staring into the lens and falling back into silence.
His ghost walks backwards now, existing only in the stories of old men, only in the despair of the abused and the tales they try to tell to those who will listen before they die.
I do have one thing on record, though: on the tape Fr Sullivan admits that Duggan’s “goings-on” were common knowledge and the subject of gossip among younger priests on the golf course and in the locker rooms.
And that is it – just gossip and the memories of old men who are moving into the shadowlands year by year.
Just gossip. And nobody did anything – or, more accurately, everybody did nothing.
The class action case against the diocese involving more than 50 old boys dies on the steps of the court when the lawyers representing the abused realise that the Catholic Church’s coffers have been primed and a mass of money has been pumped into the diocese’s case and that the lawyers representing the boys realise they will have to collectively mortgage all their houses to fight the case.
Compensation is offered by the diocese, but as far as I know none of the old men take it. The desire for money was not the butterfly whose wing sliced the sunbeam that sent the storm skittering across the world. It was simply the desire that now, before they die, the true story would be told.
What we received instead, to the church’s eternal shame, was a non-committal statement from the Bishop of Salford saying he apologised for the “reported abuse”. Even in the last years of their lives the abused boys are spurned by the church that should have been caring for them. The same church instead fostered the cruelty and princely pomp of Thomas Duggan and allowed him the power and the freedom to do what he did to those children yet to be men in that oak-panelled oubliette in the old Manchester Aquarium.
And, worst of all, they sought to deny it ever happened.
St Bede’s is now coeducational and twinned with Blackrock College in Dublin and is, I am told, nothing like the school I once knew.
Mike Harding is a folk musician, stand-up comic, broadcaster and poet who lives in Connemara and Yorkshire