John Harrison remembers his time as an Irish rebel at an English public school


WHEN I was a child it was quite common for boys to attend convent schools in their early years. I started off in Santa Sabena School, Sutton, Co Dublin, with the Dominican sisters until I made my first communion.

Afterwards, I attended a small private school in Howth, which was run by a splendid man called Mr Leonard. Unfortunately, the school lasted only two years - it was quickly put out of business by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid who persuaded the Christian Brothers to open up in the locality.

As a result, in January 1945, I was sent, as a nine-year-old boarder, to St Gerard's School, Bray, Co Wicklow.

I remember arriving at the school on a snowy day, in a horse-drawn cab from Bray station - it was during the war and there was a petrol shortage. At that time, St Gerard's was a junior school only, and its main purpose was to prepare boys for entry into the English public schools and their Irish equivalents. There were only 55 pupils in the school which was run by Desmond Murphy - a wonderful man.

In our final year there were just five of us in the class and we received the undivided attention of some very good teachers - it's no wonder that we all got scholarships! My name is still up on the wall in St Gerard's commemorating the bursary I won to Stoneyhurst in England, but they've got the year wrong - I left in 1949.

Academically, the Jesuit-run Stoneyhurst was superb, but I wasn't as happy there as I had been at St Gerard's. We had excellent laboratory facilities where I developed a taste for science and I learned to speak French and German and to appreciate classical music. But as an Irishman I was a misfit and a bit rebellious - I was called "bog-man" by my contemporaries. I was forced into the army cadet force, to which I objected.

When an American came to the school and was given exemption from the cadets, I tried to argue my case - that Ireland had left the Commonwealth and was a republic. But I was threatened with a beating and I'm afraid my patriotism crumbled. However, like Gandhi, I adopted a policy of passive resistance and I managed to avoid promotion.

Ideas about boarding school have changed and they are less popular now than they were in the past. Nowadays the thinking is that children do better in good stable homes with the support of the family and none of my own children were sent away to school. One of the disadvantages of attending school in England was that when I came home to Dublin I had very few friends. However, once I started to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin I quickly got to know people.