Brothers disarmed – An Irishman’s Diary on the memories unleashed by ‘Sing Street’

I went to see Sing Street the other night and, like most of the reviewers, thought it charming and funny. But I also found myself wondering afterwards about the ambiguity – no doubt deliberate – of its dedication: “For brothers everywhere”.

The main meaning, clearly, derived from the teenage hero’s relationship with his older sibling, a patient mentor who shares with him a hard-won wisdom not yet entirely compromised by smoking hash.

On the other hand, the tribute must also have been aimed at the Christian Brothers, whose famous Synge Street establishment is the film's stage. If so, it's a back-handed compliment, since their treatment in the story is hardly sympathetic.

I must say I thought Brother Baxter, the main authority figure, was somewhat traduced by the end. This is partly because he's played by Don Wycherley, whose affable talents make all his characters seem broadly humane.


Moreover, for his one violent act, he could plead severe provocation from that 1980s youth movement, the New Romantics. Even I still find their crimes against music and fashion difficult to forgive. For an educator of the old school, they must have been a hard cross.

Of course I’m probably suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, having been educated by brothers myself.  Our local schools, primary and secondary, were run by the Patricians – who as well as being generally less well known than the CBs, were also less notorious.

During the early years of the Troubles, we thought of them as a political wing of the Christian Brothers – in that, while they did not themselves engage in violence, they understood the underlying causes of it, espoused the same ends, and reserved the right to use it if we didn’t cooperate.

This may have been unfair to both orders. There were a great many Christian Brothers, I’m told, who were devoted to constitutional methods. And the Patricians, for their part, were not entirely pacific.

Their wicker canes were decommissioned soon after my graduation from primary school, I think. But before that, despite being a saintly child, I had endured the occasional punishment beating, on trumped up charges.

I also remember a brother who would occasionally intern recalcitrant pupils in the shelf of a wall cupboard – a space so confined it needed other students to hold the doors closed. It was only for short periods and half in jest. Still, the UN Convention on Torture might take a dim view.

The brothers were a threatened species even then. By the time I reached secondary school, they had shrunken severely both in numbers and (it seemed) size.

One of the last – and he was with us only briefly – was nicknamed “Steptoe”, because of a supposed likeness to the TV sitcom character. He was cadaverous and tiny – so much so he could enter the classroom (and always did) with his chalk-holding hand raised above his head and still have sufficient clearance from the doorframe.

Then he would go straight to the blackboard and start writing, his sole pedagogical method. He had been in India many years, and I suspect had some difficulty adjusting to life back in Ireland, where students were less respectful. In any case, his tendency not to face the class was asking for trouble.

It wasn’t unknown for the bolder boys to throw a handball at the blackboard occasionally, then catch the rebound, hide the ball, and assume angelic expressions in the time it took him to turn. In a similar vein (having been radicalised by my canings), I once attempted to amuse the class by shining a light on his teaching methods, literally, with a fragment of mirror found in the school yard.

It was a provocation too far. I too attempted a look of innocence when he turned. But he walked straight towards me, slowly. Then, with one hand, he reached under the desk to where I had hid the mirror and, with the other, punched me in the face.

It wasn’t exactly a knock-out blow, more a left jab. And even at the age of about 13, I could hardly berate him for not picking someone his own size.  In any case, that was my first and last attempt at providing unwanted enlightenment to a teacher. So I learned that lesson from him at least, although I cannot now remember anything else he taught, even which subject.

That’s my contribution to truth and reconciliation.

As for John Carney’s, the aforementioned film, I recommend you go see it.

And bring a brother with you, if you have one.