Christian Brothers' brutality has origins in colonialism


It was difficult to avoid a slight frisson of shame, watching the recent States of Fear documentaries, to be reminded of the extent to which the brutality associated with the Christian Brothers had been exported to other countries. The final programme dealt in detail with the revelations in recent years about abuses in institutions run by the Brothers in both Canada and Australia. In every respect, the picture accorded with the domestic one: brutality, sexual perversion and sadism were the order of the day.

But while it is good for us to confront our own darknesses, concentrating on them to the exclusion of other aspects may not facilitate enlightenment. States of Fear, seeking perhaps to shock us into realisation, did not go in for complex analysis. The argument it presented of the Brothers' excursions to foreign lands was stark: here was an Irish order bringing debasement and pain wherever it went.

It is difficult to defend the Christian Brothers, but there is one detail which Mary Raftery's documentary left out, an important characteristic which Ireland, Canada and Australia have in common (other than the benefits of the CBS approach): all three are former colonies of the British Empire. (Please don't write in to say that Ireland was never, technically, a colony of Britain. Semantics can damage your health.) As a number of writers to the Letters to the Editor page have hinted recently, it is not useful to examine these issues outside of the paradigm provided by British colonialism. Because the Christian Brothers are alleged to have promulgated an extreme nationalist version of Irish history, it may seem implausible to present them as representatives of the British colonial machine.

Consider the possibility, however, in the searing light of Padraic Pearse's analysis in his seminal essay, The Murder Machine. The English, he wrote, had "planned and established an education system which more wickedly does violence to the elementary human rights of Irish children than would an edict for the general castration of Irish males . . . To invent such a system of teaching and to persuade us that it is an education system, an Irish education system to be defended by Irishmen against attack, is the most wonderful thing the English have accomplished in Ireland; and the most wicked . . . One of the most terrible things about the English education system in Ireland is its ruthlessness. I know no image for that ruthlessness in the natural order. The ruthlessness of a wild beast has a certain mercy - it slays . .. But this ruthlessness is literally without pity and without passion. It is cold and mechanical, like the ruthlessness of an immensely powerful engine. A machine vast, complicated, with a multitude of far-reaching arms, with many ponderous presses, carrying out mysterious and long-drawn processes of shaping and moulding, is the true image of the Irish education system. It grinds night and day; it obeys immutable and predetermined laws; it is as devoid of understanding, of sympathy, of imagination, as is any other piece of machinery that performs an appointed task. Into it is fed all the raw material in Ireland; it seizes upon it inexorably and rends and compresses and remoulds; and what it cannot refashion after the regulation pattern it ejects with all likeness of its former self crushed from it, a bruised and shapeless thing, thereafter accounted waste."

The "Irish" industrial school system was the refuse bin of the colonial machine. That it was run by Catholic agencies does not dilute the fact that, like the rest of the system, its purpose was, as Pearse wrote, to produce "good slaves". Brutality in education was tacitly accepted, which explains why it could happen in such close proximity to everyday life.

Other post-colonial societies, Australia and Canada for example, entertained similar public attitudes. Australia, in particular, has long had a "traditionally" high level of tolerance towards brutality in both home and school, and this existed before the Christian Brothers arrived.

What we need to look at, therefore, is not what the Christian Brothers did, but what they represented and where this emanated from. As Barry M. Coldray has demonstrated in his essays and books on the role of the Christian Brothers in Ireland and elsewhere, the truth is altogether more complex than our present-centred neurosis will allow. As with so many things about Ireland, when seeking the original culprit it is inadvisable to rule out the old enemy.

It is strange but true that the founder of the Christian Brothers, Edmund Ignatius Rice, developed his philosophy as a reaction to what he perceived to be the excessively violent nature of education at the time. In the early 19th century, floggings were an everyday occurrence, 50 or 100 strokes of a cane on the bare back or buttocks being a fairly standard chastisement. Punishments were administered with sticks, belts, cat-o'-nine-tails and bare fists.

From the establishment of the order in 1802, the Christian Brothers very quickly came to be seen as opposed to these practices. "Unless for some very serious fault, which rarely occurs," Rice wrote in 1810, "corporal punishment is not allowed." In 1825, the British Royal Commission on education noted, with some astonishment, that, whereas pupils at Christian Brothers schools were kept in good order, the teachers "seldom have recourse to corporal punishment".

It was in the wake of the passing of the 1878 Intermediate Education (Ireland) Bill, providing for a "payment by results" system, establishing a direct connection between examination results and the funding for schools, that the Christian Brothers began to develop their "modern" reputation. Afterwards, while the brothers became markedly more successful in providing teaching for Irish boys who would otherwise have remained uneducated, they also became more notorious for brutality. The "greater good" of "civilisation" was used to justify methods which themselves mocked this objective.

It is remarkable that, in the wake of independence, although the formal policy of the order reverted to what it had been in the beginning, many brothers ignored the rules and maintained a degree of severity in keeping with the external culture, which maintained a high tolerance for the maltreatment of children. This tendency became more pronounced in the 1940s, when the Brothers became associated with the crude attempt to "de-Anglicise" Ireland and rid it of "alien" influences. The ironies of this are obvious and immense.

There is, then, a bigger story here than we are yet able to assimilate. It would be wrong if such complications were employed to get us off the hook. But simply purging ourselves of Christian Brothers, and entertaining a quiet sense of smug grievance as we watch them being led away in chains on the six o'clock news, is as pointless and dangerous as believing that we can eliminate corruption from Irish politics by crucifying Charles Haughey.