CONTRIBUTION BY STUART McKENNA 1952/1958
I attended St. Joseph's College, Blackpool from September 1952 until June 1958.
I entered the College full of excitement and anticipation having had verbal instructions, from many sources, as to what to expect. My academic credentials were very acceptable and I had high expectations. My family had a good history of uncles and cousins attending the school. For the first five years of my College life I accepted everything and struggled to understand what was the focus of the Grammar School activities. My report cards placed me in the top five of my year. The O-Level results gave me seven out of seven subjects. I played rugby for Newton house and the school. I played cricket for the school.
On starting sixth form, the proverbial excrement hit the fan. As Captain of the second fifteen rugby team, I played the first game of the season and received an awful kick in the mouth. I lost teeth and had to be fitted with a full denture. My Mother withdrew me from the school rugby programme. From that day forth my sixth form school experience deteriorated. My Chemistry teacher and rugby coach never spoke to me again for the next two years. He tentatively asked if I was 'alright' halfway through the final laboratory exam. I failed Chemistry A-level. I left sixth form at Holy Joe's with two A-levels and I was in a state of ignorance and total confusion.
There are two things that stand out in my mind about my contemporaries. Many of them became excellent teachers and so many of them took time but eventually performed excellently in their chosen fields, despite their lack of proper schooling. I have often wondered why.
It seems to me that we lived through exceptional circumstances. In the fifties, so many of our parents were struggling night and day to recover from the deprivations that they experienced in World War II. Secondly, many excellent teachers, being thoroughly decent men, had responded to the call and had enlisted in the armed forces, leaving behind a sad lot of unqualified and unfit personnel to hold the fort in schools. Irish Christian Brothers themselves were drawn from a pool of partially educated Irish peasants that were severely repressed by the Catholic Church Clergy. They certainly did not go through the UK education system and were therefore ignorant of the full academic requirements of our day. Most of these men seemed to regard us as opponents and sought primarily to suppress us, rather than provide us with an education. Their weapon of choice was the strap.
We therefore were unfortunate to have had preoccupied parents who were confident that we could be placed in the hands of these Catholic Educators. They assumed they were all good men that would guide us to achieve all that we were capable of achieving. Yet in truth, the Irish Christian Brotherhood was a haven for men that sought to escape from the stranglehold of ludicrous Catholic doctrines that suppressed their own growth and development. Perhaps unwittingly, they regarded their mission as needing to control those young souls that were placed in their care.
If only those men had realized that their job in life was to recognize the wonderful talents of other people and that they were to encourage the growth of young people, pointing them towards achieving excellence. Was just one individual of our decade able to exceed beyond all expectations? (see school picture 1946 for our famous lawyer). I know that many of my own school mates have excelled eventually in their endeavours but my major regret is that so many of us suffered unnecessarily because those that were entrusted with our growth were unable to recognise our strengths and looked upon us a a challenge to their own authority.
Was it just because we were born at a certain time or was it because our parents were struggling to re-establish their own lives that the Irish Christian Brothers were regarded with such unquestioned regard? I could now name names to support my thoughts but...perhaps it is best to seek the opinions of others. We have all witnessed the awful exposures revealed by Canadian young men that were abused in the hands of Christian Brothers.
........ Post script added later.
As I read the contributions of the men that attended the College so many years ago, I cannot help but be dismayed at the descriptions of brutal madness that took place on those grounds. Today teachers that behaved like some of the Irish Christian Brothers did then would be in jail. In many respects those school days left much to be desired.
I must admit that my first five years at St. Joe's were reasonably pleasant and I was not subjected to the humiliation of being interfered with physically by Paddy McGee or Brother Phelan, though I have vivid memories of incidents in the classroom involving less fortunate boys. However, in retrospect I believe I was only lucky to have been a member of a family that was held in high regard by the teaching staff. It was nothing to do with me, but my family had various links to the school. I did not need to establish myself but on the other hand there was a certain expectation of me. I sat in the classroom knowing that Alf Pope or M. Le Brun or other teachers would respect my family name. That all changed in the sixth form and by refusing to continue to play rugby for the school after a serious injury, I believe I was deliberately ostracized, particularly by one vindictive Christian Brother. He needed to put me in my place. It irked him to read in the Blackpool Green that I was playing football for Blackpool Rangers (fourth team) every week. He failed to realize that I could play football, wearing glasses but on the rugby field I was almost a blind man.
One of the most damaging effects of the Irish Christian Brother brand of teaching was the emphasis on the sixth and ninth commandments during religious instruction. They were obsessed with sins against these commandments, covering all sorts of sexual activity. ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ and ‘Thou shalt not covert thy neighbour's wife’ became very widely interpreted. At the College there was compulsory daily lessons involving the Brothers' understanding of the commandments. It amounted to a form of brainwashing, which left the pupils believing they were living in a permanent state of mortal sin. Being in mortal sin was to be condemned to hell for all eternity. The only hope for salvation was to seek forgiveness via the confessional. The religious ideas were linked together and became self-perpetuating, leading down a path to total obedience.
A young boy experiencing the incredible hormonal changes of puberty was quickly made aware that any thoughts, words or deeds associated with new bodily functions that were beginning to manifest themselves, were sources of mortal sin. Anything remotely linked to sex was taboo. All incidents of this nature had to be mentally logged, listed and reported in the confessional.
The confessional was the worst kind of torment. It was a nightmare trying to explain to a priest, in carefully chosen language, how perhaps looking at pictures in a catalogue, advertising ladies underwear had caused arousal. The number of times the shameful act had been repeated had to be revealed. Every sinful act had to be recounted. To hold back was a mortal sin. Some priests were infamous for keeping contrite youths in the box for a long time, probing for details of the offences. It was mortifying to eventually escape and face the group of penitents awaiting their turn and staring expectantly at the confessional door. There was always the fear that these people, gathered in pews just outside the box, had overheard what the priest had said. Simple penances could be easily performed immediately but doing ‘stations of the cross’ for more serious offences needed to be performed later, lest those in attendance tippled to the extent of sinfulness that had just been absolved. It was a mortal sin to forget to do the penance.
The net result of continuous self-examination was a lowering of self-esteem in the pupil and a mentally unhealthy self-consciousness. The permanent feelings of being guilty left enduring scars on the psyche. Phrases like 'irregular motions of the flesh', 'self-abuse' and 'spilling the seed' were etched permanently on young minds. It was all part of the attempt to control the very thoughts of each individual. Pupils were to be seen but not heard. They had to absorb and regurgitate the lessons handed down from the 'very mouth of God' by these Irishmen that had been called upon to do God's work. Being direct messengers of God, they had unquestionable authority. Every pupil also had to consider whether or not God was calling him. It was a mortal sin to ignore the call.
Eventually attending Sunday Mass became a source of acute embarrassment. Communion could only be taken by those in a state of grace. It meant that a young boy with rampant hormones had to go to confession on Saturday evening and withstand all sorts of temptations of thought, word or deed until the host was distributed on Sunday morning. Just going to Mass and not partaking of communion exposed the individual as being in a sinful state. When the priest ascended into the pulpit he seemed to be addressing everyone in person. Young boys blushed agonizingly as the priests eyes swept over them and they squirmed in their pews. It felt as if the whole congregation knew that they were in a state of sin. The Christian Brothers always taught that the ‘eyes were the windows of the soul’ and they could tell what was on your mind by looking at you.
The net result of Catholic indoctrination was that each individual was subdued. If by chance someone was able to withstand the mental onslaught and offered some sort of protest or opposition to the teachings, then the physical abuse would take care of that. Generally the Christian Brothers were narrow minded, vindictive and held grudges. They would invent excuses to wield the strap. Every boy had to know his place. The reading of books was controlled so as to shelter the growing mind from the increasingly corrupt secularism in society. There was a list of books that, if read, were sources of instant mortal sins. Reading was not encouraged except for selected manuscripts.
The teaching of various subjects seemed successful. This was because of the examination strategies used. Learning “by heart" often hid the more ambitious outcomes of knowing and understanding. So a typical young man, as the final product of the system, was cognizant of the academics to some extent but tended to be somewhat withdrawn, lacking in confidence, thoughtful and uncomfortable as the centre of attention. He was a good listener but a poor public speaker.
The Irish Christian Brothers themselves were often just the products of their own youthful experiences in the hands of tyrannical parish priests and equally tyrannical teachers. The latter two groups of men were bullies and dictators in their villages and towns. They inflicted mental scars on their parishioners. Religion always flourishes in areas of poverty and ignorance. So in part the Brothers only taught in the way they knew, bringing into their classrooms their own peculiar foibles. Many suffered perversions and a few were sexual perverts. The Canadian revelations of the last thirty years focused attention on these areas. The recent American experiences in Boston and California have exposed similar outrages in the priesthood. For those in the Order that were truly clean men, dedicated to their vocations, one can only feel sympathy. To borrow an idea from Shakespeare, the evil that some of the men did lives after them; the good that others did often gets buried.
But the truth is that many young men were scarred by their experiences at the College. Many succeeded despite their experiences at the College. Few seem to have reached their potential because of their experiences at the College, but I could stand corrected there.
It is interesting to read the memories of contemporaries. It was their contributions that stimulated the above retrospective analysis. Like so many others, I cannot seriously complain because my post-St. Joe's activities have long since corrected those lost few years. I still find it difficult to accept that an individual (he knows who he is) that professed to be a Christian and a teacher could be so petty and vindictive to seek the destruction a young person's future. I say shame on all those Brothers of similar ilk and I wish continued good luck to all those guys that survived the onslaught.
Also Read THE LEGEND OF THE PHANTOM ARSEHOLE BY STUART McKENNA.
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