Savage Violence in 20th Century Irish Schools: Why Did People Stand For It?

Submitted by Anon on 9 February, 2005 - 6:43 Author: Sean Matgamna

In his understated attack on the Catholic Church in Ireland for the sexual abuse of children, Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke also of the torture of children. In this the attitude of the 26 County Irish state itself was all-defining. This article by Sean Matgamna tells what happened when Socialist Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington, acting together with a small group of concerned Dublin parents, who had set up "The School Children’s Protection Organisation”, tried to do something about the physical ill-treatment of children in the Church-run Irish schools.

The little boy, Tommy, perhaps eight years old, watched the schoolmaster, Sean Gormley, prepare to flog his brother, Mickey. Mickey was a year or two older than Tommy, but smaller.

The procedure was that the boy due to be flogged would climb up, or be lifted up, on the back of a bigger boy, who would reach over his shoulders and hold on to the smaller boy’s hands. The master would then slash again and again, as his mood dictated, at the victim’s backside.

The boy’s short trousers may have been pulled down first. I don’t know. “Flogging” was what they called it, and flogging is what it was. Tommy had seen it before, as had the whole class - had maybe himself been the victim.

As the master slashed at Mickey, Tommy picked up his slate — they used real slates, and chalk — and, moving towards Gormley, flung it at his head. He missed, and the slate clattered against the wall behind the teacher.

Mickey kicked himself free, and the two boys ran out of the schoolroom, across the narrow concreted yard, down the steps, and off towards home.

I have had to “fill in” some of the details, but in its essentials, it is a true story. I heard both Mickey and Tommy, decades later, tell the story more than once. Tommy was not above a bit of embellishment, but he was a truthful man, with a strong contempt for “liars”.

It happened in the town of Ennis, in the west of Ireland, during World War One. I think it is a good story — the little boy defending his brother, and the two small boys defying the tyrannical brute of a teacher and breaking out — as are all stories about resistance to oppression and brutality.

It is a good and inspiring story, but what it reminds me of is one of Guy de Maupassant’s ironic, bitter and truthful stories, also about two brothers.

In that story some well-off people from the town want to adopt the two sons of poverty-stricken peasants, who will only agree to part with one of them. The one who stays with his parents grows up to be like his father, a poverty-restricted ignorant drudge. After many, many years, the son who left and the family that adopted him come back on a visit to the farm.

The adopted son has the dress, the manner, the education, the life experience and the expectations of a prosperous bourgeois “gentleman”. When the visitors go, the mother starts to ruminate and grows sentimental. She tells her peasant son the story of how his brother came to be adopted, explaining: “We couldn’t let you go. We loved you the most. We couldn’t bear to lose you”.

And the drudge, having seen his less-loved brother, is left to reflect that his mother’s love had served him worse than her hatred would have, if she had hated him.

I retell the Maupassant story from distant memory. Why? Because the story of the solidarity and revolt of the two small boys, the good story, the inspiring story, had terrible consequences for Tommy and Mickey.

The youngest in a big family, Tommy and Mickey were close all their lives, unmistakably brothers, with the black curly, wiry hair, light eyes, and sallow skin — “black Irish” or, as Tommy would put it, “Span’ards”.

I knew Mickey in his middle and old age.He was a great hurler, famous in the town. When he died, in the 1970s, the sports teams in town, some of which he had helped train, marched in formation — so I heard — at his funeral. He got his nickname, Fairo, because of the speed and effectiveness with which his undersized body moved about the hurling field, braving the swinging hurleys.

Hurlers then did not wear helmets, as some do now. Maybe by the time I knew Mickey, he had had too many heavy blows on the head. He was not at all stupid, but not especially bright, either; but I didn’t know him all that well.

Tommy I knew well. Nicknamed Clús — Ears — when young, he was bright and very sharp. His ears were normal size, and they did not stick out. And he could hear perfectly well. I like to think he got his nickname because he was a bright kid who “cocked his ears”, listening to the adults talk, in what was a near-entirely oral culture.

He was fiercely articulate, keen minded, with a strong gift of empathy and understanding of other people, and a fascination with everyday psychology. He was a great story-teller, and many times I’ve seen him leaning forwards, elbows lightly resting on his knees, or hands raised and moving as he explained, have a room full of people hanging on his words as he told them of some everyday adventure or encounter.

He could do complicated money sums in his head. He had the wit to disbelieve and dislike the all-pervasive religious ideas of the world he grew up in as “phisorogues” — senseless fears and superstitions” — but without fully emancipating himself from them.

Class-conscious, but in a limited, constricted way, he stood trial as one of 24 trade unionists of the town indicted for conspiracy and intimidation for a mass picket during a labour dispute. A sympathetic jury acquitted them.

The terrible consequence of Mickey’s and Tommy’s revolt? They never went back to school; and neither of them ever learned to read or write. They forgot what they had learned before they broke out of school. It was only after 1926 that effectively compulsory education was established in Ireland.

Despite everything about Tommy’s qualities, a lack of schooling narrowed and cramped him, and had a bad effect on his self-esteem and self-confidence, and on his assessment of what he could and could not do, or aspire to. Tommy was my father.

I was put in mind of all this by the news that some people have sued teachers for their brutality to them when they were children, and by two pamphlets on punishment in Irish schools in the 1950s which I accidentally unearthed — “Corporal Punishment In Our Schools”, published by the “School Children’s Protection Organisation, Dublin” in April 1955, and “Corporal Punishment in Irish Primary Schools”, by Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington*, published in July 1956 at the senator’s expense. Reading the pamphlets took me back to a different world, that of Irish schools in the mid 20th century.

“Corporal Punishment” consists of speeches made by Sheehy Skeffington in Seanad Eireann, in a vain attempt to get a proper discussion of the treatment of primary school children (meaning children up to the age of 14, the school leaving age).

The “School Children’s Protection Organisation” was a small Dublin group that came together in response to a letter in the Dublin Evening Mail from a Mrs O’Connell, who became its secretary. In that way parents concerned for their children made contact with each other.

Their pamphlet consists of excerpts from 70 letters by parents from all over the 26 Counties detailing the treatment of their children at school, and an introduction summarising the information they contain.

“The following punishments are daily experienced and feared by vast numbers of children between the ages of six and fourteen attending our Primary Schools, and many of these punishments undoubtedly show — however reluctant one may be to say so — a definite sadistic tendency on the part of certain teachers:

Excessive canings on hands, legs, thighs and backs.

Beatings with straps, pointers, etc., on hands, legs, bodies and heads.

Banging of heads together or against walls.

Beatings with hands and fists on heads and bodies.

Pulling of hair and ears.

Pulling of jaws or cheeks.

Standing for hours with face to wall.

Kneeling on floor for long periods.

Standing on window ledges or stools and being publicly ridiculed.

Calling of names and ridiculing parents.

Summary ordering out of National School.

Refusing permission to eat lunch.

Locking out in rain

Refusing permission to use toilet”.

The parents list the “alleged misdemeanours” for which those punishments were inflicted:

Failure at lessons.

Being late for school.

Not bringing fuel for fire.

Asking to use toilet during class.

Not selling raffle tickets.

Not bringing polish to clean desks.

Being absent from school.

Not having money for books, etc.

Not attending religious services.

Neglecting to spend hours doing homework.

Not paying attention during class.

Trivial “offences” outside of school hours.

Having a physical disability.

Not attending at sports field.”

They add:

“We also have children who are forced to sit in unheated classrooms and in school-houses unfit to house cattle, some of which have been condemned by the Medical Officer of Health for many years. Official figures show that we have seven hundred and seventy National Schools which need to be replaced....

“We have found that hundreds of children are expected to assimilate knowledge in crowded school-rooms; sometimes up to eighty are herded into one room, with many standing against the wall owing to lack of seating accommodation and many kneeling on the floor to do written lessons....

“Reluctance to submit children to these inhuman conditions inevitably brings a Court Summons to the unfortunate parents...

“To administer [schools] we have thousands of teachers, school-managers and attendance inspectors, numerous officials, inspectors and high executives of the Department of Education and a Minister for Education. We soon learned that all these bodies... always presented a united front by an antagonistic approach to any voice raised in criticism... In many cases where a conscientious parent attempts to seek an investigation of any incident relating to one of his or her children they are quickly discouraged from pursuing the matter further and very often in a most humiliating manner....

“The harm being done to our men and women of tomorrow by irresponsible teachers is bringing on the profession an indiscriminate disgrace...

“Consider for a moment what the effects must be on the mind of a little boy or girl who is compelled to endure for five or six hours a day, and for eight years, some or maybe all of the following unedifying performances:

  1. Instruments of punishment brandished in front of them all day long, with the main object of instilling fear into their hearts.
  2. Cruel beating of a classmate, very often because he wil not tell a lie or play the part of an informer.
  3. Cruel beating to themselves when they know they are absolutely innocent of any transgression.
  4. Caning and humiliating a child owing to the poor circumstances of parents.
  5. The constant witnessing of injustices due to the partiality of a teacher.
  6. In mixed classes, adolescent boys witnessing the brutal manhandling of young girls by a master.

“Cruelty and injustice will only breed cruelty and injustice and the bitter child of to-day will be the sadist of to-morrow....

“Under existing conditions the first thing a little child learns at school is fear. As it grows older, this develops into bitterness and resentment, which in turn wind up in defiance... They learn that if they can be clever liars they can avoid punishment. They also learn to hit children smaller and weaker than themselves... We are convinced from our observations that the unfortunate child who finds that the first kind word it has experienced from anyone in authority is when it appeared in the Children’s Court, can lay the most blame for its unhappy circumstances at the altar of our present Primary Education system.”

Calling for an enquiry into conditions in schools, the Schoolchildren’s Protection Organisation made a number of proposals, and one that, for the time and place, was very daring indeed. It meant taking the schools out of the hands of priests and nuns.

“Finally the most drastic suggestion, yet probably the best, is that the maintenance of our National Schools be administered by the Local Borough or County Council, who, ably assisted by Parish Committees, could effect the necessary control and administration that is now, in many cases, nonexistent, due to being vested in persons already overburdened and inexperienced in managerial functions.”

Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington was the only elected representative to take up the case made by the Schoolchildren’s Protection Organisation, though all Deputies and Senators had received a copy of their pamphlet.

“Corporal punishment should be administered only for grave transgression...

“In no circumstances should corporal punishment be administered for mere failure at lessons...

“No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment...

“Teachers should keep a copy of these rules and regulations suspended in their school rooms in a conspicuous place.”

“Such are the regulations, such is the theory”, he said, “but what is the practice in our primary schools today?”

We have seen what the “practice” was. Sheehy Skeffington was met with official rudeness, Ministerial hypocrisy and obfuscation and dismissal. In the Seanad he read out excerpts from the regulations of the Department of Education on corporal punishment.

I went to the school in Ennis where the story I told at the start of this article occurred, more than a generation later. The would-be flogger of Mickey, Sean Gormley, had recently retired as headmaster, and things had changed for the better.

The new headmaster, Brian Kelly, did not “flog” children in Gormley’s way, but he used most of the methods detailed in the Schoolchildren’s Protection Organisation pamphlet. He carried a big stick - a Charlie Chaplin style bamboo cane - but he didn’t talk softly. He shouted and bullied, intimidated and terrified.

The school had eight grades, from infancy to school leaving age. A handsome stone building perched on a large rock at the bottom of the Kilrush Road — it is still there, no longer a school — the National School had only four rooms, so there were two classes to each room. In a couple of them children took turns to stand around the walls and to sit at the desks.

Heating was a small open fire; and memory suggests that not all the rooms had even that. Your feet would be numb with the cold in winter. The hands at which Kelly slashed with his bamboo would also be very cold.

There were four teachers, two women and two men. Women teachers had to retire when they married; one of ours, Miss Madigan, was unmarried, and the other, Mrs Boland, a widow, whose husband had been a teacher at the school. The other teacher, George Moloney — “Laddie” — was the renaissance man of the town. He ran the local defence force, took part in amateur dramatics, and painted. He did a gigantic canvas of the Virgin Mary — a copy, I suppose — and other such things for the Cathedral.

He was a humourous, well-adjusted, good-natured man.

The three junior teachers used the cane or the wooden ruler, but sparingly. Kelly, a tall, thin, rawboned man with glasses, who taught the top two classes and visited the other three rooms frequently, sometimes teaching there for a spell, ruled by terror, with a slashing cane, a quick-moving hand, and a bullying manner. I remember him angrily haranguing me, his face distorted with rage, the force of his personality unleashed against a six or seven year old.

Yet he was also a very good teacher, whose presence made the class tense and attentive, and who would dramatise and clarify things.

He would probably have been a good teacher even without the violence. Yet violence and the threat of it was ever present. Sometimes it was not even intended.

He came in one day and took over our class, one of the youngest, being taught basic arithmetic. He put a digit to the left side of another number, and pointed at the class with his bamboo cane hovering like an uncertain divining rod, until it stopped and pointed fixedly at me.

“What have I just done?” I replied: “You gave the” — whatever the number was — “a ten”. That pleased him so well that he decided to reward me. He took a penny out of his pocket and threw it to me. But he misjudged, and the penny, as big as a present-day 50p piece, bounced off the desk and hit me a light ricochet blow on the forehead!

But I remember both his question and my answer...

Kelly was particularly good at teaching history, which only the top two classes did. He was fervently nationalist, after the fashion then, and told us the ethnic-sectarian Catholic-nationalist version of Irish history as an exciting story of righteous rebellions and our unbreakable fidelity to our God and our Gaelic country.

They were wonderful stories, and very like the stories my mother told of the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21 and the civil war that followed it. I found myself drawn into it.

But, though bookish, I hated school and feared it. My mother was taken to court a couple of times for my absences. I hated Kelly and the whole system with a lasting hatred. Brian Kelly taught me things he never intended to teach; things which he himself didn’t know.

Not the least of it was the humiliation inflicted on us. The ill-treatment was sometimes counterproductive. I found in myself a fierce resistance to protecting myself by doing homework. I knew it was sensible to do it, but I could not get myself to behave “reasonably”. It was a timid, stubborn kid’s version of the revolt of Tommy and Mickey.

And yet Kelly, too, the gifted teacher, was not a cause but a result of the prevailing ethos, the approved methods of teaching and controlling children. In the behaviour of Brian Kelly and others like him, there was probably an element of the man doing to the children what others had done to him as a child.

Our school under Kelly probably was not one of the worst. The Christian Brothers School, run by a monk-like order of celibate men, had a worse reputation than Kelly’s National School for violence against children. The convent school, run by nuns and taught by nuns and lay teachers, had a reputation for punishing the girls viciously, and for especial physical viciousness towards the orphans completely under its control.

Why did parents who knew from their own experience what happened to their children not do something about it? Because they faced the hostility of the whole Establishment. The schools were run by the Catholic Church, and the police and the courts and the ministries backed them up.

Two court cases will illustrate the dilemmas of concerned parents. The first is from the early 1940s, and the other from the early 50s. Both were reported in the Clare Champion.

A boy, accused by a teacher of spreading malicious stories about him, was summarily punished with 20 strokes of the cane, so that his hands were badly bruised and swollen. His father took him to a doctor, who recommended that he be kept in bed for a few days to recover. The father brought a private prosecution against the teacher. The whole story came out in court, but the presiding Justice found in favour of the teacher, explaining that he saw it as his duty, in all cases short of lasting bodily harm, to “support the authority of the teacher”.

In the second case, a man was prosecuted because his son had been “mitching” (truanting). The Justice asked the boy in a reasonable way why he didn’t want to go to school. The boy: “I do be afraid of the master, sir”.

The Justice and everyone else in the courtroom knew exactly what he was afraid of. Putting the boy on probation to see if his school attendance improved — if it didn’t, he would be sent to a reformatory — the Justice gave the father some friendly advice: if your son is too afraid of the teacher to go to school, you should see to it that he is more afraid of you than of the teacher. Then he will go to school!

It was the philosophy that governed armies: make the soldier more afraid of his officers than of the enemy. Overcome his fear of death at the hands of the enemy by promising him certain death at the hands of his own officers for cowardice.

There is an American expression for fighting against hopeless odds — “Go fight City Hall”. Parents who tried to do anything about the regime in Irish schools had to take on the whole social establishment. They could not win. They had to accept and compel their children to make the best of it. Children knew there was nothing their parents could or would do.

The legislation that enforced compulsory elementary education was discussed at the Irish TUC in 1926. The ITUC finally decided to back the legislation, but only after delegates had agonised over the dilemma: was there any point in compelling children, underfed many of them, and some without shoes, to sit in cold classrooms? How could they learn in such conditions?

For centuries, Irish Catholic society, kept down under a foreign occupation that systematically made war on its religious beliefs and on its account of its own history, was a society of helots — “forbid to plead [in court], forbid to read... disenfranchised imbeciles”, as the 19th century nationalist poet Davis expressed it.

In those times, that society maintained a system of underground schools, “hedge schools”, taught by itinerant school masters. The “poor scholar”, seeking knowledge, was considered as honourable a vocation as it was in the Middle Ages. Early in the 19th century, the British Parliament ordered a survey of those schools, and published a report based on it which preserves an “objective” account of that Irish “underground” education system.

The education system of the independent Irish state, like so much else, was a grim mockery of that past.

Irish education was reorganised in the mid 1970s. Corporal punishment in schools was abolished years before Britain abolished it. The pioneering work of the few people who created the School First organisation and Senator Sheehy Skeffington contributed to that great step forward.

Stories like this of the “bad old days” tend to have a built-in smug- conservative message: things now are a great deal better, aren’t they? But such stories also say something to us that is far more profound.

If you find it hard to understand how people put up with such things in the past, why they didn’t “do something” — look around you at the similar things still rampant in our world. As we now look back and wonder at old tolerance for old evil, cruelty, and stupidity, others, living in the better world socialists will win, will look back at us and ask: how did they tolerate a world in which millions starve to death; in which a whole continent, Africa, has been left to rot with AIDS; where millions of children die each year from avoidable diseases and malnourishment; and in which in Britain we have watched over a span of 25 years as the National Health Service is dismantled and the principle implicitly proclaimed that the sick poor are not entitled to the best state-of-the-art medical care...

Socialists who spend their lives fighting these and other present-day obscenities are frequently depicted as odd, neurotic people who should “get a life”. A more enlightened age will think it was the people who kept their heads down, remaining quiet, “private”, narrow-focused, passive in the face of social obscenities, who were the odd ones.

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