4 Losin My Religion
4 LOSIN MY RELIGION
Boys of all ages pack into the school yard. The noise is deafening and the older boys gather around the newcomers:
“Look at the babies,” one shouts.
“Did you forget your rattler?”
Only the clang of the bell saves the new pupils, changing the yard landscape in an instant. Even the senior boys stand in long straight lines and the sound of play becomes the sound of marching feet as perfect lines disappear into the school building.
The new ones assemble into a much looser version of order. A tall, slender brother appears and shouts something in Gaelic which they understand as an order to form two disciplined rows. There is no hint of friendliness or warmth in his voice.
Afraid to even whisper, sixty five seven year olds march behind Brathar O Bradaigh into a cramped classroom on the ground floor. They estimate the slim young brother to be in his early twenties and hope that something of his youthful spirit has remained, but they will be disappointed. The images that have stuck are of the perfect blackness of his new habit and the black leather strap protruding from his pocket, as an ever-present threat. The closest he comes to humour is the derisory grin on his face as he humiliates Wilson the class dunce. Wilson still refuses to budge from my memory. He stands in the corner with a pointed, dunce’s hat on his head. Tears drop from his cheeks, but none of us feel any sympathy. He is the class dunce and that is his fate. Genetics, poverty and the goofy expression have condemned him to this role. His father’s occupation as street-cleaner and his address in the inaptly named Fatima Mansions put it beyond doubt.
We are empty vessels for O Bradaigh. He doesn’t need our love or respect. It is enough to look suitably intimidated to placate him on a good day. Shaun had always looked forward to school with Mrs. O’ Connell. He loved the smiley faces on his copybooks and the motherly look on her face. Now getting up in the morning is a torture. He would have promised God anything just to stay at home, but the Christian Brother God is a heartless Gaelic tyrant.
The bright colours and the Praise youth and it will prosper posters are replaced by the dull green walls and the cold wooden crucifix over the blackboard. O Bradaigh ascends the two steps to his elevated desk which affords him a clear view. The sixty five pupils cramp together into rows of heavy desks, each pair sitting on a narrow plank of wood which becomes more and more uncomfortable as each hour passes.
The only female image in the class is the Blessed Virgin inside a large glass altar in the corner of the room. She stands, her eyes elevated towards the heavens. Her form is slim with only the hint of breasts. Her cold marble beauty reflects the oppressive religious atmosphere. Gaelic prayers, instilled by rote learning and the liberal use of the leather strap, mark the beginning and end of every session between breaks. The class recites in perfect unison as it stands in perfect rows. Our stares are blank and devoid of conviction. My brain has filed the memory away alongside the emotionless faces I was later met with when I attended university in East Berlin.
East Germany in general was later to remind me a lot of the brothers. The uneducated masses were broken or at best incomplete and education was the means of saving them. The truth was above discussion, it simply needed to be repeated countless times for it to become indelible.
Prospective brothers were selected at twelve and sent off to live in a monastery, where all that was normal in teenage boys was repressed. The dangers are all too obvious, but the wisdom of those who conceived it was beyond question.
O Bradaigh leathered us on a daily basis and was never slow with his worn clichés.
“Empty vessels make most noise,” he sneers, slamming the leather down on another outstretched hand.
His God was one of swift justice and together with the hundreds of other Christian brothers he would bring “the island of saints and scholars” to life again. Gaelic speaking heroes would reclaim the whole country and Ulster Protestants would finally leave the land they had stolen, returning to the British mainland, where they belonged.
Shaun retreated from O Bradaigh’s God. The guardian angel still afforded him some slight comfort. She hung on the opposite side of the bedroom to the Holy Family. Her arms enfolded a reckless child who hung dangerously over a fast-flowing river. Her expression was warm and gentle and her shapely breasts awakened something in him that would overwhelm him in a few more years.
Every word of the Se do Bheatha Muire (Hail Mary) which robbed any of the break time was resented and O Bradaigh insisted on it being recited to his standard before he released us into the yard. The class were sent outside regardless of the weather, but there was never a complaint no matter how cold it was. If it started raining they crowded into a shelter, otherwise they used every inch of free space available. The racket in the yard was deafening as a reaction to the endless hours of enforced silence.
Shaun sought out those who didn’t play football every break time. Jonathan was one of these. He lived near the school and took an interest in things, like stamp collecting and reading, which would have been frowned upon by the boys where Shaun lived. He didn’t have a Dublin accent and was quite secretive about his background. Both became friends straight away, walking together from school twice each day, and parting not far for the South Circular Road.
Jonathan was fun to be with and Shaun regretted not having such a friend on his street. They circled the yard again and again during break-time each day and it seemed to Shaun that Jonathan was never lost for something interesting to talk about. He opened his mind up to the world of books. Shaun found it difficult to read at the level which Jonathan had already advanced to, having read nothing more challenging than his sister’s comics. However, before long they were exchanging books and sneaking off to the stamp shop in Harrington Street.
Jonathan had a dangerous streak which appealed to Shaun. He could take off the teachers they most feared and reduce them to the level of the ridiculous which made them seem less toxic, at least for a few moments anyway. He always managed to keep a straight face, but put all around him at risk. Nobody ever held this against him. It was worth the odd leathering to laugh even once during a dreary school day. Church was the most dangerous place to be in his company and Shaun put this to the test every Sunday once they joined the school choir. Schoolboys with joined hands and pious looks were just too much for Jonathan. His talent for making the most irreverent, yet hilarious, comments, while standing with a look of absolute innocence, leaving chaos raging around him. He never failed to pull a face behind the organist’s back, at the very moment she was taking them to task for their lack of respect. Just as the choir had composed itself he was at it again changing the hymns and singing the vulgar version with that same innocent expression.
Sunday mornings with Jonathan soon became one of the highlights of the week with the vengeful God seeming more impotent in Jonathan’s company. While Shaun understood why his friend’s behaviour in church would have scandalised his whole family, he couldn’t help liking him all the more for it. As an adult one could interpret Jonathan’s behaviour as coming from a keen insight into the hypocrisy which surrounded them. As children, we simply loved poking fun at everything the adults told us was beyond humour.
Not all the boys at the brothers were like Jonathan. Reilly was one of those who took pleasure in bullying those younger and weaker than himself. Granny’s insistence on me wearing the full school uniform, including the bright red blazer, singled me out as one of his targets.
Reilly did little more than throw my cap into the muck or call me a mammy’s boy, but his bullying was persistent. His threats increased as he sensed his power. His own shabby appearance said a lot about his home situation. However, the seven year old Shaun was less worried about psycho-analysing Reilly and more with surviving the bus trip home.
Granny’s interference with neighbours’ children had proven so counter-productive that Shaun had stayed silent; however the whole story came out one dreary Monday morning when the tears would hold back no longer.
“No son of mine is goin to be bullied by the likes of Reilly,” she threatened.
“Wait for me at the school gate and I’ll have a word in his ear.”
True to her promise, Granny stood at the gate with the head brother at her side that afternoon.
“Is this the Reilly you mean?” he asked, already gripping the collar of Reilly’s anorak as he tried to sneak past avoiding eye-contact.
The look of terror on Reilly’s face occupied Shaun for the rest of the evening, giving him great pleasure; however the fear of painful repercussions returned the following morning. Still, it had been wrong to underestimate Granny’s intervention. The head brother’s leather and the threat of more had been enough to ensure Reilly keeping his distance.
Admittedly, while my comments regarding the brothers have been more totally negative so far, there was another truth, and it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the need for more balance in my account. Like many who grew up in the Hitler Youth, they weren’t innately evil, but the set of beliefs they upheld and the methods they used damaged our minds and we, as a nation, are still attempting to plod our way out of that swamp.
The brother I had for the last two years of primary school more than made up for the damage done earlier. Brother Codd had a lean athletic build and a healthy head of fair hair. His leather strap was left to collect chalk dust on his desk. It was part of the uniform, but it held no threat. We vied with each other to impress him. He took us into his trust to share his childhood experiences with us. We could imagine him beachcombing with his younger brother on the strand within walking distance of their farmhouse, always on the lookout for anything of interest washed up by the sea.
He prepared sixty five of us for Confirmation and secondary school entrance tests. After spending two years with him, we made up eighty percent of the top class in secondary school. He had a way of making the most boring subjects interesting.
Admittedly, Jonathan could still be counted on to lighten the atmosphere when necessary, especially at religion time. We were young and optimistic about life, so we ignored the risk that Bishop McQuaid would send us home if we failed his questions..
On a freezing cold day in March the day of reckoning came. A large group of parents were already waiting outside the church, banging their hands together, when Shaun arrived with his parents. The adults, banned from the warmth of the church, had to content themselves with the briefest glimpse of the bishop’s golden crosier, as he alighted for a huge, black, chauffeur-driven limousine. Inside the church, the doors were thrown open and the awe inspiring archbishop appeared, flanked on both sides by a solemn procession of priests and altar boys, all proceeding, with measured steps, in the direction of the high altar.
We already felt transformed in new stiff new shirts and long black trousers. Knees were knocking together as much from fear as from the cold. The seating had been arranged in anything but a random order. The dunces, like Wilson had been stuck into the middle rows, while the higher achievers were at the front or at the edges of rows. Brother Codd had pushed me into the front row along with Jonathan and I wasn’t sure how I should interpret his intention. At that moment, it seemed more like revenge than a compliment.
The readings and the sermon were just a series of unrelated words to Shaun in his numbed state. The overwhelming fragrance of incense added to his detachment from the proceedings. It soon became obvious that the archbishop was used to people running after him and even the priests and brothers looked just like nervous schoolboys.
By the time the archbishop left the high altar and passed through the golden gates, which barred the laity from the altar, the general tension in the body of the church was tangible. The front row shook in terror as Archbishop McQuaid walked regally in their direction.
“What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit?” he demanded as he stopped in front of Shaun, whose life passed before him in that second.
Suddenly in his mind, he was back in the classroom giggling with Jonathan, while the gifts had been explained in detail. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the concern on the Bother Codd’s face, who he really didn’t want to let down. The archbishop waited, what seemed like an eternity, with a stern expression.
Being only able to remember two of the seven gifts, Shaun decided to go for broke: Totally ignoring the bishop’s question, he answered something totally random. There was a long pause when Shaun had finished and Archbishop McQuaid looked straight into my eyes, his stern expression softening into a knowing grin. I remember it as a look of respect. McQuaid recognised something in me that I have always tried to live up to and the Holy Spirit part in it is open for discussion.
Before Shaun had the opportunity to react, McQuaid had already moved on to the next candidate. The relieved look on
Brother Codd’s face encouraged Shaun and take credit for a different victory to the one he had just pulled off.
My parents were blue with the cold, when I caught sight of them outside the church. Dad produced his black, box camera and insisted on me posing together with Jonathan. The small black and white photo has long disappeared, but the memory of Jonathan, posing with the usual irreverent grin, has remained.