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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


Christian Brothers School

School Life in the Sixties

By JOE O’BRIEN

Source: The Golden Jubilee Journal 1936-1986 (Michael Purcell)


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Leaving for the Brothers was probably the greatest ambition for fast growing boys at new St. Joseph’s. The annual passing out parade was carried out with due ritual. At the end of every June, two senior lads were dispatched from the Brothers to escort the hundred or so new boys from St. Joseph’s and see them safely on the short journey up the Station Road.

The nuns made a major event of it. All the younger classes were lined around the lawn in front of St. Joseph’s, beside the massive statue of the saint. Hundreds of little hands waved as the big boys set off in formation for the Brothers.

Our class was in ‘babies’ when we saw the new St. Joseph’s opened by the aged Bishop Keogh in 1960. Now in 1964, we were moving to a school which had been blessed by him as a young bishop. But the wear of intervening decades had taken its toll on the brothers’ school.

First impression of the CBS was that of a big, grey “E” shaped building. It was evident that this was very much a man’s place. The bicycle shed was dark and dusty. There was hardly a blade of grass in the field. Many of the wall clocks had not been wound. The wooden floors were well worn, a complete contrast with the highly polished tiles so assiduously minded by the nuns. The toilets also were old fashioned. Heavy wooden desks had seated generations of Carlow boys. Names carved into the tops were proof.

The new arrivals of 1964 comprised two groups. One had finished second class with Sister Finbarr; the second had just completed first class — they’d now be going to Mr. Beatty and forever they’d be known as the “B” class.

Our first teacher in the Brothers was Bro. Kenny. He was nearing his Golden Jubilee and had the rare experience of having been in Carlow for almost twenty years. Small, grey and thin, the top button was forever missing on his soutane and his shoulders were always covered in chalk dust.

Bro. Kenny never lost his Dublin accent, or wit, and was a natural storyteller in the style of Jimmy O’Dea. Last class each day before lunch, he couched himself into the corner of the middle windowsill, wrapped the two ends of his open soutane round his legs and proceeded to tell endless yarns. It was the Christian Doctrine period so most of the stories must have been about religion, but the chatty old man sent us happily home to our lunches.

But whatever happened to him during lunchtime, the mood was invariably different after dinner. Writing and compositions were normally scheduled, and he could be terribly cross. This change of temperament was difficult to understand. In retrospect, age was creeping up and perhaps he wasn’t able for the long day or the huge class.

It was a huge class. At least fifty two in it, possibly more.

Most of the classes were that size. It was the boy’s school in the parish and there was about four hundred pupils on the rolls at the time.

Break-times were bedlam. The yard at the back of the school was divided in two by the assembly hall. While boys in their hundreds played tig, stage coach, football or simply fought, teachers - engrossed in conversation - paced up and down the yard.

Bro. Rodgers was headmaster and he was joined by three other brothers. Doyen of the lay teachers was Aidan Murray. Three other Carlovians were on the staff — Ted Brophy, Tom Mooney and Pat McGrath. Tom Beatty and Gerry Darcy completed the team.

Times were changing and the schools were part of what was happening. The biggest development during our first year in the Brothers was the introduction of the English Mass. The impact of all the Council activity in Rome was now being felt. With great enthusiasm, Bro. Kenny taught us all the new responses.

Our new teacher in fourth class was Aidan Murray. He took us all aback on our first day by unashamedly announcing his age. He was fifty four and had been teaching in the Brothers for thirty years.

Occasionally, Mr. Murray asked pupils to give “lectures” to the class about their fathers’ occupation. He knew more about our families than we knew ourselves.

He was able to tell Brendan Doyle his father had been privately tutored at home and didn’t attend primary school. He could explain to Paul Rea the details of Bridewell Lane and Brewery Lane. When Brendan Deere’s turn came, teacher recalled the marvelous shoes once manufactured by Governey’s and how, with minimal repairs, they’d last for years.

Mr. Murray’s piano looked as though it had been in the classroom for all of thirty years - but he made it sound magnificent. He took pride in the huge repertoire of songs, which he had personally inscribed on big paper scrolls for easy transcription. They were largely, as the cliche had it, the songs our father’s loved. Songs that have hardly been heard since the Northern troubles erupted.

Apart from ‘Follow Me Up to Carlow’, he relished songs’ like ‘Kelly The Boy From Killane’, ‘The Rising Of The Moon’ etc. But he wasn’t living in the past. On prompting from Oliver Hennessy, Mr. Murray was able to play current chart hits such as Sloop John B and Pretty Flamingo.

Mr. Murray always began his day by giving the class ten minutes of mental arithmetic. He reckoned it was a progressive, modern thing to do. He was also keen on revision. Every Friday, he conducted tests on everything covered that week. Pupils were allowed to correct their desk partners’ tests. First in the class was invited to present himself in Mr. Murray’s shop on the way home from school and ask for his favorite bar of chocolate. That was a big treat, especially for those who rarely had pocket money.

1966 was eventful in Ireland because of the 1916 commemorations. It was President De Valera’s year — a day hardly went by but he was opening some memorial or attending some function. Carlow had its own ceremonies, but, needless to say, neither the President nor any major political figures attended.

Mr. Murray had us learning Yeats’ “Easter 1916” by heart, although we were only ten years old. We also knew all the ballads like ‘The Foggy Dew’, ‘Off To Dublin In The Green’, etc.

But just at the start of the summer holidays in 1966 we did get the chance to see Mr. De Valera in the flesh. Not alone Dev, but Sean Lemass, Liam Cosgrave and others. They were in town for the ordination of Dr. Lennon as bishop. That was a big, big day in Carlow.

After the summer, our teacher was Bro. Ryan. Lads never found out the first name of the Brothers. School reports showed that Bro. Ryan’s initials were “P.M.” - more than that we never knew. Bro. Ryan was a Tipperary man. He loved the G.A.A. and was particularly proud of his country’s hurling performance in the mid-sixties.

There was great emphasis on Gaelic games in the Brothers. Street leagues were organised by Bro. Rodgers and an outside enthusiast, Dick Shepherd. The ‘Ban’ on foreign games was still in operation, and I can recall one of my older brothers being sent home from night study in the academy, apparently for playing soccer.

Bro. Ryan also played a game that was new to most of us - basketball. This he enjoyed in the Youth Centre which was than taking shape in the old fever hospital. He seemed to have befriended the new curate, Father Fingleton — who was beavering away at all levels to do things for the “youth”.

By autumn 1966, numbers in the Brothers were swelling and the new abode for my class was the assembly hall. We got new desks, and we sat on chairs. A new principal, Bro. Farrell, arrived to replace Bro. Rodgers.

A two classroom pre-fab was erected to cater for the increasing numbers. Even the stage in the assembly hall had to be boarded up in order to make a classroom of the stage itself. That can’t have been welcomed by the Carlow Operatic Society who used the boards of the CBS for their productions.

Progress also brought the first lady teachers - Teresa Kavanagh, Mary Clare Walsh and Carmel O’Dwyer.

Before we went on to sixth class something marvellous - and historic - happened. Free education was introduced. We were the first class that would not have to sit for the dreaded scholarship exam. It was a tremendous relief. It’s difficult to recall now, but for decades eleven and twelve year-olds had to remain in school until after five o’clock - and even come in on Saturdays — to swot for the scholarship.

There was some further good news. The Primary Certificate exam was also abolished. We really had all the luck. Again, we were the first group to qualify.

For some reason connected with these advances, the “A” and “B” streams were integrated at the end of fifth class. Half of “A” merged with half of “B”. One group went to Bro. Mullally, the other to Bro. Ryan. I was in the latter section so I spent a second year with Bro. Ryan.

By now we were studying Algebra and Geometry as well as History, Geography, Irish and English.

Personal development, important at this stage of growth, was treated during Christian Doctrine. Bro. Ryan laid great store on hygiene and manners, spending a lot of time on the book Courtesy for Boys and Girls. Nothing about what we really wanted to know. Television was becoming increasingly dominant in our lives. The smarter lads had frequent morning after in-depth discussions analysing the amorous scenes of “The Forsythe Saga”. More innocent chaps, meanwhile, were content to play with their recorders from the Tayto “007 Club”.

Short trousers were worn by most boys until sixth class. Garters and braces were by now on their way out. Home knitted pullovers were the norm and anoraks were just appearing.

The “suit” was de rigueur for Confirmation. We made ours in 1967. Of course there was the preliminary examination in school some weeks before. Bishop Lennon came all the way from Mountmellick to quiz us. Father Crowley, the administrator, insisted on listening in — putting everyone even more on tenterhooks.

Overall, facilities in the Brothers were basic enough. There was no library, although towards the end of our time a collection of Ladybird books was starting. Apart from singing, there was no music tuition, anyone who wanted lessons went to Dr. Seeldrayers or Percy McEvoy. Elocution was unheard of.

The day started and finished with prayers. There were prayers on the hour, and prayers for the canonisation of Brother Edmund Ignatius Rice. Membership of the Children’s Sodality — requiring attendance at a special Mass and Benediction once a month — ceased to be an obligation when the new liturgy was introduced. Latin High Masses were still celebrated occasionally, despite the reforms. Sometimes the singing was provided by the primary schools. Preparations were always hectic. The senior classes were gathered together in the assembly hall. Aidan Murray and Tom Beatty tried to ensure that we had the chants and hymns exactly right. Perfection, however, was never attained because we didn’t understand Latin and this kind of music wasn’t to everybody’s taste.

The month of May was special for the Brothers. They made supreme attempts to erect elaborate altars in honour of Our Lady in their classrooms. Bro. Ryan purchased reams of blue and white cotton and had it streaming the height and almost the width of the assembly hall stage. Parents lent vases for the month, and amazingly pupils weren’t embarrassed to bring in regular bunches of flowers. The result was a brilliant display of Marian fervour.

The one overtly public role the Brothers took on was to carry the canopy over the priest during the annual Corpus Christi procession. For this they donned white surplices. It seemed that the entire parish used to assemble in the grounds of St. Patrick’s College for these processions.

Generally the Brothers lived very private lives in the monastery, which they referred to simply as “the house”. Pupils were seldom invited in around the house, except during the days when waste paper was being collected by the ton. The huge baler was right beside the monastery and all help was welcomed in collecting and bundling the paper.

Beside the monastery was the Brothers’ garden and orchard. The beautiful apple trees were tantalisingly inviting every autumn. But this - of all orchards - was definitely out of bounds, for obvious reasons. The gardener was Berney Swan of Burrin Street. He was also caretaker of the school. Among his jobs was tending the massive coal furnace under the assembly hall. It was a rare treat in mid-winter to get down to the blackness of the big stove and watch as Berney shovelled on the coal.

Even in the sixties, the Christian Brothers had to shoulder a barrage of criticism, especially over their use of corporal punishment. They sometimes bitterly remarked that it was former pupils who’d done well in later life who were most outspoken.

Memories of Bishop Foley School are mostly happy and pleasant, however. Nevertheless, the threat of punishment was ever present. All the Brothers had leathers; the lay teachers used sticks varying from chair-legs to very swishy bamboos. By today’s standards, slapping was excessive. By and large, Carlow CBS was probably no better or worse than any school in Ireland in this respect.

Our days in the brothers ended in 1968. The substitute primary exam was brought forward because about a dozen sixth class lads were off for a month to the Ballingeary gaeltacht. It was our first experience of the formal exam atmosphere — desks moved apart, stencilled question papers, total silence.

My final memory of primary days is when Bro. Ryan broke the silence of the exam hall and dropped a bombshell. Robert Kennedy had just died. He was stunned, and so were we.

Life for another of the dynamic Kennedy’s was over. But for us, a new era was just beginning.

Source: The Golden Jubilee Journal 1936-1986 (Michael Purcell)


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The information contained in these pages is provided solely for the  purpose of sharing with others researching their ancestors in Ireland.
© 2001 Ireland Genealogy Projects, IGP TM

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