In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
Enquiring Mind or Difficult Bastard?
It was a small battle, a battle conducted over about a two-year period. It was a battle I lost. The adversaries were mismatched. I was a boy, wet behind the ears, wading waist deep through the difficult years from eleven to thirteen. The opposition was the hierarchy of St Malachy’s Catholic Grammar School in Belfast.
Northern Ireland, in the 1950’s was on a different planet from the rest of the world. The Republic of Ireland was in a different galaxy. The Catholic Church told the Government what to do in Dublin. Unable to do that in the North, they had to be content with ensuring the young people in their schools were sent into the world as good Catholics and fervent Irish Republicans.
My parents were both Catholic and Republican and I failed them. Part of the problem was that in the area where we lived, most other people were non-Catholic, in a fairly mild non-confrontational way. My mates, and, more importantly, the girls I admired, were Protestant, in that vague way Catholics defined all people who were not of their own tribe. My passion for girls was only exceeded by my love of cricket.
Also, at the age of thirteen, I fell in love with Elizabeth, who was a good-looking girl. She had also just become Queen of England, and I have to say that my admiration for and loyalty to the lady have not diminished in the intervening years. Needless to say, the staff at SMC shared none of these enthusiasms. They were male, to a man, and about half were priests. My folk memory is that they were Jesuit, but they might have been Dominican. Either way, they were Fascists.
Clashes were inevitable. Their received wisdom was that Catholics were good, Protestants bad; Irish was good, English bad.
Father Larkin was a tall, dark, gaunt man, with black eyes and a hawk like nose. When he strode into class with his black skirts sweeping, he reminded me of the Angel of Death. He hated me; the feeling was mutual. Once after a dose of this propaganda, I had the temerity to question God’s chosen one.
He glared at me over the top of his glasses. “Well?”
“I read in the paper that there are five million Catholics in England, which is more than the entire population of Ireland.”
“Are they good because they are Catholic, or bad because they are English?”
The result was inevitable, six on each hand. I bit my lip, cursed the good priest to hell and tried not to cry.
Sometime later, I questioned why we had to learn Henry V’s speeches as they praised the English, who were so clearly evil. Once more onto the breach, dear friends and another dozen whacks with the cane.
I only failed two exams in my time at school, both in Irish language. I had to see the Head teacher, another priest, short and fat, but similarly equipped with a cane.
“Don’t you care about the Irish language?”
“No,” I replied truthfully, “it’s a waste of time.”
“But it’s your native language.”
“No, it’s not. English is. I don’t know anyone who speaks Irish. In any case, the Queen doesn’t speak it, and you don’t need it to join the RAF.”
Different conversation, same result.
After two years of this, I gave up, and remained silent. It didn’t always work; I was once caned for ‘dumb insolence’.
These experiences taught me more than my tutors realised. I grew up despising Catholicism, detesting bullying and hating oppression. I learned that a man, and a woman too, has to work things out for themselves and to live their lives according to principles in which they believe, not meekly accept what one is told to believe. I learned that fists do not destroy ideas, merely reinforce them.
They won the battle; I won the war.
Written by my Father B.M