My recollections of ‘UnChristian’ goings-on at the Brow O’ the Hill

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In this photograph (on right), kindly sent to me by John (Sean) McClenaghan - that’s me standing in the back row, second from right - I see the Class of 1963, Christian Brothers Brow O’ the Hill School, Lecky Road. I look at it with a mixture of happiness and pain.

Happiness, when I look again at the faces of my schoolmates back then but, pain, when I recall the regime inflicted upon us boys by the ‘so called’ Christian Brothers charged with educating us.

We were aged 11 when the photo was taken and would already have put in four years at the CBS since leaving infants school. I had left the Holy Child School in Creggan in 1959. A lovely little school, with equally lovely teachers and an inspiring head in Miss Duffy.

It being our 11-plus year, 1963 would mark our last year at the ‘Brow.’ We would move on to St. Columb’s College, if we passed, or to St. Joseph’s, or some other secondary school, if we failed.

But I do have few happy memories of my four and a half years at the Christian Brothers Primary School.

That said, from the age of seven we were beaten for the most trivial of reasons. One teacher, in particular, seemed to relish beating us. He used a leather strap with a strip of lead running up the middle to give it rigidity. He carried this strap tucked into the belt securing his black cassock, like some clerical-collared wild-west gunslinger. Can you imagine a school teacher beating your seven, eight, nine-year-old child with a reinforced leather belt today? And also getting away with it? Inconceivable isn’t it?

I should emphasise from the beginning that I’m not saying all the Brothers or teachers at the CBS back then were bad eggs. Most were simply doing the best they could. Many of the lay teachers could see what what was happening, yet failed to speak out on our behalf. So their timid silence leaves them open to condemnation.

There will be those reading this who will suggest: “Ah, sure that’s just the way it was back in the auld days. They only did what they did to give wee Catholic Derry boys a good education.’”

I disagree. Teaching through pain, or the fear of pain, is not delivering a good education. It’s a cop-out, a lazy way of instilling thoughts, ideas and knowledge in young heads. And it can be counter-productive, as I’ll go on to explain. Children should never be taught through violence. A school classroom should be a place of joy and eagerness to learn, not of fear and intimidation. End of.

I sailed through the 11-plus of 1963. Mostly because I was a reasonably smart wee lad. Also because I had been beaten, bullied and terrorised into knowing how to pass a particular exam. That planted within me a festering hatred of anything to do with schooling and learning.

I lasted 18 months at St. Columb’s before being expelled. Not because I was violent or anything like that. But because I rarely turned up for classes. I think some of the teachers there barely got to know me. Such was my loathing for school after the Christian Brothers experience, I simply opted out, deciding that learning wasn’t for me. Of course, I was wrong. Stupid, wrong and misguided. And far too young to be making such a decision.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties, married with a young family, finding myself unemployed yet again, that I came upon my saving grace. I discovered that I had a talent for writing. It began when I spotted a small piece in the “Derry Journal.”

BBC N. Ireland were looking for new writers, seeking 15 minute film scripts from anyone who’d care to have a go. Being unemployed, I had an abundance of time on my hands. So, I thought, ‘what have you got to lose?’ I then sat down for a week and wrote a short film script. Posted it off and no one was more surprised than me when Gemma McMullen, a script editor with the BBC, contacted me to say she liked my style of writing, my ‘original voice’, as she put it.

The BBC then put me under contract to work on script development for a year. And that was me off and running. At the end of that year, I decided to concentrate on writing for theatre rather than film, as you stand a much better chance of seeing your efforts come to fruition.

Since then, I’ve penned over a dozen stageplays and produced and directed my plays in my native city, all over Ireland, internationally. I’ve won several awards in Canada and a particularly prestigious award in New York. It’s almost as if that wee Creggan lad, who unilaterally opted out of education back in 1963, feels compelled to keep peering back into his past and saying to those teachers of a bygone era: ‘See what you missed?’

I should point out that these are entirely my own thoughts and I do not purport that they represent the thoughts of anyone else in the photo.

Brian Foster’s play, MYRA’S STORY, a new adaptation of his play, MAIRE A WOMAN OF DERRY, plays Letterkenny’s An Grianan Theatre, Sept. 27 to Sept. 29 and the Millennium Forum, Derry, Oct 4 to Oct. 6.

A Millennium Forum Production, MYRA’S STORY then embarks on an Irish tour, including, Belfast, Enniskillen, Waterford, Downpatrick, Armagh, Dublin, Coleraine and Omagh.

Tickets for the Forum performances are on sale now.