The Head Brother was a fierce and imposing man. He patrolled the corridors, fixing miscreants in his baleful glare, keeping at bay the anarchy he knew to be seething beneath the surface.
He had us cowed. Most of us were, as I was, from families where no one had gone to secondary school. We were willing to accept the bargain of conformity in the Catholic Ireland of the early 1970s. We would keep our feral natures in check in return for some notion of advancement.
Then came a day when the Head Brother was walking slowly past the open door of the classroom, where we were waiting for the teacher to arrive for class. Something flew through the air and hit him on the head.
It was a small, silvery packet with the word Durex printed on it. It was doubly unbelievable. It was impossible for such an object to exist among us, and utterly beyond credibility that someone had the gall to throw it at the Head Brother.
His own incredulity released itself in a volcanic outburst of rage. He erupted into the classroom, roaring the question he could barely articulate: “Who threw this?”
He kept repeating it while every one of us cowered and looked away, terrified lest we catch his eye and reveal the guilt that now clung to us collectively.
Since no one answered, he turned on the boy who was indeed by far the most likely candidate, the class messer: “It was you, wasn’t it?”
Johnny looked both stricken and offended by the accusation. “No sir, it wasn’t me. I’ve got mine in my pocket.” And he pulled it out as proof of his innocence.
I have never seen a man deflate so rapidly. The Head Brother shrank before our eyes. He could not speak. He shook his head three or four times and slunk away, utterly defeated.
I have had many academic honours, but the highest accolade I have ever received was being designated fourth toughest in fifth class in my local national school in Co Kildare. Having moved around a lot between schools in my youth I was very aware of the political cross currents in the school yard and knew that I was still finding my feet socially. Most of my social cues were taken from the television programme the A-Team in which I idolised mental-health pioneer “Howling Mad” Murdock. I could see some of my classmates making their way in the world as the strongest, the cleverest or the best looking. All of these avenues were shut to me. From the life of “Howling Mad” Murdock, however, I learned that every gang needed a crazy “wild card” character. Looking around at my classmates, I was pretty sure I had an edge here.
And so it would turn out to be when eventually a sort of Battle Royale broke out in the school yard and the hierarchies of “toughest boy” in the class were up for grabs once more. Who was the arbiter of such things? That would be the unanimously accepted First Toughest Boy. His name was Dodo, nicknamed inexplicably after an extinct bird, who regularly looked across his puny classmates with disdain and rejigged the hierarchy once more. I was a runner (in so far as I usually ran away) not a fighter but on this day of random child violence I decided to channel my hero “Howling Mad” Murdock and allow the Second Toughest boy, Robert, to punch me repeatedly in the face. I didn’t cry. I think I might even have smiled. So Robert started to cry because he was tired from the punching and sadism loses its edge with masochists. Everyone was very impressed. Dodo bumped me all the way up to Fourth Toughest boy, leapfrogging several violent young thugs along the way. It may have been the proudest moment of my life. I’ve a memory of getting a certificate and everything but I can’t find it so that bit could have been a dream.
In my sixth and final year at boarding school, our common room was adjacent to a tiny room under the back stairs; a stairs which led to the nuns’ private quarters. This room was the sole domain of Madame Clemence, the oldest nun in the community. Her tasks were to open the front door – only formal visitors arrived at the front door, everyone else came in the side doors – and to prepare breakfast for the priest who said Mass each morning at 7.30am in our chapel.
This breakfast was cooked hot daily, and served up by Madame Clemence in a parlour where there was a harp and a large, permanently unlit fireplace. Each evening, she prepared the breakfast tray in the tiny room under the stairs. When we snooped, as of course we did, we saw unfamiliar china; delicate cups and plates with flowers. Our refectory china was heavy white institutional type stuff. Here was a lace traycloth, and china so thin we could see through it when holding it up to the light.
There was a little kitchen area in our common room, where we made hot drinks. Milk was delivered to the fridge once a day, but we had usually run out by evening. So when we discovered that Madame Clemence’s breakfast tray preparations for the priest included filling a jug with milk the evening before, we helped ourselves. To make sure the milk level did not fall, we cunningly topped up the jug with water and carefully replaced the crochet-edged doily that sat atop it.
One evening a couple of weeks after we had begun our nightly milk heist, the Reverend Mother called all the boarders to a special assembly. This usually only happened when serious crimes had occurred. We were agog, wondering who had been caught smoking now, or who had gone out of bounds, or who had been found with something banned, such as the radios we all had, but kept hidden.
“Girls,” she began. “Madame Clemence, the most senior member of our community, is very upset. Someone has been stealing the priest’s breakfast milk. Theft is unacceptable in this school.”
There was a titter among our huddled masses. I exchanged incredulous glances with my classmates, all of whom were trying not to roar laughing. Busted! But how?
We owned up, trying very hard to look repentant. We were ordered to apologise in person to Madame Clemence. I was one of the group selected to carry out this task. At the end of our grovelling, I asked her: “How did you know?”
“I knew,” she said, “because the milk jug was always topped with cream for the priest’s tea. And when I poured it for him in the morning, there was no cream.” And thus it was that Madame Clemence Holmes discovered our nightly dairy-pilfering crime.
I spent a few Septembers of my school years in dread of “ducking”: an initiation ceremony that involved having your head held under a tap. At least I think that’s what it involved. I don’t know because somehow this ritual baptism, which was dying out then and is unknown to my children, never actually happened to me.
Even if it had, I would have got off lightly compared with some schoolboys of the past. Patrick Campbell, an Irishman’s Diarist of the 1940s, recalled attending a preparatory school on Dublin’s Stephen’s Green where two bullies held his head down a toilet bowl every day, and flushed, to punish him for having a stammer.
Ours was a more enlightened era, or the dawn of one anyway. The Patrician Brothers Carrickmacross were like a Christian Brothers’ political wing, committed to achieving education through peaceful means, if possible. Most of the students were non-violent too.
The best prank we ever played was a literary one. It arose from the visit of a female French exchange student who may or may not have been romantically involved with one of our classmates. The Sunday World’s agony aunt later received and gratefully printed a letter detailing their supposed night of passion in a coal-shed, and the resultant fears of teenage pregnancy. Strange to say, neither the group composition nor its success in national media impressed Mr O’Brien, our English teacher.
My preferred newspaper was of course The Irish Times. This led to an apocalyptic scene one morning when I was holding it open in front of me, for maximum ostentation, no doubt reading about the latest crisis in Afghanistan. Suddenly, never mind Kabul, the paper itself was in flames. No, it wasn’t an omen. It was Gerard Martin, who had set fire to it with a lighter.
A few years earlier, the same arsonist needed to be rushed to a Dublin hospital one afternoon after a classroom frolic in which a tennis ball nearly took his eye out. The event might be forgotten now except it coincided with one of the worst days of the Troubles, rumbling away across our nearby border. Approaching the city that evening, en route to the Eye & Ear, they heard a loud bang in the background. It was 17th May 1974. The first of the Dublin and Monaghan bombs had just gone off.
I have one party trick. I can make myself sneeze. Okay, it’s a crap party trick. I haven’t actually done it at a party. If there was ever a big demand for it – and there wasn’t – it’s fair to say that the post-Covid party scene won’t exactly be crying out for it either. But the fact remains: I can do it. And the reason I can is that Marty McCormilla broke my nose playing football at lunchtime in 1996.
I went for a header. He went for an overhead kick. I got the ball. He got my nasal bone. We both got drenched in a Niagara of blood.
Ordinarily, that would have been that. St Macartan’s College in Monaghan had about 600 boys in it at the time. A bloody nose didn’t get you too high up the triage ranking in normal circumstances. So it must have been pointing in a fairly exotic direction for a teacher to take one look at it and grab his car keys. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll bring you to the hospital.”
Somehow, three of my classmates were able to feign enough concern to get in on the trip. Marty, on account of being the culprit. Neal and Mickey, on account of being prepared to do basically anything to get out of going to class.
It should have been less than a 10-minute drive. I had my head back so I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going. But after a bit, I realised that we had stopped somewhere that definitely wasn’t the hospital. Instead, we had pulled up outside a car garage.
To the howling delight of the three apes in the back of the car, our man put aside his concern for the student who now looked like a Tarantino extra and went in to see a man about a rattle the car was making. It wasn’t something that had just arisen on the trip into town or anything – he had been meaning to get it looked at for ages.
The four of us were light-headed by this stage. Me, with the rapidly draining haemoglobin. The other three, buckled with the giggles. Accounts differ as to whether he actually came back or just left the three of them to walk me to the hospital. Either way, my broken nose – and presumably, concussion – was put in its true perspective. Second fiddle to a wheezing old Ford Sierra.
Consequently, there’s an indent in my nose to this day, about three-quarters of the way up. And if the mood takes me, I can press on it and make myself sneeze.
I haven’t yet come across the precise scenario in which it will be of true use to me. But life is a journey.
Remains found in Dublin adds intrigue to search for Robert Emmet’s grave
Skeletal remains have been found at one of the locations identified as a possible last resting place of Robert Emmet who was executed on this day in 1803.
The remains were found during an excavation at the back of St Paul’s Church in Stoneybatter in Dublin.
The disappearance of the body of Robert Emmet is one of the great mysteries of Irish history.
Emmet was tried and then hanged for instigating the ill-fated 1803 rebellion. He became a symbol of Irish martyrdom for his speech from the dock in which he concluded: “Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my name remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”
After he was publicly hanged outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street on September 20th, 1803, his head was displayed to the crowd by the hangman Thomas Galvin. The remains of Emmet’s body was taken to Bully’s Acre in the grounds of what is now the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and buried there.
When some of his friends went to reintern his remains from Bully’s Acre to St Michan’s Church in Church Street, a church associated with the United Irishmen, they found there was no body there, and so began a search which endures to this day.
His great-nephew Dr Thomas Addis Emmet requested an archaeological dig at the family vault in St Peter’s Church in Aungier Street to mark the centenary of Emmet’s death in 1903, but that proved to be unsuccessful.
St Paul’s Church is another contender in the saga of Emmet’s remains. It was the parish church of Kilmainham Gaol’s doctor and effective governor Dr Edward Trevor.
In his book In the Footsteps of Robert Emmet, JJ Reynolds speculated that Trevor removed Emmet’s body and put it in an unmarked grave in the grounds of St Paul’s Church. This was to ensure that his grave would not become a shrine for Irish nationalism.
The church, which was the venue for the consecration of the philosopher George Berkeley as Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, has been converted into the Spade Enterprise Centre, a not-for-profit social enterprise unit.
The land where the skeletal remains were found is being turned into a shared kitchen for small business enterprises in the area.
Archaeologist Franc Miles said burials in the grounds were from 1702 to the 1860s. A extant set of burial records remain, but Emmet, if he really is buried there, would have no record.
Previous exhumations were carried out when the graveyard was closed in 1860s to make way for a school on the site.
“With all the evacuations, we were left with bits and pieces of body. There weren’t many full skeletons,” he said.
Mr Miles said it all the gravemarkers and stones were removed in the 1860s “so all you are left with really are bones.”
Mr Miles said it would be difficult if not impossible to identify Emmet’s remains even if they are buried in the grounds of St Paul’s Church.
His own “educated guess” is that Emmet’s body is still buried somewhere in Bully’s Acre.
As many of his supporters have said over the last two centuries: “Do not look for him. His grave is Ireland.”
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Officials pushed for State to buy direct provision centres from private firms
The Government should buy a number of privately-owned direct provision centres as a “priority” as it would be more “cost effective” for the State to run the facilities for asylum seekers, international protection officials have said.
The savings arising from owning the accommodation centres rather than paying private contractors to do so “could be considerable”, departmental briefing documents provided to Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman last year state.
The vast majority of direct provision centres are currently owned and run by private companies, with accommodation providers having received some €1.6 billion since 1999, including €183 million last year.
The latest figures show some 7,150 people are in the system of seven State-owned sites and 39 private centres. A further 24 commercially-owned premises are being used to provide emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.
The briefing document, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, says that housing people seeking asylum in State-owned centres would provide the “best protection from the vulnerability of present market reliance”.
“They are also much more cost efficient to run, and the State owns the asset,” it notes.
The document suggested that State centres should aim to accommodate 5,000 people, and “allowing the private sector to supply the rest is regarded as an achievable and reasonable target”.
The purchase of existing centres from private providers “to immediately boost the State’s footprint in this area should be considered as a priority,” the internal document said.
“Some service providers may be open to this and the market appears to be favourable at present,” it said.
The internal briefing suggested the department could then seek private companies or NGOs to run the centres, which would be a “competitive cost option”.
Ongoing maintenance for centres owned by the State was also “badly needed,” as current pressures on the Office of Public Works (OPW) meant it was not possible “for immediate repairs to be done if required”.
“In exploring the model of more State centres, we need to agree and acquire a capital budget,” the briefing stated.
“State land does not require planning permission for new centres as the Minister has a power under the Acts, whereby the OPW can grant the planning permission and this is usually a three-month process. It is not subject to appeal.”
The document says that State centres “can also have a bigger footprint as it will be a permanent fixture in the locality”. In recent years a number of plans for private providers to open direct provision centres in regional towns have been met with protests from locals and anti-immigration activists.
Mr O’Gorman’s department has sought to reform the direct provision system and is seeking to replace the network of centres with a new system of accommodation and supports by the end of 2024.
A department spokesman confirmed the State has not bought any new centres since the briefing note was written. The spokesman said under the planned overhaul of direct provision, asylum-seekers who arrived into the country would initially be housed in a number of reception and integration centres.
Asylum-seekers will spend a maximum of four months in the reception centres before moving into housing secured through Approved Housing Bodies.
“These centres will be State-owned and purpose built to provide suitable accommodation for approximately 2,000 people at any one time, to cater for the flow-through of the 3,500 applicants over a 12-month period,” he said.
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