There was a fella in my class when I was about nine years old, who I recall had a talent for breaking wind. He could quite literally crack one off on command. I have never seen anything like it then or since. Let’s call him ‘Mick’ to preserve his dignity. Mick must have had a special storage sack that none of the rest of us has and his supply of gas was quite impressive. He could even; I kid you not, control the sound they made to some extent at least. What has become of him I often wonder? Most likely a politician I should think.
Looking back at the chidderlings that scuttled about me as a nipper, I recall some gifted young boys and like Mick, I wonder what became of them. That’s not to say I’ve never seen any of them since, but for the most part, we have scattered far and wide , and some… well let’s just say it was an eclectic mix.
There was one lad with an endless stream of snot that he constantly wiped on his crusty sleeve. I remember being saddened and shocked when at the age of twelve, Brother Donard, a vile and loathsome Christian Brother (He wasn’t alone in that one) asked me to sit beside, to help with his writing. I say saddened and shocked, because we were only a summer break away from going to secondary school, and I discovered that what Brother Donard meant by ‘helping’ my classmate with his writing, was far more dramatic than I could ever have imagined. He produced a copy book that I hadn’t seen since I was five. It had blue and red lines, to help guide the beginner form the correct letter shape and keep them in line. The poor boy could barely complete the alphabet. He was twelve years old.
He had been already cast aside by what was then an overcrowded education system. We had played together in the yard and while I wouldn’t have considered him the brightest spark, I never knew the extent of his educational deficit. I wanted to object, to complain, to demand that this boy be given proper help, but I couldn’t say anything of course. I was just another little boy in a world of oppressive authority, keeping my head down for fear of getting it slapped by a teacher, and I realised that this boy had done the same, only better. While I had raised my head above the parapet to answer questions and compete to be the best in the class, this lad had quietly flown beneath the radar, content not to draw attention to himself, quietly slipping away to oblivion. The crass, disgusting truth was, that teacher after teacher had been complicit in leaving him to sink deeper and deeper into the anonymity of a malfunctioning system. He was abandoned and I was completely powerless to help, other than to show him how to finish off his alphabet. I stared injustice in the face and dipped my toe into futility.
I grew up in this weird world of social injustice. It was still the nineteen-sixties when my skinny little arse first landed on a desk in school. I loved it and I hated it. I loved the learning and soaked it up like a happy little sponge. I hated the violence of the schoolyard and the menace of the Christian Brothers. They towered above me like billowing black monsters and the only thing more frightening than the flick of their wood-tipped leather straps, was to see a smile grow at the corner of their lip. As a boy with a great imagination, I imagined that cruelty was ingrained in them when they were forged in great caverns beneath the earth. They grew from trees and would pluck me from the fields as I ran, devouring all the goodness of my soul if I didn’t avoid their dark intentions.
I flittered about them like a bright, weightless butterfly, never standing still long enough to be caught. But some of the boys flew straight and true into their traps, and no God could forgive the horrors inflicted on them by those men without mercy. They were men born of decay, hating their own existence, scrambling up from the tombstones of the kindness that must surely have once lived in them as children.
We injected fun into the fear filled days for that is what we do. I have always enjoyed stories of prisoners of war and I think it is perhaps because that is how we felt. We were trapped, if only for the school day but trapped nonetheless, imprisoned if you will by our tormentors. We made the most of it and even managed to be educated in the process. There were good men scattered amongst the ruins of the demons that sought to use their position of power to dark ends, but not enough.
Violence was the norm in that world. Boys fought with boys in the yard in gangs, groups or just singularly and for little reason. Lay teachers beat us with sticks for minor offences or just for getting our six times tables wrong. But the Brothers, they were far far worse and to say they brutalised little boys in their care, is an understatement.
Those who got the worst of it were little boys just like me. Seven years old, eight year old boys twelve year old boys, boys who didn’t have the luck or the guile that I had, to avoid the worst of the suffering. It seems impossible to imagine for many today, just how free they were to abuse the precious little flitterlings in their care. They broke many a wing I am sure, smashed innocence and crushed spirits and though some were eventually brought to task, most were not.
But we still managed to have fun. We had boys like Mick to fart on command and break the spell of oppression if only for a moment. He was a hero in many ways, risking the wrath of the Brotherhood to bring a smile to our faces. The jokers were ever present and the risks were great, but the human spirit, whatever that is, was present in even us little ones, failing to be completely crushed under the terrible weight of that repression.
I think we knew more than we let on. I know I always saw the brothers as failed priests who couldn’t quite make the grade. I don’t know what path they actually followed to get there, but there was a sense of resentment, like when they had to defer to the priest but didn’t like it. They made a huge fuss whenever a priest came to call and always seemed extra angry when they left.
Near the end of primary school there was a brief period of engagement. It was like they were trying to be a little bit nicer, forcing smiles across their cruel mouths as if to say, “Look at me I’m happy.” But then of course the penny dropped and stranger priests appeared. These weren’t men from our parish, oh no. They were brighter, more smiley, and more kindly of disposition. They didn’t have cigarette ash on their cassocks or dandruff on their shoulders. They had full heads of hair and skin that had seen daylight. They were there to enlist us. they had smiles that moved beyond their lips. They were recruiting for the priesthood.
Oh yes the penny dropped alright. Come and join the priesthood they said. It’ll be great they said. God has a calling they told us. I only heard the sound of brother Donard’s shoes squeak as he rocked on his irritable little heels in the background, with a smile that only identified itself through a row of white teeth, but was absent from his eyes. There was considerable pressure and some actually gave in and went on to visit the seminary but that was inevitable I suppose. That was their plan. Put enough pressure on and someone would eventually crack. Some boys had to put their hands up, it was just a matter of holding out longer than those who couldn’t take the pressure and I had no problem on that score.
But then they left us and with them the temporary respite from the cruelty, as the brothers reverted to type, recruits secures, their job done for another year. That same year I left primary school and headed into the daunting world of secondary school. New boys, new teachers, still Christian Brothers but not in teaching positions and a fresh teacher for every single subject. It was terrifying.
But then I walked through those new gates for the first time and discovered a world without terror. The yoke of oppression had been removed and I flourished. What a world we lived in. It seemed the smallest, the most vulnerable were left to the care of the worst of the monsters that we had created in our society. It made no sense and makes none to me still now looking back from the distance of time. But still we had fun in the midst of it. We made friends, we chased each other like lunatics, we ran on concrete yards, fell, bled and got up to run again without a hint of a lawsuit, so maybe it wasn’t all bad eh?…
Haven’t read a Max Power book yet? I think it’s time to pick one up.
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Darkly Wood II The woman who never wore shoes, Larry Flynn, Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
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