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Brother Mick -- Sigerson Clifford

Guest poem sent in by Frank O'Shea
(Poem #1222) Brother Mick
 The mountain frowned upon the school,
 The school stared at the street,
 And rich men's sons came there in shoes
 While I ran in bare feet.
 The rich had meat and cakes to eat,
 And butter like the Danes, (1)
 While I had only spuds and fish,
 And fish, they say, makes brains. (2)
 But still the rich boys passed exams
 While I kept thin, and thick,
 And thanked the stars that he had come
 Among us... Brother Mick.

 We had the world's slowest clock
 That drowsed upon the wall,
 While I cursed the Roman scoundrels
 That let Caesar loose in Gaul.
 There, too, was Euclid with his cuts,
 And trigonometry.
 That Peachy, Ring and Chas could do
 But they were Greek to me.
 And there were sums on trains and tubs
 Of water running quick:
 'Twas Chinese torture till he came
 To save me... Brother Mick.

 For Brother Tom no patience had
 With duffers such as I
 Who never could be taught to solve
 The mystery of pi.
 And Brother Jim had even less
 For those who didn't prize
 The hairy men of hither Gaul
 As seen through Caesar's eyes.
 Then Brother Tom whacked like a bomb,
 While Jim could wield the stick.
 But that was all before we knew
 The smile of Brother Mick.

 Still the great Power that will not let
 The sparrow fall to earth
 Took pity on bewildered brains
 No Latin could alert.
 For Brother Jim was sent to Trim (3)
 To march with Caesar there,
 While we sprawled in our desks and heard
 The new man on the stair.
 We saw him smile as he came in,
 His footsteps short and quick;
 His name was Brother Michael
 So, of course, we called him Mick.

 And as the weeks meandered on
 We watched with puzzled eye
 And wondered if some archangel
 Had strayed down from the sky.
 He did not shout, he did not clout
 But went his gentle way
 To bring the light to souls that stood
 Full ankle-deep in clay.
 He locked the leather in the press
 And burned the hazel stick;
 ‘Twas then we all threw doubts upon
 The mind of Brother Mick.

 How short is time with one you love,
 A year is like a while.
 The things you will not do for stick
 You learn for a smile.
 We passed exams and scholarships,
 Our mothers thought us fine,
 Though greater than the loaves and fish
 The miracle of mine.
 The gods be praised I even got
 Marks in arithmetic;
 'You'll be a second Einstein yet,'
 Said surprised Brother Mick.

 The big lads reaped their excise jobs,
 We all marched to the train
 And shook their lordly hands and praised
 The old school once again.
 The engine panted up the rails,
 We flung our cheers out loud
 And watched it sprinting past the bridge,
 Its whistle long and proud.
 And as we laughed we little knew
 The card Fate chose to pick,
 How soon he'd be an exile too,
 Our splendid Brother Mick...

 The world has wheeled a lot since then,
 Quiet are the hobs of home
 And far from me these things are now
 As is the moon from Rome.
 But I can see the old school still
 Stand tall above the street,
 I smell the heather from the hill
 And hear the running feet.
 And in the door he walks again,
 His footsteps short and quick,
 And back across the years I wave
 Goodbye to Brother Mick.
-- Sigerson Clifford
(1) Denmark provided much of Ireland's butter in the early and mid-century.
(2) cf Wodehouse on Jeeves: "...he absolutely lives on fish."
(3) A town in County Meath, close to where Pearce Brosnan comes from

What's this, then? A series of poems about teachers, started by Goldsmith
and carried on in Billy Collins' The History Teacher appended at the end of
the Village Schoolmaster (Poem # 1220).

Here is another, written by Sigerson Clifford (see Poem #970). The Brother
in question was an Irish Christian Brother, one of a Catholic religious
order of teaching Brothers, now found all over the world. For more than 150
years they taught Irish boys and men a mixture of religion, nationalism,
Latin, Irish and mathematics, with more or less equal emphasis. The Irish
state proclaimed in 1922 owes a massive debt to the young men who attended
the Christies' schools and who were the founders of the Irish civil service
(called the Excise in this poem, because that was the main thing involved in
the early days). Their method of instruction was primitive by today's
standards: a great deal of rote learning and much corporal punishment.

It is now agreed that their use of strap and cane was extreme, but then so
was the use by all teachers at the time. They were also involved in
reformatory schools where they were in effect unpaid prison staff and acted
accordingly. The film The Magdalen Sisters came from a similar time and
against a similar acceptance of cheap labour by members of religious orders.
Sadly, there were other elements among the Brothers whose actions cannot be
so easily excused. For American readers, it should be pointed out that the
term Christian Brothers in the US usually refers to a different order, the
De La Salle Brothers.

Against that background, this is a lovely tribute to one Brother. The
school, by the way, was a secondary top, ie one or two years of second-level
education tagged on to a primary or elementary school and held in the same
building. How many students today would study the Gallic Wars or
Trigonometry or Euclidean "cuts" in the second year of secondary school?

Frank O'Shea

[Martin adds]

Having spent a couple of years in an Irish Christian Brother-run boarding
school (St. Joseph's College, in Nainital), I'm happy to say that we
followed the ICSE syllabus, and followed it well <g>. Corporal punishment we
had, but nothing really Dickensian - all in all it was a pretty nice school.
The Brothers we noted (as boys will) mostly for their various eccentricities
:) Thanks to Frank for the nostalgia trip.


53 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

ann obrien said...

I am anxious to get a poem by Sigerson Clifford entitled " The Tinkers Wife", I wonder could you furnish me with the text, Thanking you Ann O'Brien

Tim Buckley said...

I am an Irishman, presently part of an Australian team at Davis Station
in Antarctica.

I have long been a fan of Sigerson Clifford poetry - about tinkers.

I am looking for the words to "The Ballad of the Tinkers Wife" by
Sigerson Clifford

I am also looking for the words to a poem called O Men of Corca Baskhin
- this poem

tells about men returning to County Clare from the Battle of Fontenoy

Can you please help

Thanking you in anticipation

Tim Buckley

Linda Birse said...

This may be a cheeky, I don't have the words for Tinker's wife, but my Dad
has just heard it on Irish radio and was totally mesmerized by it. Did you
get the words from anyone and if you did would you be willing to send them
to me for me Dad?
Like I said it maybe a bit cheeky, but my Dad would be so pleased.
Thank you in anticipation

Ron Black said...

I love Sigerson Clifford's "Brother Mick"....really poignant and beautifully paced...

My "Brother Mick" was a Kerry man named Finan Breathnach who taught me in St. Joseph's School, Dorset Street, was distinguished as the toughest school on the North Side!! And, yes, there was a good deal of caning and strapping.

However, Finan, was my idol and after leaving St. Joseph's at 14 years of age I began day courses in Bolton Street Tech until Finan sent for me to let me know that there was a job as junior clerk available and, sure enough, I spent the next 12 years with the company.

Thanks to Mr. Clifford for bringing all this back to me so clearly...

Ron Black
North Bergen, NJ

James E. O'Leary said...

Is there any way I could get Sigerson Clifford's "My Name is Kerry." I
heard it on the radio one time and it has haunted me ever since.

Jim O'Leary

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