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.
(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. martin