Trevor Laffan: Remembering the reign of terror during our primary school days

Trevor Laffan reflects on harsher days in primary school when physical violence was sometimes used against pupils
Trevor Laffan: Remembering the reign of terror during our primary school days

"Discipline isn’t the right word either because it was physical abuse, nothing less," said Trevor Laffan, reflecting on the treatment of pupils by teachers, back in the 60s.

I wrote a piece a few months ago about the experience children have in primary school today compared to what it was like for some of us back in the 60s. In particular, the way the religious orders disciplined children in my time.

Discipline isn’t the right word either because it was physical abuse, nothing less. There was one brother in my school who was the biggest offender and that was the principal. I explained how the children cheered when they heard the news of his death following an accident.

There was a lot of reaction to that article and one guy who read it was ahead of me in the same primary school, and he told me it brought back memories to him.

He also remembered the day the principal died and everyone in his classroom clapped. Because he was older than me, he had more of an understanding of the reign of terror that existed in that school and he said some of the other teachers were afraid of this man too.

Another man contacted me the old-fashioned way. He found my name in the phone book and called my landline. I rarely answer that phone because it’s usually some foreign guy telling me that I have a problem with my broadband that he can fix for me if I just give him my credit card details. Instead, it was a lovely gentleman who wanted to talk about the article.

We’ll call him Tom and he said he was closer to ninety than eighty. He’s a regular reader of ‘The Echo’ and likes my column so he’s obviously highly intelligent. While my head was swelling to twice the size, he told me that he was very taken with the piece about the primary school days.

He was an interesting character and he related some of his own experiences including a story about a particular brother he had a run in with. Tom was in school one day and his arm was in a sling. I’m not sure if he told me why but if he did, I can’t remember but in any event this brother decided that Tom needed to be disciplined.

He hit his good hand with a cane until he couldn’t take anymore so Tom offered his bad hand which was also caned. The next thing he remembers is opening his eyes and he saw one of his classmates standing over him and realised he was lying on the floor. He reckons he must have passed out for a few seconds from the pain.

Tom described himself as an inoffensive child but when he picked himself from the floor, he was filled with a rage. He saw the brother standing at the blackboard with his back to him and he marched up to him and poked him in the back of the neck. When the brother turned around, Tom told him that if he ever laid a hand on him again, he would throw him and his collar out through the window. That’s a sterilised version of what he actually said because the true version was a bit more colourful and unprintable.

At home that night, Tom was going over the events of the day in his mind and figured that he was for the high jump. He reckoned he was probably going to be kicked out of the school which was going to create a serious problem for him. Where would he go after that and what would his parents say?

He decided to go to school early the following morning to speak to the principal and maybe get the punishment reduced to a suspension or something. As he was heading out the door, his mother asked him why he was going in so early. He told her he had some homework to finish and he was meeting up with some of his classmates.

When the principal arrived, he invited Tom into his office and asked him what the problem was. Tom told him his story of the previous day. All the time, Tom remembers that the principal was tapping his pen on the desk in front of him. When he was finished his tale, Tom sat back and waited for the guillotine to fall.

To his surprise, the principal just looked at him and told him that he was one of the quietest boys in the school and not to worry. Tom asked him if he was going to be expelled and the principal again told him not to worry and guaranteed him, he would never hear another word about it.

Tom was surprised with this turn of events and happily returned to his class. He had no further trouble from that brother and not too long after this, the brother left the school and Tom never saw or heard from him again.

Years later, he read about the inquiry into Letterfrack Industrial School in Connemara, Co. Galway. This school was run by the Christian Brothers and the scene of much physical and sexual abuse. It came as no surprise to Tom to discover that his old tormentor was one of the main abusers.

Tom was concerned that the offender may have ended up in Letterfrack because of his complaint and I think he felt responsible for the abuse some of those children received at the hands of that man.

The truth of course, is that he prevented more children from being abused in his own school by taking a stand which was a very brave thing for a child to do. I reminded him that he bears no responsibility for the actions of a demented brother. That guilt rests with the organisation that just moved the problem from pillar to post without ever dealing with the real issue.

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