Flowers and forgetting














It’s odd the associations that fix themselves in your mind. Every May when I see those small yellow whin-bush flowers flaring on hillsides and by the road, I think of Brother Skehan.  He was my teacher in the Christian Brothers Primary School in Omagh and he encouraged us all to bring in flowers, for arrangement in front of the Fourth Class May altar.  When you’re a nine-year-old boy in the 1950s, you try hard to please your teacher. So I informed my mother that flowers were important and must be brought. A sensible woman, my mother saw that our snowdrops and daffodils were gone, our garden was empty. “Go and get a load of those nice yellow flowers out the lane” she told me. They were prickly to pick but I managed a half-bucketload of them. She wrapped them in an old newspaper and I brought them in to class.
Brother Skehan murmured his thanks as he took them from me but I detected that something was wrong. It wasn’t quite the warm gratitude he showed to the Mullan twins and Martin Gallagher and the other well-behaved town boys when they handed over their flowers, most of them satiny tulips in nice white paper wraps.

That afternoon, I was half-way down the school yard after class when I remembered I’d left my homework book on my desk. Brother Skehan had gone but he’d arranged the May altar for the next day. Mary’s statue was surrounded by lovely white and red and pink tulips. No sign of my yellow whin-bush flowers. Then I looked in the waste-paper basket. There they lay, waiting for the caretaker man to come and dump them. My flowers had been a stupid, ugly failure.

It’s at this point that the usual commentators would jump in and denounce the brutal, unfeeling, child-abusing Christian Brothers, why couldn’t he have used my flowers, how unfeeling, how nasty. But hold. Brother Skehan, that incident aside, was a wonderful man. He rarely slapped. He taught us Irish songs and English songs,  D’Ye Ken John Peel  and Amhrán na bhFiann and The Green Glens of Antrim. He  taught us to play four-part harmony on the recorder. He taught us glorious prose like the Magnificat, which I can recite to this day. He taught us with gentleness and intelligence and humour.

So why do I remember my humiliation at his hands every May?  Because it’s easy to forget the good  which Christian Brothers like Brother Skehan did and easy to remember the hurts.  Ask Malachi  O’Doherty. 

6 Responses to Flowers and forgetting

  1. Anonymous May 12, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    Very good Jude. And spot on about Mr O’Doherty. I’d like to know when people are going to lynch a few regular teachers that didnt happen to have clerical uniform. Easy forget about those when you’ve a more interesting and identifiable target.

  2. Anonymous May 13, 2010 at 1:08 am #

    I remember vividly the brutality of the “brothers” at the Brow O’ the Hill in Derry.One Brother C. stood out above the others,on one occassion hanging a young ten year old on a coat hook as he thumped him then upon taking him down knocking the said child head over heels and across milk crates at the side of the classroom.On many days selecting a young 10 year old classmate with a very bad stutter to read every morning and standing beside him screaming and hitting him everytime he stumbled over the words and in the process terrorises the rest of the 10 year olds in the class.Even at football practice this man carried his leather strap and would stop the game to give you six if you didnt make a good catch or missed a point,such was his determination to beat Omagh in the Rice Cup.That was back in the 60’s but the memories are seared within me forever,the lack of compassion or empathy by a man called a “Christian Brother”,it would make you weep,no wonder half the class rebelled against any form of autority for the rest of their lives,many ending up in Long Kesh.For the record that same “brother” originally from the Dublin area retired in Derry but was like a prisoner in his home such was the animosity towards him and there were a few more like him at the same school.In more enlightened times these sadistic reprobates would have been locked up for years.It really sickens me to hear the apologists for such appalling unChristian acts against innocent vulnerable and defenceless children.

  3. Anonymous May 13, 2010 at 9:32 am #

    I dont think that’s Jude’s point. He’s recognised many times that terrible things happened, whether sexual, physical or mental abuse, the story you tell is not a nice one, no-one is going to defend those sorts of actions. However his point is that there were many brilliant mentors and educationalists among the Christian Brothers and other teaching orders who have been either forgotten or smeared by association in the lust for the blood of the guilty. Then again as he shows, there are those who were memorable for all the right reasons, but may on accasion have hurt a childs feelings or unintentionally dented their confidence. All those who deal with children, from teachers to parents, occasionally say or do something hurtful. That does not make them bad parents or brutal teachers.
    And I await with eagerness the lay teachers of the past getting some attention for their brutality as well, though I hope it is dished out in a fair and less frenzied manner.
    No one excuses real abuse. No one. But dont let it overshadow the achievements of those clerics or brothers or nuns who were trully great educationalists. One gets the feeling the tar brush is being weilded a little on the sloppy side.

  4. Anonymous May 14, 2010 at 12:02 am #

    I will offer a reward to anyone who can show that any “brother” who taught at the Brow O’ The Hill Derry was a “trully great educationalist”. If anything past pupils might be more interested to know if any of them were still alive so they could sue them for abuse.The only clergy that taught me that I would consider decent people and great educationalists were Fr McQuillan,Fr McGlinchey,Fr Farren,Fr Devine (the Dean),Fr Flaherty,Fr Keaveney from Moville and Fr McCarron from Clonmany and Fr “Busty” Reagan who could tell you what townland in Donegal your ancestors were from.My beef was not with the clergy but the excessive abuse that the so called “Christian Brothers” in Derry meted out on a daily basis.

  5. MickMac June 22, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    Brother McGreevy 1950’s/60’s. Where can I claim the reward?

    • Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

      AAAH….I remember B Mc too….and B. Rowe ??..and teachers…..I left Derry at 17….MikkiMac