I’m a proud college dropout. I lasted only a year at Maynooth University. It was too far from home, spiritually and geographically. Admittedly, it was only a 45-minute train ride from Connolly Station in Dublin, but it might as well have been Mars in terms of the culture shock I experienced on that campus. I wasn’t cut out for college, for tutorials or for college societies. I’d had enough lectures all my life. Now I just wanted to live.
It didn’t help that the university shared a campus with St Patrick’s Pontifical University, aka Maynooth College, a seminary where young men went to become priests. By the age of 18 I had long rejected Catholicism for reasons that seemed obvious to me – too cruel, too patriarchal, too many rules – and there were too many priests-in-waiting and their elders around for me to ever feel properly comfortable in Maynooth. For all the theology swirling around, it always struck me as a soulless kind of place back then. I’m sure it’s different now.
Kids can be cruel, and some of the Blackrock boys called our school Pill Hill. They thought we were all sexually active and on the pill, not being as well bred as them
The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that I was living in digs – a bedroom in a family home – longingly sniffing somebody’s else’s spaghetti Bolognese but confined to my room, never welcome at the table. I knew I was not long for college when, in the first few days of the first term, my landlords made me take down my giant Morrissey poster from the bedroom wall to save their magnolia paint. Heaven knows I was miserable then.
In another life I’d have been studying drama at Trinity College Dublin, but I left Sion Hill, in Blackrock, with a bad Leaving Cert. It was entirely my own fault. Other people did far better in exams, but then again nothing much was expected of us academically by some of the people in the school next door. Our neighbour over the wall was the fee-paying, private Blackrock College, a place we all knew Official Ireland sent its boys to become men. The idea was they would emerge as future leaders, future lawyers and – in a couple of curve balls – future Late Late Show presenters and Sinn Féin TDs.
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“Rock boys are we/Our title is our glory/Fearless and bold...” some of the boys there sang. Some of them still do. Kids can be cruel, and some of the Blackrock boys called our school Pill Hill. The nickname was designed to shame us young women in our red jumpers and grey skirts. It meant that some of the Blackrock boys thought we were all sexually active and on the pill, not being as well bred as them. Not having parents who could afford to send their children to schools that support social segregation, schools where the have-a-lots are educated away from the have-lesses.
They were both Catholic schools, but it turns out Blackrock College was a world away from Pill Hill philosophically if not geographically. We now know that Blackrock College and Willow Park, its junior school, employed some sexually abusive priests whose heinous attacks on children over three decades were never once reported to the Garda. Strange how these things go. We now know the Blackrock boys had nothing to feel superior about. All those years us Pill Hill girls should have been looking down on that school, pitying the boys who were learning in the shadow of a dark regime that had festered in corridors and classrooms and dormitories. All those bad days and nights in Blackrock.
[ Raw tales from Blackrock College are as disturbing as anything from the Magdalene laundries ]
And not just in Blackrock, as we know. Talking to a male friend recently, he told me about his experiences at the hands of the Christian Brothers in another school not so far away. It was a place where the Brothers employed tactics of “constant grooming, testing of tolerances, seeking out the vulnerable ones”. The Brothers backed off if you were able to convince them of your “defiance and spirit”, he said, but otherwise you were easy prey.
“Basically, if you are an Irish man over the age of, say, 45, part of your fee-paying education was running the gauntlet of violent psychopaths and sexual predators. I am grand. So many are not. This country has so many grubby secrets. A national day of atonement would be a lot more useful than a decade of commemorations.”
Then he spoke movingly of the PTSD being experienced now by men in their 50s and 60s and older. About how the abusive priests may die off but the victims, if they survive, are left to live with and attempt to unravel all of that trauma.
[ Gut-wrenching, essential radio: Blackrock College sexual abuse accounts are tough to listen to ]
Wouldn’t all of it make you wonder about all sorts of things? For a start, will people still pay thousands to send their children to these schools, even after all these abuses have been revealed? Will Irish people, outraged by the revolting truth of abuses we’ve been learning about ad nauseam, still go to Mass and get married in churches? Will they still watch at a font as their newborn babies are washed clean of “original sin”? Will parents continue to dress their small daughters up in white dresses and send them happily off for their First Confession? Will Fr Seán Sheehy, in Co Kerry, continue to be vilified for his homophobic views while a homophobic institution called the Catholic Church, which preaches that sex between two men or two women is “intrinsically evil”, continues to play a huge role in schools and hospitals and at family events? Is hypocrisy still as big as it used to be in Ireland? Is the pope still a Catholic?
I went to Ringsend tech to repeat my Leaving Cert; it was a place some of the Blackrock boys would have sneered at even more than they did Pill Hill. Second time around I got a slightly better Leaving, and it was off to Maynooth with me. But my heart was never in it. I ran away after that first year to London, where I busked in the Underground and got a different kind of education. I have no regrets.
I listened to the radio the past few days, thinking of all the Blackrock boys and the Pill Hill girls. I know many of them were richer, posher and more privileged. And I know which of us were better off.
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