Life as We Lived It

Illustration to Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" by William Blake (1757-1827).
Illustration to Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" by William Blake (1757-1827).

Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh.... All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. (Grahame, 6)


So runs the opening chapter of The Wind in the Willows, a book that washed over me when I first listened to it – in second-year Latin class, in the early 2000s. Our teacher used to read it to us, his drowsing students, on Friday afternoons, offering commendably energetic renditions of Mole, Badger, Toad, and the Water-Rat, each and all. The exact relevance of Kenneth Grahame's classic to the subjunctive tense of the verb 'to know' was never queried or contested: we were “bewitched, entranced, fascinated”, and that was enough. 


He was an eccentric tutor: a composer who wrote an “opera cycle” of seven musicals, which the school staged on a revolving basis annually; a teacher who behaved like a performance artist, histrionic, incorrigible when vexed, and generally enlightened in his attempt to instill an affection for the Classics (and old Toad) in the shy, young creatures that shuffled into his demesne each week. Despite his best efforts, I never mastered the art of easy reading in Latin: I invariably lost my way in its maze-like, tessellating syntaxes. But I loved its imagistic concision, word by word: the way any single unit of its overall linguistic texture could be isolated, and seen to contain an entire genealogy of meaning – like a lucid mystery, to be peered into and intuitively understood. So education, we discovered, was derived from educatus, meaning 'brought up', 'nurtured', or 'trained', from the root verb, educare, 'to lead out', perhaps, into revelation. 


Ours was a Jesuit school, producing so-called “men for others” who also viewed  themselves as “men of the world”: a  fact that somehow accounted for the atmosphere of serious self-piety and unapologetic waywardness that defined our weekly learning. The two religion teachers I recall most were mutual antagonists. The first was a Nietzsche-quoting experimentalist, who pinned a Walmart carry-bag to his classroom noticeboard and challenged us to recognise what he called our “modern-day idol”; sometimes, after we had filed into our seats, he placed a portable stereo on his desk and played Mozart for half an hour, then asked us to share our thoughts. The other was himself a Jesuit priest, known for his stirring sermons in the school chapel, his blend of irrepressible generosity and heedless snobbery, and his infectious love of Shakespeare: he began each class with a prayer to God, requesting strength and faith in our endeavours, before chanting his favourite passages from Hamlet, The Tempest, and the like, to be learnt by us that night, by heart. I remember these two educators, who agreed on nothing, with affection.


I should say that in making these remarks on my secondary education, my intention is not to sentimentalise the place. Nostalgia, while seductive, can build its own mythology, ultimately distorting life as we lived it. For many people, no matter how fondly past pupils will portray it, a school like mine will remain what it always was: a haven of privilege, a kind of institutional breeding-ground for a culture of social entitlement that activist movements, in recent years, have attempted to critique and counteract in its more corrosive manifestations. I feel a personal debt to these campaigners, who in providing the motive force for Ireland's most dramatic and progressive social changes, set an example which (among other things, of course) helped me to climb free from some of the ideological ruts to which, unwittingly, I had grown accustomed in my thinking.


In the period immediately after I left school, and insofar as I reflected on such things at all, I presumed that the misogyny and homophobia present during my time there were an expression of the insecurities and uncertainties of a herd of (rather clueless) young men: perhaps even a way of downplaying the powerfully homo-erotic comradeship they had formed together, including on the rugby field. Self-indulgent as it may sound, I didn't understand that the attitudes we had come to perform – partly inherited from our seniors and partly cultivated through our own agency – along with the elitist self-regard that saturated our day-to-day life, were at least symptomatic, and possibly causative, of the more generalised divisions in our society: a society of sometimes subtle hierarchies and exclusions. 


A friend of mine, who taught for a time in a private, male-only school similar to my own, told me recently of the unsettled feeling she had while working there of always been watched, and judged, by the pupils – a feeling she had never experienced to the same degree on other placements. I understood what she meant, albeit from the opposite perspective. I remembered (having previously forgotten) the reflexive, often cutting objectifications of some of our women teachers, especially if they were new – the sexualised insults traded in private, counter-balancing the astonishing charm that could be marshalled in class and in-person. 


In retrospect, the Catholic ethos of the school arguably worsened the bias and dysfunctions inherent in this behaviour. Although I considered myself apolitical then, I left school habituated to a sexist language and outlook among my peers, conditioned to view women as largely other or foreign to my daily life, and blithely convinced of the immorality of abortion, for example, or of the inherent obviousness of marriage as a contract between (heterosexual) man and wife. Most of us outgrow our early certainties, of course, merely by living, but I sometimes wonder whether the abnormalities and assumptions of the all-male, fee-paying school environment had a built-in durability and effect. It arguably takes a certain callousness, after all, to continue to believe in one's own exceptionalism, the unassailable rightness of one's (social) position and views – which is what, in part, we had been equipped to do. When radicals accuse Ireland's governing status quo of “boy's club” politics, self-satisfied and divisive, once again I know what they mean – except that my youthful experience had been, however complexly, on the inside.


This brings back other memories: of a teacher whom I recall primarily for his gentleness, his disarming lack of egotistical demand in his dealings with students. They, in turn, responded with an almost universal, carefully orchestrated cruelty. When he tried to speak, very often a chorus of voices would hoot, raucously; items would be thrown at the blackboard where he stood; his accent, different to ours, was mocked; his mannerisms were imitated in his presence, in relentless caricature. This was no rebellion against arbitrary authority; harsher, more disciplinarian figures were treated, frequently, with courtesy. Rather, I think, these comparatively wealthy young men were testing the force of their entitlement against the limits of this individual's self-esteem, for pleasure. I don't know how he kept going. Nowadays, on the rare occasion when I encounter any of the former ring-leaders of that lurid parade, usually metamorphosed into upwardly mobile journeymen of the legal or financial sector, I scan their glazed, fluently self-confident expression and demeanour, wondering if they (if any of us) have changed. 


Another staff-member was an amateur dramatist: a mercurial pedagogue, but in his role as the director of the annual sixth-year play, an inspiring figure – or so I thought, when I attended his gripping, vividly realised productions of Julius Caesar (in a modern setting) and A Few Good Men. In truth, I found it difficult at times to reconcile the visceral humanity and emotional nuance of those plays, not to mention the warmth and humour this man seemed to stimulate in his colleagues, with the baseline tension that reigned among the students he taught. Detentions were issued with a zeal and an authority we quickly came to respect, and which even I, for the most part a rigorously rule-bound adolescent, grew to dislike and fear. Occasionally, the syllabus would be abandoned and a film would be screened for the assigned forty minutes instead, usually exploring the harrowing realities of social prejudice, institutional violence, and toxic masculinity. To this day, I'm not able to offer a plot summary of Alan Clarke's Scum (1979), but I can still recall the sensation I experienced after seeing it during one of these impromptu screenings: a sensation of confused upset and oddly complicitous panic at the intimate brutality of life out there – as it seemed to me then. Such educational strategies, of course, burned with a powerful argument at their core (concerning class privilege, for one thing), although most of us were too captivated by our own discomfort to parse its implications.


In retrospect, I value those efforts to hold a critical mirror up to our complacency, although at the time I remained distrustful of what seemed a kind of punitive glee on this teacher's part, particularly towards students he disliked. Years after leaving school, I read Victor Serge's description of a fellow revolutionary, persecuted in Tsarist Russia: “Solokov [was] moulded by inhuman struggles... he came out of the storm, and the storm was within him” (Serge, 18). Perhaps extravagantly, I associated this portrait and psychological proposition with my former educator. I couldn't say what “storm” he had endured and then carried within him, but its force I imagined, from the ambiance of his classroom, to be real. I understand that there is a great deal of presumption, and maybe even injustice, in this last projection. But if nothing else, it indicates the inscrutable presence our teachers, and other familiar strangers who travel alongside us for a while, occupy in our memories and subsequent world-views. I'm also reminded that people re-invent the books they read (in my case, Serge's Memoirs) in their own image: we tend to recognise, in literature, what we already know. 


This dramaturg's successor – then a sparky humanities graduate, now a path-breaking director at the Berlin State Opera – continued the school's rich tradition of theatrical engagement, and added a spice of formal and political radicalism to the mix with an immersive staging of Danton's Death by Georg Büchner (1832). This parable of (French) revolutionary aspiration and compromise mostly baffled its benevolently bourgeois, South Dublin audience, but it nonetheless marked an important exercise (in historical investigation and intrigue, say) in the educational career of its student cast-members. When I eventually went through my own political awakening, hurtling leftwards, I looked back on Danton's Death with rekindled curiosity, glad to remember the excitement and provocation of that youthful interval....


The reminiscence could continue, scene by scene, character by character: half-remembered and (surely) half-imagined. The point, I suppose, is to salute my educators, with some balance of gratitude and honesty: the eccentric and exuberant, the gentle and fierce, living and dead. A corollary hope, if there is one, might be to gather the past, in all its flow, variety and contradiction, into a state of legible reflection – for others to enter and examine, re-claiming the manifold story anew.




Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary.

Ciarán O'Rourke // March 2021