From top: 1980s Irish school life as depicted in Sing Street (2016); Grace Garvey

Following the recent revelation by author John Boyne that he was abused as a schoolboy in Terenure College – though not by John McClean – it occurred to me that, all things considered, my cohort had been pretty lucky in emerging from school in the 80s relatively unscathed. And yet, few of us have fond memories of the experience.

Corporal punishment was prohibited in Irish schools in 1982 but it would take a while for the pupil-teacher power dynamic to shift. In primary school, I recall getting the occasional slap of a ruler, which was water off a duck’s back.

We had a teacher whose specialty we called ‘wigging’ involved her sticking a thumb in your mouth and jiggling your cheek. Although mildly disgusting, no one minded because we liked her and she was fair. In secondary school, however, psychological warfare was the punishment of choice. The spectre of getting into trouble hung in the air, leaving us forever on alert.

I remember surprisingly little about secondary school. I had an agreeable group of friends and the highlight of our day was morning break, spent huddled around a radiator drinking cups of watery hot chocolate. It was a co-ed school, with a mix of lay teachers and nuns. Religion featured heavily, which for a sceptic was alienating but not a big deal. It wasn’t as if the notion of God were up for debate.

We spent singing class learning hymns and little else. One day I asked the singing teacher, a tightly coiled nun, if we might veer away from our heavenly repertoire once in a while. This met with stony silence and another rendition of Ár nAthair, atá ar Neamh.

I retaliated, as minions have before and since, by withdrawing my labour and standing mute before her from then on. Since I was no Maria Callas, this can’t have been any great loss. Weeks passed and the teacher called me aside after class one afternoon. She shut the door, stared at me with terrifying intensity and mournfully told me I was giving her a nervous breakdown.

I have no idea if this broke the détente, nor would I condone a middle-aged teacher blaming a 15-year-old for her angst, but it seems to me now that most of the trouble at school was caused by adults in distress of some shape or form.

One nun who chased me around the school for wearing legwarmers – I was a repeat offender, I’m sorry to say – would probably have been a brilliant biologist in another realm. A second, who barked like a sergeant major at recalcitrants going up the down stairway had definitely missed her calling – and indeed later re-joined civilian life. In other words, many of those teachers had lost their way.

A friend refers to her convent boarding school as the gulag. Dead Poets Society, it clearly was not. ‘That was Ireland in the 80s, inspiration was in short supply,’ she says. She describes her school experience as being dragged through the system, and feels most of her teachers were disengaged. ‘What would you expect,’ she asks, ‘they were dragging themselves through their own lives.’

Another friend fared better and describes her private day school as fine with good teachers who were nice. ‘It was a posh, rich school, although no one had money in the 80s. No nuns, thank God,’ she says. ‘Anyone I know who had nuns was scarred for life.’ She feels sorry for the nuns, however, saying they were shunted off to the convent with scant regard for what they wanted in life. ‘At least priests were treated like royalty,’ she adds.

For the sake of gender balance, I poll a couple of fellows too. The first was bullied in a Catholic boy’s school before moving to an inter-denominational co-ed where he thrived. The second went to the Christian Brothers.

‘The 80s was an odd time,’ he says. His school had been founded in or around 1967 when free education was introduced in Ireland. As a result, lots of the brothers, Arts graduates, became teachers by default. ‘We had some psychos but plenty of decent people too. They made full use of threats and sarcasm to keep us in line.’

The Christian Brothers alumnus, while half-joking that he still has issues arising from his time at school, contends that they got some things right. ‘I don’t remember them expelling anyone. No matter what we did, they dealt with it there and then.’

He contrasts that with the situation today where anyone in breach of school policy – ‘whatever is the latest trend’ – gets kicked out. ‘A boy behaving in a sexist way towards a girl can be expelled. We’re talking 14-15 year olds. They’re kids, they don’t know which way is up.’ In the 80s, the school board was generally run by a religious order. They would mete out punishment as they saw fit. ‘These days, you’ll find parents on the board insisting on expulsion. It’s very black and white,’ he says.

As regards other changes, he feels peer bullying was less prevalent back then. ‘It was us versus the teachers, united in our misery. We were less likely to have a go at each other when the teachers were having a go at us,’ he says.

There’s probably no such thing as a typical 80s education – my own sister liked our school so much, she returned there to teach – but conversations on the subject tend to turn up common themes.

Most of us were champing at the bit to get out, and it was a lucky person whose exuberance wasn’t damped down. If Greta Thunberg could time travel, she would have her wings well and truly clipped. Whether or not it has had any long-term effects, possibly, but who can say.

As for John Boyne, I wish him well and hope he can block Terenure College on Twitter lest they get to him first.

Grace Garvey is a Communications and Content Marketing Strategist. Grace can be reached at ggarvey2021@gmail.com.

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21 thoughts on “An 80s Education

  1. bertie blenkinsop

    I may have told this before but…
    One of our teachers, pre Dunblane, walked into the classroom with a shotgun and two dead pheasants and said… “who’s next?!”

  2. george

    How does she know the rest of her cohort got through school without abuse? If abuse that happened in the 70s is coming to light now there may be further revelations in the future.

  3. Janet, dreams of an alternate universe

    I went to the nuns for secondary because I only won the half scholarship to St Patrick’s in town, my Mum bless her assumed I’d win the whole one and had no back up plan, she was driving past the nuns,.they were open doing a repaint and chanced her arm,
    so there I was the only proddy in a school of over 500 for five years, now it got me out of the bubble I had been brought up in to that point and most nuns meant well saying they pray for me and pressing little medals and cards with prayers to saints into my hands at every opportunity but a few were really put out and made sure I knew it.
    There was the hail mary at the start of every class every 40 minutes often led by a pupil in class, one teacher asked me to lead every class knowing I didn’t know it and could only resort to the lord’s prayer drawing attention and derision from classmates and embarrassing the crap out of me especially when I have the whole version the first time…
    I wasn’t allowed in religion class by the school, not my folks who saw no harm but was sent to the library, where all the unmanageable girls were sent out of lessons, the nun there made me stand at the top of the library and explain I wasn’t a catholic and that’s why I was there to everyone for five years…the auld bitch.
    Luckily I didn’t let it get to me, I spent my spare time squirting orange juice into holy water founts and putting mickies on the crucified..hey I was 13 but it was in the beginning scary.

    1. Janet, dreams of an alternate universe

      one poor wee nun I felt sorry for her when I explained I couldn’t condone false idolatry and she sent me home, I wasn’t being cheeky that’s what I’d been told

  4. bisted

    …I know people on here will find it hard to believe but I do have a reputation as being a bit of a curmudgeon…one of my friends maintains that I was so unpopular at school that I was the only one not abused by the christian brothers…

  5. Formerly Known As @ireland.com

    The stories ring true. I experienced lots of teachers and brothers who were miserable and took it out on us. If they had more life choices, they could have found a happier life. One old Christian Brother told us that he joined when he was 12.

  6. dav

    I recall Sister Xavier hitting us with either a wooded ruler – the one with the brass ends or a straight black piece of wood. To this day I recall myself and two others (can’t remember their names), on the last day of school, stealing those rulers and throwing into the field beside the school. I was 7.

      1. dav

        Nope, a Sister of Mercy. I think we did it because we were moving to the Boys School the following September. No hitting there, thankfully but it was the Pooling Centre so I recall the days off for the Divorce and Abortion Referendums that were held then..

  7. Andrew

    Primary school teacher regularly hit us with a tin whistle over the knuckles, I don’t remember anyone too traumatised by it.
    I went to an expensive all boys boarding school. There was some horrendous normalised bullying that changed people’s lives and there has been quite a few suicides as a result. Drug abuse and alcohol dependence would certainly not be unusual, some seriously mal-adjusted people. The abuse I saw was pupil on pupil. There was a kind of menace that was prevalent. The priests were actually alright for the most part, I am not aware of any sexual abuse by them that took place but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen
    I think a lot of the parents sent their boys there to get rid of them, me included

  8. lois

    my earliest memory of school ,i must have been in low babies class because i walked into the toilets that where just off the classroom,anyway,inside the toilets where two nuns one was holding down a boy with no underwear on and the other nun was smacking his bare arse.when they seen me standing there they told me to get out I’m 51 now and it still haunts me.

      1. V aka Frilly Keane

        Gawd I dunno, I doubt she was cancelled tbh
        A big big fan and barker for a certain someone one-time
        But in fairness, the gaff has changed so much anyway
        Maybe it’s of no interest anymore
        Zero opportunity for all that swashbuckling banter and laddish giddy swagger now
        It’s almost forbidden

        Btw, just took a look over that thread there again, since you mentioned that commenter, and trapped this,
        Which might read very differently now with the benefit of hindsight
        “What’s this girl’s game plan?
        Does she want to get into politics?
        Why are broadsheet pandering to this wan?
        Why should I follow this tosspot on twitter?
        Why, why why.. answer me questions.. also she better be media savvy.

        What I loved the most about that thread, reading it back now
        Was the unknowing – she he her his etc

        And also, whoever you are and wherever you are InPisces, pity you fell off the board and ‘sheet scene. I’m sure I would have appreciated you being around a while back there. In any event, I hope all’s well, and hope you’re leaving the ‘Sheet Scene was just you preferring Reddit or The Journal whatever, xV

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