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Programmes like Derry Girls paint an idealised picture of Catholic education ... for me, the truth was much darker

Channel Four's hit comedy series is a happy-go-lucky look at schooling in the 1990s. But, in the wake of the Malachy Finnegan and Seamus Reid revelations, former pupils are now breaking their silence on a culture of bullying - and worse, writes Paul Breen

Speaking out: Siobhan McSweeney as Sister Michael in Derry Girls
Speaking out: Siobhan McSweeney as Sister Michael in Derry Girls
Malachy Finnegan

Schools should be safe spaces, sanctuaries of learning that make sure we grow from children into healthy adults. The memory of them should conjure up thoughts of Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, Stephen Hawking, Ada Lovelace and inspirational figures from history, such as the suffragettes. Maybe, from history, too, you've the odd dark figure, whether it's Hitler, Stalin, or stories of Thierry Henry in more modern times from your PE teacher on rainy days in the dressing room.

Sadly, for me and many of my generation, it's not just the classic baddies of world history who darken our school memories. It's scenes, such as school principals dressed in black, parading the corridors like Gene Hackman facing down Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.

Such men talked a great deal about forgiveness, Christian values, the goodness of God and the gentle heart of Jesus. But there was nothing Christian about so many of their actions.

In one breath, they spoke of God. The next, they called boys up on stage in assembly halls and belted them, often for nothing more than minor acts of defiance, or the breaking of petty rules. More often than not, it was simply to assert their egotistical authority.

Throughout my own school years, I saw these things happening and other forms of abuse, too, more psychological and emotional. Catholic school principals, like the paedophile Malachy Finnegan, had the power to make, break and shape childrens' lives whatever way they desired. Their training was religious and not pedagogic. However, they would argue that this is just the way things were back then. These men, who studied for seven or eight years, just "didn't know any better".

But that argument doesn't stand up in the light of day. These actions were still happening in Catholic schools right up until the early-1990s, the era portrayed so brilliantly in Lisa McGee's excellent Derry Girls comedy for Channel Four.

Just like the now-infamous Erin, Orla, Clare and Michelle, during my time at school we got on with our lives as best we could against a backdrop of troubled times. We read the Adrian Mole series, we watched Australian soap operas and some of us enjoyed Liverpool's dominance of English football.

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We passed through Army checkpoints to go dancing across the border and waited for the day when Ulster GAA teams would be equals in the All-Ireland.

But there was one marked difference between the Derry Girls' experiences and those of many teenagers passing through the Catholic education system. In Derry Girls, the school principal, Sister Michael, played by Siobhan McSweeney, exudes such wit and wisdom that you'd almost want to be back at school again, doing bad things just to get visiting her office for the sake of the latest wisecrack.

Unfortunately, far too often the real Sister Michaels and Father Malachys of this world presided over a horrible and abusive culture shaped from the top down, within which there was no outlet for speaking up against injustices. Students could get punished, expelled, suspended, or whatever, and there was nobody to protect them.

Though only a minority of priests ever did anything wrong, too few of their colleagues ever spoke out against the rottenness going on around them. That's the hardest aspect to forgive: when good people do nothing.

This week, we have heard a great deal about the brave stance taken by Clem Leneghan, a former pupil of St Colman's College in Newry, and his sister, former Irish President Mary McAleese, in calling for those with knowledge of abuse to come out and publicly admit it. But, at the same time, I imagine there are many people in Catholic schools who wish the former President would just shut up. This is because there seems to have been been no genuine shift in thinking on the part of the Catholic authorities.

Though many of the actions carried out in previous decades were not crimes in the legal sense, they were morally reprehensible. Anyone involved in them should have no part in today's system. Yet, very often, some of the key perpetrators are simply moved around into new positions, away from the frontline.

As a result of this happening, an impression is given that these people have not accepted that they did anything wrong and can simply forget about the past. But the victims of their bullying do not - and cannot.

There are some though who would say that, by speaking out, we are letting the side down. But in front of whom, exactly? This has nothing to do with politics, for example. It's because of a desire to see a better Ireland, in the future, that many people are choosing to speak out.

In some ways, too, it is helping community relations, because it is showing that we don't have to live in the environment so aptly described by Seamus Heaney as one of "whatever you say, say nothing".

Secondly, being Irish - even being a good Catholic - doesn't mean excusing the wrongs of the past. Why protect the bad elements of Catholic schooling at the expense of the good?

When I went to school, we had some fantastic teachers across a broad range of subjects, from English and History to Science and Maths.

Some of them were disciplinarians and I don't condemn them for using the strap sometimes, as was a common practice in those days. There was nothing rotten about them doing that in circumstances they didn't enjoy. Some former students would even say they benefitted from the strap.

The problem, though, is that this gave rise to a culture in which bullies and even psychopaths often rose to the highest of positions. This is what happened in the Malachy Finnegan case, it seems, and happened across many Catholic grammar schools, though to a lesser, non-sexual extent.

Thankfully, though, enough of us have been well-enough educated to write and voice the truth about the wrongs of the past.

And, yes, there is an irony in that our ability to do so is partly down to the excellence of the teaching we got within the Catholic education system.

But we could have got that teaching and that enlightenment without any of the bullying, the psychological abuse, the threatening environment and the enforcement of petty rules that was such a feature of Catholic education.

There were many good priests - great priests, even - who could have played a vital role in educating the young, but probably stayed away from such a toxic environment of teaching back in those days.

Surely, we could have been educated in a Sister Michael kind of environment, if the will had been there to face down bullies, who paraded corridors, swinging straps in one hand and a Bible in the other.

On a grand scale, there were few, but too many too high up in power. They must never be allowed, through our silence, to rise again.

Surely, the Catholic education system needs to demonstrate and articulate that it has learned from the mistakes of the past?

Dr Paul Breen is senior lecturer in Academic English at Westminster Professional Language Centre, University of Westminster

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