Thrashing Times

Thrashing Times: The Long Life of the Jesuit Pandy Bat in Post-Joycean Ireland. Reminiscences and Ruminations of a “Beaten Wretch”

Talk at the Dept. of English, Vienna University, Bloomsday 2012

This is Clongowes College in County Kildare, the Jesuit boarding school founded in 1814. At the age of “half-past six” James Joyce entered the college in September 1888. Joyce junior was a good pupil, but despite his successful acclimatisation to the Jesuit regime, the most prominent incident of his sojourn in Clongowes described in his works is the “official” physical violence he was subjected to. I say “official”, because corporal punishment, finally banned in Irish schools just before the centenary of Joyce’s birth in 1982, was an accepted, if not universally condoned, intrinsic element in Irish educational establishments: the leather strap, the cane, the leg of a chair or even the fist. Physical punishment in Irish Jesuit schools, however, was controlled, part of a closed system with its own rituals, nomenclature and spiritual references. The pupils at Clongowes or in the other schools of the order (Mungret boarding school near Limerick, Gonzaga and Belevedere College in Dublin and the Sacred Heart College in Limerick) found themselves in an environment which was more internationalist than Irish-nationalist:

  1. Great emphasis was placed on the veneration of Jesuit martyrs – Aloysius Gonzaga from Spain, Stanislaus Kostka from Poland or John Berchmans from Belgium. In the 20thCentury further names were added: saintly Father John Sullivan of Belvedere, Willie Doyle, the brave Jesuit chaplain of the 16thIrish Division killed at Ypres in 1917 or Father Miguel Pro executed by the secularist Mexican regime in 1927.
  2. Whereas the preparatory (i.e. primary school) classes in Irish Jesuit schools were called after martyrs, the appellation for the six secondary years (one honours, one pass class) followed models of Early Modern Europe: elements, rudiments, grammar, syntax, poetry and rhetoric.
  3. All school work – “themes” in Jesuit parlance – had to carry the letters AMDG, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God”, the motto of the Order, on the first line.

The intensity and frequency of “officially” sanctioned punishment in Irish Jesuit schools depended on the character of its main dispenser – the Prefect of Studies. He was a kind of school manager, after the Rector the second man in the school hierarchy. Jesuit scholastics or ordained priests could punish very young boys during instruction but the Prefect of Studies was the “official executioner”. No lay teacher could lay hands on a pupil, at least in theory. The three-fold occasions for the application of physical were:

Case A. A transgression in class, usually on the basis of misconduct or bad homework, was the occasion for the issuing of a docket denoting the number of slaps with the leather on each hand and to be administered in the office of the Prefect of Studies.

Case B. When a boy was sent out of the class, usually for talking, and was unfortunate to be caught in the corridor by the Prefect of Studies on a tour of inspection.

Case C. The Prefect of Studies entered the classroom unannounced. He often punished boys who were in trouble on the day, or because they had bad marks on the basis of secret, internal mid-term reports.

Joyce’s memorable encounter with the pandy bat (“made of whalebone and leather with lead inside”) was of the last category, when the Prefect of Studies on a flying visit does not believe him when he says that he cannot write because his spectacles are broken. Joyce describes the searing pain of the slaps, apparently two, which is slight punishment by the standards of the day: the usual number was four or six, and beatings on the posterior were not unknown. It is important to note that Joyce and his fellows felt that justice had been violated because Joyce had broken his glasses and had been excused from writing in the classroom until a new pair of spectacles would arrive from Dublin. Young Jim then became a school hero when, at the urging of his fellows, he complained to the Rector, a kindly man who promised to enlighten Fr. Dolan, the wielder of the pandy bat.

John Joyce was a notorious spendthrift and drunkard, dissipating inherited wealth at an alarming rate. His financial decline curtailed the Clongowes schooling of son James, after only three years, in 1891. Joyce senior and his wife May were unhappy about the alternative, a Christian Brothers school where violence was rife and administered by uncouth men from rural Ireland. Mr Dedalus declaims in “Portrait”: “Christian Brothers be damned! Is it with Paddy Stink and Micky Mud? No, let him stick to the Jesuits in God’s name since he began with them.” Still, the Christian Brothers it was to be for Jim and brother Stannie, an unhappy episode not reflected on at any great length in the writings. We know that it was a chance encounter between Mr Joyce and Fr. Conmee of Belvedere that allowed the Joyce boys to change to the Jesuit day-school of Belvedere College free of charge. The Jesuits never forgot a brilliant pupil and they had hopes that James Aloysius Joyce might have a vocation in him. Joyce left school while still sixteen in 1898 and attended The Royal University in Stephen’s Green. He was an indifferent student who did his own reading and enjoyed debating with the Jesuits who were then still prominent members of the university staff.

Joyce’s attitude towards the Jesuits was ambivalent. In his own words, ”He spurned from before him the stale maxim of the Jesuits and he swore that they would never establish over him an ascendancy”. The foundation for his “Non Serviam” credo were laid in his teenage years when matching his wits in debates with Jesuits padres, with Eros emerging as the ultimate winner. On the other hand, Joyce later credited the Jesuits “for having developed his mind in an orderly direction”. He soon put his beating in Clongowes in a relative context: “During all the years he lived among them (Jesuits) in Clongowes and Belvedere he had received only two pandies and, thought these had been dealt him in the wrong, he knew that he had often escaped punishment. During all those years he had never heard from any of his masters a flippant word”. The Jesuits were therefore serious opponents, learned men, unlike the run-of-the-mill diocesan priests in Dublin.

The Irish writer Aidan Higgins attended Clongowes from 1942 to 1946. Here he is in younger days. He, too, was the offspring of an indolent father who was frittering away a fund of “ould money” (inherited wealth). Clongowes was a relief after the violent Christian Brothers and sadistic nuns in Celbridge village. Higgins’s hilarious recollections of war-time Clongowes contain familiar motifs: the pandy bat: “a spatula that imparted sudden deadening pain…administered by the Prefect of Studies, a notorious flogger of boys whose door was always threateningly wide open”; the three-day annual retreats; the penal docket book; and finally, his portrait of a ferocious priest, Father Jerry O’Beirne (Higgins misspells both names). The continuity from Joyce’s day is striking. This is where I come in.

I am sure that there are few people here who spent 11 years at the same school. Well, I did, from 1956 to 1967, at the Jesuit Sacred Heart College, vulgo Crescent College, in Limerick city. In Joyce’s childlike phrase I arrived at a quarter past seven AM and left at a three quarters to six PM. The Jesuits set up their school at the Crescent, in the salubrious part of Georgian Limerick, in 1859. My years there marked the end of an era in several respects. First, the school, which was fee-paying, entered the free education system, four years after my departure, in 1971, and admitted girls from 1974. It is now a comprehensive school but still upholds the Jesuit ethos. Physical punishment (“flogging”) stopped when the academy gave up its privileged status. Second, while being subjected to forms of punishment unchanged since the days of James Joyce or Aidan Higgins, my formative years in the Crescent were a time of great international upheaval in politics and culture. In intellectual terms, the Jays were hard put to uphold their hegemony in the age of the Beatles.

My encounters with the pandy bat were relatively few, for I was a good student and a pupil in the “honours” stream. Unfortunately perhaps, we young boys got used to beatings fairly quickly. We had no choice, the alternative being the Christian Brothers or the diocesan College St. Munchin’s where violence was more arbitrary and the educational value questionable. At the start of my Crescent years, the Prefect of Studies was the afore-mentioned Fr. O’Beirne, whose nickname, “The Razz”, had preceded him. He was an enthusiastic trasher of his charges, and his way of showing affection was to pull one up by the sideburns. O’Beirne had studied in Spain and he tried to impart to us the benefits of the fascist regime still reigning there. One beating stands out in my memory: a crusty old priest with bad health and known to kick altar-boys slow on the uptake during the early 6AM Mass, once caught me, literally, napping. It was a dreary winter day in Limerick, and I had nodded off in the fuggy atmosphere. Hardly awake, I was not being able to find the right line of Latin to translate and the good father made a disparaging remark about my chubby frame. My witty and obscene riposte had the class in convulsions and I refused to repeat it to the hard-of-hearing dodderer. I think I got six, three on each hand, for my loose tongue, but I reckoned it was worth it. In order to retain one’s standing among other beaten “wretches”, it was important not to cry out or whimper for mercy, but to return to class with the receipted docket and a swagger. Only then was one sure of a low hum of approval from the rows of desks. The intervening time between being slapped in the office of the Prefect of Studies and return to class was spent in the spacious basement toilets, waiting for the stinging pain to recede and sometimes consoling oneself with a quick cigarette.

The nemesis of Crescent boys in the mid-1960s was the redoubtable new Prefect of Studies, Fr. William Troddyn S.J. Coming up the stairs after break or lunch, one would see a long queue of unhappy boys outside his office. Then Troddyn swirled into view, his soutane a dirty grey from cigarette ash and white chalk. He always asked loudly, “Are you boys waiting to be flogged?” To our ears his superfluous query seemed more sadistic than “beaten”, “flogging” was reminiscent of the British Army or Royal Navy in the time of Queen Victoria. Despite my love of the school’s debating society, the plays or musical we performed or any charitable work we did, I slowly realised how intrusive the Jesuits were. We were supposed to be “young gentlemen”, so rugby was de rigeur, while soccer, much better suited to my small stature, was excoriated as the game for corner-boys, the despised working-classes. We were threatened repeatedly when caught playing soccer with a tennis-ball in the school-yard. Another long-term intrusion into our private lives was the rule “No Crescent boy is to be on the streets after 7PM”. In the early 1960s in the southern suburbs cars were few, and proper eleven-a-side street soccer was very popular once the evenings grew longer after Easter. On many occasions our contests were terminated by Jesuit spies on motorcycles. There was hell to pay the next day.

How did we survive it all, why did we not rebel, I am often asked by my wife or daughter, both Vienna-born and shocked by my stories of the Jesuit pandy bat. Answering these obvious questions is difficult for we constantly reconstruct our memory of incidents, trying to rationalise them. First, I knew that my parents would intervene if the beatings “got out of hand” as the saying has it. Second, I knew I was getting a relatively good education from people with an international perspective and that my parents were making a financial sacrifice by paying fees. The famous retreat sermon in “Portrait”, held over three days at Belvedere in November 1896, was replicated once for us, when we were roughly 13 or 14 years old, on one day only. The Sacred Heart Church in Limerick was closed for the duration, for it was strong stuff, truly terrifying. A third factor in helping me to survive the years at the Crescent was my background. Our family (two of my brothers followed me to the Crescent) was not the classical recruiting ground for the Jesuit school intake. We had no “ould money” at our back. My father was from East Cork, an ex-army officer whose heroes were people like the guerrilla leader Tom Barry, Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera and the legendary Cork hurler Christy Ring. The Limerick Jesuits, in the main, were supporters of the kind of Ireland which had gone down with the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1918. Like young Joyce, I, too, was fortunate in spending much time on trips with my father. From his own experience at school he disliked the Christian Brothers and he showed me another Ireland. That was south Munster, far from the mental stasis of rainy Limerick, with its obsession for rugby, operettas, and the Redemptorist sermonisers at their Confraternity. So when my schooling days ended in 1967 I was glad to be rid of the Jays and never looked back.

Only later did I discover Joyce’s writings. While at school, I had read my father’s copies of Graham Greene’s novels. That was presumably in order for a precocious Crescent boy, tales of brave and tragic whiskey priests or Catholics tormented by qualms of conscience in the torrid tropics. James Joyce, the most prominent Jesuit ex-pupil, was never mentioned at the Crescent. When he died in 1941, the Jesuits did not accord him the decency of an obituary in the magazine of Belvedere College. Encountering Joyce in my early twenties was a rewarding experience. His intellectual courage and rejection of narrow nationalism or puritanical Catholicism influenced my view of the world. As a kind of postscript I should mention the 40thanniversary class-reunion held two years ago in Limerick. Here we are in 1967, in collar and tie as prescribed School reunions are the classical stuff for a good play, with all that submerged mental jetsam resurfacing to provide for sharp turns in the plot. And it was dramatic, that evening in an outrageously pricey, design hotel on the docks of Limerick. We were like old soldiers showing off our battle scars, gravitating to our friends of yore and avoiding the “sucks” (teachers’ favourites). We relived past battles, punishment received at the hands of Troddyn and Co. Perhaps it was my mention of an extant docket-book with its Latin text and list of delinquents on the stub now exhibited in the Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick that initiated a discussion on the pandy bat. Our school tradition had it that it was soaked in vinegar each night in order to retain suppleness and it weighty middle part was due to the content of halfpennies sewn into the leather. It transpired that some in the Pass class had been at the receiving end of bouts of intense flogging: three victims received about 18 slaps each in the space of a forenoon in 1964. To my surprise the miscreants said that evening they had deserved it for turning up at school with more or less no homework done. An emotional argument ensued and it was obvious that some had never forgiven the Jesuits for their cruelty, especially of the verbal kind.

I was glad on the evening that my mental baggage was so light. As with Joyce, I had imbibed the persuasive atmosphere of the Jesuits, who, having received the child at seven, lost their hold on the boy growing to manhood.