Education is exciting, but probably better to leave the Minister at home

Week III

Ms Avril Forrest took her first religion class in the Jes when the school chaplain Fr Derek Cassidy was on sick leave. Famine in Africa, and how the West should respond, was the issue of the day. The class unanimously insisted that the Vatican should sell all its assets, and give the money to relieve world hunger.

There was no debate until Ms Forrest began to point out that the Vatican wealth does not belong to the Pope, but to all Catholics. It existed to inspire belief in the Kingdom of God, and had been collected over the centuries. If it was sold off it would raise a few billion dollars, but that would soon be gone, and then all that treasure, the great artistic witnesses to the church expressed in paintings, frescoes, sculpture, buildings, etc, gathered over 2,000 years, would have been lost....

It was a valiant defence. The class was impressed. But if the truth be known Ms Avril Forrest, the wife of the then respected rector of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, was a Protestant, thrown into the deep end of religious teaching in the oldest Catholic school in the city. When the principal, Fr Greene, asked her to take senior classes for religion Ms Forrest protested that she knew nothing of Catholic doctrine, Fr Green waved his hand: “Tell them about the Church of Ireland; call it Ecumenical Studies.” Which is what Ms Forrest did, and it proved to be one of the most stimulating classes of the week for debate and interest.

In fact there is a stream of Church of Ireland children at the Jes. The popular notion that Protestant families are all wealthy, and could easily afford to send their children to Protestant boarding schools is far from the truth. St Nicholas’ primary school leavers had no entitlement to a place in any Galway secondary school. In the 1980s and 90s, as the population of the city expanded rapidly, all schools were under pressure. Understandably they gave preference to Catholic children. That is now changing due to the recent influx of new immigrant families, but in Ms Forrests’ time the Jes traditionally accepted Protestant children into its school, and made a place in its curriculum for their own religious instruction. Ms Forrest writes that many Protestant children ‘ found not only a place, but a welcome, and full inclusion into school life. At least one Church of Ireland parish rector can testify to that; and claim Coláiste Iognáid as his alma mater.’

The good shepherd

One of the best known faces of the Jesuits inside and outside school, was the late Brother Michael Crowe. The school library is named after him, as this was his domain. Ms Forrest writes that Br Crowe was a gentle unassuming man. ‘Every morning before school, he cycled to Salthill for a swim, and arrived back fresh and clear-headed for the day, a state not always achieved by the rest of the staff. He called for silence in the library while waving his hands in the air, a gesture some of the boys could imitate perfectly behind his back, more in affection than in mockery.’

A former student Margaret Duggan writes: ‘He was like the good shepherd. He knew every book in the room. We students were his flock who benefited most from his work. With his passing I began to grasp that the school is more than an establishment - It is a community, and people like Br Crowe made it special.’

‘The whole person’

I am taking this from a new book celebrating 150 years of the Jesuits in Galway. ** In fact the Jesuits were here since the beginning of the 17th century, but in the centuries that followed they came and went according to the political climate of the day. The Jesuits wisely slipped away after Cromwell’s troops occupied the town in 1651. Barely 40 years later, immediately following the Battle of Aughrim, King William’s army arrived exhausted and vengeful, and occupied the town. Their ships were anchored in the bay. The Penal Laws followed. The Jesuits again disappeared.

But after each political turmoil, however, they returned, always ensuring that the members who spoke the native Irish language were best suited for Galway. There is an affecting momento of these times in the shape of a silver chalice used by a Fr John Birmingham in 1620 now in the possession of the Jesuits in Gaway. It was probably used at public Mass in difficult times.

The Jesuits disappeared again when the Order was suppressed by Pope Clement XVI in 1773; but the present celebration, and the book, marks the opening of the college at Sea Road in 1859. It is an imposing cut stone building, which has been extensively modernised recently. The fine spire of its close-by church is one of the landmarks of the city. The school was originally all-boys, and education was through Irish, reflecting the aspirations of the emerging Irish State; but now it is co-educational, with an Irish stream, perhaps reflecting a more suitable environment for students to develop interpersonal social skills.

Interestingly the school principal, Ms Mary Joyce, defines the Jesuit ethos as offering ‘power and a purpose’ to students as they journey to adulthood. “ My role is to contribute to the formation of the ‘whole person’. By recognising that responsibility we are telling our students that the whole person matters to us - the intellect, the spirit, the sporting achievements, the debating and drama skills, and the creativity; to name but a few.”

I know we have very fine secondary schools in Galway. If I had a wish I would like to hear more about educating young Ireland at the Easter teacher conferences rather than the interminable rows that get all the publicity. What are the challenges teaching children with special needs? How are our new emigrants settling in? Are our examinations fit for purpose? Does sport matter? Are our universities getting away with it?

Teachers have a story to tell. I believe teachers want to tell their stories. We all have a stake in education. Let’s hear them, and may I suggest, for Heaven’s sake, leave the Minister at home!

NOTES: Avril and her husband, the Rev Leslie Forrest, arrived in Galway in 1980 when he was appointed rector of St Nicholas’ Collegiate church. They left in 1995 when he was appointed Dean of Ferns. He retired in 2011.

Avril continued teaching in a large secondary school in Co Wexford. One day there was a discussion in the staff room on ‘famous people I have taught’. One teacher said: ‘Sonia O’Sullivan’. Another:‘ Graham Norton’. Avril aimed her announcement at the men’s corner: ‘ I taught Eric Ellwood’, she proudly said.

** The Jes - 150 years of the Jesuits in Galway, compiled by Tom Kenny, lavishly illustrated, wonderful articles and memories, on sale at all bookshops, €30.


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