Christian Brothers

Christian Brothers

In Brief

In Lestrygonians Bloom sees "a christian brother" buying sweets for his young students ("Some school treat"), and in Wandering Rocks some "Christian brother boys" are seen leaving a school in North Richmond Street in the afternoon, a scene anticipated in Araby. The parents of Stephen Dedalus disparage the Christian Brothers in A Portrait of the Artist as they try to get their son out of this school and into the nearby Belvedere College run by the more intellectually challenging, socially prestigious, and economically advantageous Jesuits.

Read More

The Congregation of Christian Brothers is a lay teaching order founded by Waterford merchant Edmund Rice in 1802 to promote the education of poor Catholic boys excluded by the 18th century penal laws. Although the name suggests a clerical order of monks or friars, the Christian Brothers are laymen who, in place of the monk's vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, take temporary vows of chastity, poverty, and "perseverance." Public contributions have always supported their schools, which keep rates low to make education affordable. The order has built schools all over Ireland, as well as many in England, Australia, India, and the Americas. There are three in Dublin, including the establishments on Synge Street and Westland Row that Flann O'Brien mocked uproariously in The Hard Life. The school on North Richmond Street is named for Daniel O'Connell, who seems to have played a role in its founding in 1828. Locally, it has long been called "the working man's Belvedere."

The O'Connell School figures in Joyce's fictions because his family lived nearby in the early 1890s and he briefly attended it. Araby begins, "North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free." Wandering Rocks dramatizes just such a scene: "Father Conmee turned the corner and walked along the North Circular road. . . . A band of satchelled schoolboys crossed from Richmond street. All raised untidy caps. Father Conmee greeted them more than once benignly. Christian brother boys." Joyce himself was one of those boys for several months starting in January 1893, after he finished his studies at Clongowes Wood College.

John Conmee had been the rector at Clongowes, and he was now Prefect of Studies at Belvedere. One day in early 1893 John Joyce crossed paths with Conmee on Mountjoy Square, told him about the boy who had made a favorable impression on him at Clongowes, and asked him to admit James to Belvedere College free of charges, as Belvedere did for about a quarter of its students. Joyce included the event in A Portrait:

     —I walked bang into him, said Mr Dedalus for the fourth time, just at the corner of the square.
     —Then, I suppose, said Mrs Dedalus, he will be able to arrange it. I mean about Belvedere.
     —Of course he will, said Mr Dedalus. Don't I tell you he's provincial of the order now?    
     —I never liked the idea of sending him to the christian brothers myself, says Mrs. Dedalus.
     —Christian brothers be damned! said Mr Dedalus. Is it with Paddy Stink and Micky Mud? No, let him stick to the jesuits in God's name since he began with them. They'll be of service to him in after years. Those are the fellows that can get you a position.
     —And they're a very rich order, aren't they, Simon?
     —Rather. They live well, I tell you. You saw their table at Clongowes. Fed up, by God, like gamecocks.

John Joyce's snobbishness about a Jesuit education, which must have kept uneasy company with his indigence, communicated itself to his son, whose fictions do not represent the fact that he briefly endured the indignity of a Christian Brothers education. Gordon Bowker's biography notes that he told Herbert Gorman he had never attended their school (43).

Christian Brothers schools have long been known for harsh rote learning enforced by harsh discipline. Their noble social aims notwithstanding, lack of "obedience" to church authorities or answerability to civic ones encouraged many of them, especially industrial schools like the one at Artane, to condone savage beatings of children (despite Rice's forward-thinking prohibition of corporal punishment), and to overlook rampant sexual abuse. Their reputation is now fatally blackened, along with other Irish Catholic institutions like orphanages and laundries, but the Christian Brothers were a shaping force in Irish society for two centuries, offering primary and secondary education to children who might not otherwise have succeeded economically. Until the scandals broke they ensured their continuing centrality in 20th century culture by fostering several generations of nationalist Catholic leaders.

The pandybat scene in part 1 of A Portrait shows that even Jesuit schools were not free of cruel and unjust punishments, and An Encounter suggests that the public "National Schools," which mostly trained students for the workplace, may have rivaled the Christian Brothers for violent abuse. The boy who narrates the story is asked by a strange man about his friend, "did he get whipped often at school. I was going to reply indignantly that we were not National School boys to be whipped, as he called it." The seductive opportunity that sadists and pederasts discover in holding power over young schoolboys is vividly evoked in the horrifying sentences that follow, as the stranger begins "to speak on the subject of chastising boys."

JH 2020
The Christian Brothers' school (left side of the street) on North Richmond Street, seen from the North Circular Road in a 2019 photograph. Source: John Hunt.
The Christian Brothers' school on Synge Street in a photograph of unknown date. Source:
Photograph from the second half of the 19th century of three Irishmen (Dominic Fursey Bodkin, Patrick Ambrose Treacy, and John Barnabas Lynch) who brought the Christian Brothers order to Australia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait, date unknown, of Edmund Ignatius Rice. Source: