Brother Thomas Monds by Feargal Sharkey

21st April 2017 at 00:00
The former lead singer of The Undertones delivers a powerful piece about a ‘remarkable man’ who led a school in a deprived area of County Derry

I went to the fine institution that is the Christian Brothers’ School, in Derry. Forgive me for being this philosophical, but Brother Monds taught me – among many other things – a seriously valuable lesson: “A book is a doorway to another person’s mind.”

Those words sent this probably slightly disengaged 11-year-old off on a lifetime mission to read anything and everything he could get his mitts on. If it was within arm’s length, I would read it and it is a fine tradition that I have carried on ever since.

If you work on the assumption that education should equip young people with the tools that they need to learn, so that they can go on to have successful lives - well, Brother Monds managed just fine.

He was the principal of St Peter’s – and he would be the replacement when my usual English teacher was absent. Brother Monds took one such class and I will never forget it. I rather foolishly decided to hand in an essay to him. It was rapidly returned the next day and scribbled on in large writing. “Mr Sharkey, I have no doubt that this is eloquent insight and an extraordinary piece of work, were I able to read it. My office after school.”

What followed was a long, painful period of weeks in which Brother Monds taught me how to write in script with an italic fountain pen. Something I still do to this day.

Bear in mind that the Bogside of Derry was an area of huge deprivation. Colossal unemployment. In 1854, the Christian Brothers, by invitation of the local bishop, came up with the decision that they did not have the resource to provide charity to the families living on top of each other in small cottages.

 

Tumultuous times

What they could do, however, was educate the kids, so that they could get out of there at the first opportunity. So they set up my school in 1854, and by the time I got there it was late 1960s, early 1970s: a time of enormous turmoil in Derry.

And, on reflection, it was an extraordinarily difficult situation for any structured organisation like a school. As such, discipline was demanded and respect was given.

It was never explicitly said but the subtext was that you were given a choice – you come to this school, you will have an eduction. You can freely cooperate with this idea, but if we have to discipline you into cooperation, that’s going to be just fine, too.

In the early days that meant the leather strap across the hand. But a lot of this style of discipline died out by the early to mid-1970s.

When I realised I was doing this interview, I dug out a book called The Brow, The Brothers and the Bogside: A History Of The Christian Brothers’ School, Derry, 1854-1990, by Brother John Ledwidge. I found this excerpt in which the author is describing the challenges of getting children to school in the area, in the early 1970s.

He quotes: “As Brother Monds wryly noted, Derry was probably unique in the excuses that were readily accepted for arriving late for school: “I had to wait for the shooting to stop.”

That was environment in which these teachers were trying to provide some structure. Trying to provide an environment where kids could have an education.

With hindsight and the remarkable gift that it is, these were remarkable men and women. I didn’t know that at the time, but I realise that now.

And Brother Monds, under those sort of circumstances, was perhaps the most remarkable. He had the ability to step back from all of the noise and the static and cacophony of what was going on, to rise above it all and find a solution that kept the school going, kept driving everyone forward.


Feargal Sharkey was talking to Tom Cullen. Feargal is the face of Salute Music Makers, a pioneering enterprise launching the next generation of unsigned musicians, with a £50,000 cash prize. See salutemusic.uk

 

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