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Open Features: Sins Of The Fathers

Tim McCaffry tells of cruelty and compassion in an Irish classroom long ago.

The small Irish town where I grew up was a static place, still largely ruled by the tribal influences of the past while awaiting the coming of prosperity that would brighten the lives of the people who's spirits had been all but broken under the weight of crushing soul destroying poverty...except that is for the very young. For the young had not yet been tarnished by the grey world they were destined to live in and while parents were quick to wield the strap or bamboo cane, the pain was short and sharp and soon forgotten.

Teachers too were lovers of the cane and leather strap, but again most were reasonably fair minded and impartial when it came to dishing out the punishment and the episode was forgotten quickly by the recipients. However it has often been said that words can cut the deepest of all and the episode I am now going to relate is one that I have never, or ever will forgetm despite the passing of many decades.

Old Sam was our teacher at the time. He was around sixty years old but having been a champion athlete in his youth, he still carried his ageing six foot four frame with great grace and lightness of step, his broad shoulders showing not the slightest sign of drooping as he strode purposefully to school every morning. Old Sam was a reasonably popular teacher. He kept his cane sheathed until he had no choice but to use it but when he fetched it from the corner behind his desk mayhem almost always ensued.

When Sam had dealt with the original miscreant he ran up and down the classroom brandishing his cane like Errol Flynn and began cutting and slashing at every boy who came within his reach until it was a lucky boy indeed who went home that evening without a few painful red stripes on some part of his anatomy. Painful as this could be, we regarded this with a great deal of amusement. However our opinion of Old Sam was soon to change forever. Sam's forte was history and it was also our favorite subject. It was Sam's obsession with history that brought into our young lives an episode so upsetting that it stayed with us for the rest of our lives.

The history we learned and loved is no longer taught in schools and the heroes so beloved of generations of Irish school boys are now largely forgotten, the revisionists have had their way. One of our favorite stories was that of the great mythical warrior Chuculinn (the hound of Chulinn). Old Sam told this story many times and Chuculinn's story ended in a great battle where he fought a mighty army on his own after his men had deserted him. It was at this point that the great love that is ingrained in Irishmen for their history was so amply demonstrated. Chuculinn slew a great many of the enemy but they were too many and mortally wounded he kept himself upright by tying his cloak round a rock.

At this point Old Sam whispered as he told how Chuculinn's enemies inched forward still afraid to get too near to the great warrior. The eyes of a class full of boys began to moisten. A raven then landed on Chuculinn's shoulder and his enemies shouted " He's dead! the great one is dead!"

Silent tears then ran down our cheeks, pity for Chuculinn and hatred for those who had killed him. Sometimes Old Sam even shed a tear. This is what history meant to us in the days before the coming of television.

However another famous story became a source of horror for one unfortunate lad. In the battle of Clontarf near Dublin in 1041, the high king of Ireland Brian Boru defeated the Danes and broke their power in Ireland for ever. After the battle the old king was praying in his tent when a Dane named Broder somehow found a way in and slew Brian Boru. Naturally after this, the name Broder was reviled in Ireland for evermore and anyone whe was unfortunate enough to bear this name, perhaps someone from abroad quickly changed the name to Broderick or something similar.

Now it so happened that one day a teacher was out sick and his pupils were divided with a few being sent to each class. Old Sam took six and standing in line he asked each boy his name. They started, O'Sullivan, McCarthy, Walsh, Brosnan, and then came the bombshell..Broder! A stunned look came over Sams face, we were all stunned.

We weren't foolish enough to hold someone;s name against them but we knew Old Sam had stated countless times that the only good Broder was a dead one. so we held our breath as the room fell silent. Sam roared "Well my God a Broder in my class" "I never thought I'd see the day. The seed and breed of an assassin."

He then he made the boy stand on a desk and shouted "Look boys, look what we have here. The seed and breed of a dirty assassin."

Broder stood on the desk, his head bowed his hands joined as if in prayer. Sam made some more cutting remarks which we knew he thought were funny. We laughed. It was a false laugh for not to do so would have incurred his wrath. We were upset and ashamed.

Over the following few weeks Old Sam lost no opportunity to embarrass young Broder and it was a case of assassin do this and assassin do that. For myself I thought that the assassin was a pretty good nickname and I wouldn't have minded being called it myself.

Things took a very unexpected turn one wet Monday morning when Broder was late. Old Sam was in a foul mood and tore into the boy. Sam had his cane in his hand and he flexed it this way and that and swished it through the air like a sword. "Why are you late Broder?" he roared.

Broder replied in a sad weak voice "I had to milk the cows with my Mother sir."

"And where's your Father eh? In bed I suppose. Out all night stealing turf and God knows what else. Is that right Broder? Out all night stealing and in bed all day?''

The tears rolled down Broder's cheeks. "No sir. My Dad is in the sanitorium sir. He has TB.''

We all shuddered. At that time a TB epidemic was rife all over the country and before the year was out very few of the boys in our class would have remained unaffected by this terrible disease. I lost two uncles in their late twenties and my father spent two years in hospital only to emerge and remain a sickly man for the rest of his life.

What Broder said stunned Old Sam. He laid his cane on the desk and just stared at the little boy. I wonder what went through his mind. Perhaps he asked himself how he could have been so cruel to this innocent child. Guilt and pity were written all over his face. He took his hanky from his top pocket and gave it to Broder to dry his tears.

Then taking the boy by the hand he led him out through the door of the classroom and into the yard where they walked slowly round for ten minutes or so. Sam held Broder's hand the whole time. We never found out what was said.

From that day on Old Sam never passed a remark about young Broder and constantly inquired about the health of his Father. How his Father fared I have no idea as Broder.s teacher returned and I never spoke to him again until over thirty years later.

The minute I saw him I recognized him although when I spoke he had no recollection of who I was. He hadn't changed much facially but one thing had certainly changed. He was no longer called Broder. His name was now Broderick!


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