A Dublin immortal institution:
At the end of October last year, I moved back to the house I first lived in. The re-location was all to do with starting the college phase of my life and, in the way of the Irish Mammy, an extended family dinner was arranged to celebrate the occasion and send me on my way with a full belly and an abundance of good wishes and warnings.
Over the vegetable soup my Uncle Derek remarked on the proximity of my new quarters to his old alma mater. I smiled when responding with a tongue in cheek question as to what school was like in the last century. Derek waited for the whoops of derision to die down before regaling with stories and colourful facts of a nineteen seventies Christian Brother education.
The eulogy was funny but the passion behind it very real. Such passion was given further credibility through testimonials from my Mum’s other brothers and references to my granddad and his brothers and their families. Three generations all influenced and prepared for life. The impression given was the sense of privilege they had in attending Synger.
It got me wondering. It got me browsing through websites to find out more. It got me standing outside its gates on a cold afternoon trying to conjure up images of my uncles, and granddad as schoolboys. It got me wondering how it all came about.
It started with a Kilkenny man called Edmund Rice, a successful Catholic merchant in Eighteenth century Ireland. Life and circumstances changed for Edmund when his pregnant wife was thrown from a horse. She died and the baby was born severely handicapped. The tragedy changed Edmund causing him to turn to God and seek a vocation. He found it in opposing the penal laws of the time and establishing an environment to educate the Catholic poor. This vocation grew to become the largest body of lay religious educators in the world.
Synge Street opened its’ doors in 1864, thirty years after the death of Edmund Rice. It was the first such establishment in South Dublin and its high standards of free education appealed to working and lower middle class families in the city and neighbouring counties.
From what I could find out the school took a while to find its feet during the tumultuous years of Ireland pushing itself from being an empirical colony into an independent country.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Synger grew as serious seat of primary and secondary education. It’s reputation by the end of the nineteen sixties was that of a school with past pupils of the calibre of Gay Byrne and a host of other high profile entertainers, several cabinet TD’s, a President of Ireland, successful sportsmen, a plethora of writers and artists.
The social changes that racked Ireland in the nineteen seventies had a detrimental effect on Synger and the Christian Brother movement in general. Vocations were down and the staunch Catholic ethos of Rice and his band of brothers was being challenged.
The nineteen eighties and nineties saw the school slowly fall into mediocrity with pupil numbers low and a noticeable reduction of achievement in academia, sports and high level performance. This proud school was waning and in danger of becoming redundant.
I rang my uncle and asked if he knew what had happened to bring about this fall from grace. He gave it some thought before saying the school and the Christian Brothers didn’t move with the times:
‘They tried to maintain a status quo in education and teaching method that had become outdated and of little interest to a country and its people that was waking up to the fact there were very real alternatives to the very disciplined Christian lifestyle imposed on them. A new freedom became available and with it a new way of thinking and behaving. The school just didn’t see it till it was nearly too late’
The century and millennium ended with Synge Street being metaphorically on its knees. The religious of Ireland were being castigated in the media and public opinion for diabolical behaviour and practices. Synger didn’t escape the criticism. A series of leaders came and went with little or no discernible improvement to the school’s prospects. It looked as if it would take a miracle or a messiah to transform its fortunes.
Michael Minnock would not describe himself as a messiah or a miracle man. However there are many who would argue that his appointment as principal in 2005 was the turning point in bringing the school back to something of its former glory.
He emphasised the need for ambition as an important factor in educating young minds. He produced a clear and concise plan to achieve this. He took all the good things from the past and removed all that was wrong. He married the old with the new while maintaining the basic ethos of Edmund Rice.
Settling for foundation level subjects had become the norm for students before Michael became principal. He immediately began his tenure by encouraging pupils to take higher level subjects. In a relatively short period this led to a higher percentage of students leaving school and going on to third level courses. , (56% to university or institutes and 21% to further education during the ten years of his administration).
Awards in many field of academia have followed, most notably i the winning of the Young Scientist of the Year Award for an unprecedented three times. The promotion of soccer alongside the traditional Gaelic games has seen the school, (in association with Templelogue), begin to reach the heights it had once deemed normal.
The road to recovery has been well and truly established.
In typical Irish planning fashion it sits on a sleepy leafy street next to a church. The street is named after a romantic yet cynical playwright, an early rebel of conscience. The buildings that comprise it span too many architectural periods for it to command any sense of structural beauty. It has produced thousands of graduates and influenced millions of people. It is a testament to the will of many.
I’d be fairly safe it stating, with absolute certainty, that Synge Street Christian Brothers School is a Dublin institution. Long may it survive and flourish.