In this memoir two sisters give an hilarious and poignant account of boarding school life in Ireland in the 1960s – echoes of the ever popular Mallory Towers perhaps, but this is a true tale of Irish education; and for once a happy enough education too.
The authors are both scientists. Valerie has a PhD from McGill, and spent most of her career as a research scientist with Agriculture Canada. Mary has a PhD from University College Dublin, and spent her career as a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin.
They spent their lives with students and now in retirement, look back on their own education at a Dublin boarding school run by the Loreto Nuns, The Abbey in Rathfarnham, Dublin, in the years 1959-65.
Like a million or so fellow pupils attending similar institutions throughout Ireland at the time there were many things they did not like at school but now when they look back they discover the treasures and understand the wisdom.
“We owe the teachers and students we met not just for an excellent education but for many other qualities that have served us well: discipline, efficiency, collegiality, responsibility, competitiveness”.
Their memoir is an interesting account and tribute to Irish education from a student perspective. It may not have been perfect but perhaps was the best available on the planet.
The things they hated are probably hated by anyone who plays for Manchester United today. They were made to run around the hockey pitch after breakfast each morning even in the snow (but not barefoot). The diet was not exactly five star but they realise now there was someone behind the scenes cooking for 300 mouths. Some nuns were angels; others had different gifts; but all had their role to play. “Our teachers were cultured women,” they recall.
These secular, reasonably liberated ladies were constantly taught that after school they could do anything, the world was at their feet, and they did. They were prepared for it. They had a principled, backbone education.
This “no material frills” education was made available by Irish women to Irish parents at an affordable cost. This happened long before governments got their act together in Ireland and in other countries.
Like so many other congregations, Loreto had 23 schools throughout the country, making quality education available to all and sundry. Through inter-schools sports the students came into contact with others girls from all parts of the country.
An international dimension was added, on the side, by news of similar networks of other Loreto schools in Calcutta, Mauritius, and Kenya. Irish women were leading the diaspora and having an impact.
The previous President of Sri Lanka, for instance, was educated by Irish Nuns. Orphanages in Burma during World War II were run by a Limerick lady.
Many prominent ladies in Kenya today were schooled at Loreto, including 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and patriot, Wangari Maathai.
In 2013 on the 50th anniversary of Kenya’s independence four awards were given to educational institutions, the Loreto sisters received one for their network of schools which includes the first school for African Girls in East Africa (started by an ex-Cumann na mBan activist).
One of the Irish pioneers was there, at 95, to receive it with her Kenyan protégé. It is an incredible story, but as yet unsung. Similar examples can be found all round the world.
You can detect these historic realities in the background of the memoir. There was an all-round education through music, drama, debating, and an encouragement to read.
Probably every Irish student at the time could tell similar stories, so this work has interesting historical significance. It is tribute to those other Irish women who made it possible, they are largely silent and unnamed.
One of the things the authors seem to be saying is that you cannot argue with quality and there was plenty of it. It is said that the “teacher is the curriculum”, and here there were committed women bursting with professionalism and centuries of experience giving their best to the next generation.
They have set the bar high for future educationalists and families and Ireland should always be in their debt. The authors imply that this is how cultures are preserved and civilisations are built.
Fr Conor Donnelly is an Irish priest working in Nairobi.