In his semi-autobiographical novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, James Joyce (a former student at Clongowes Wood College where I am spending a six week experiment as a first year novice) describes how the story’s protagonist develops a fever after being pushed into an open cesspool by a bullying classmate. He is then confined to the school infirmary for a few weeks. A few days ago, with Joyce’s description in mind, I mounted the steps to the very same infirmary having come down with a severe cold. I was very interested to see that the infirmary has changed little since Joyce’s day. One could visualise the author lying in one of the cast-iron beds, pondering his status as an “outsider”. Happily for me, my ailment was not the result of an involuntary dip in a cesspool, nor was I required to linger in the infirmary after consulting the school nurse. Instead I could convalesce more comfortably in the Jesuit Community residence situated in the “Castle” part of the school complex.
Clongowes is a Jesuit-run boarding school in County Kildare, Ireland, My main role here is as a teacher of religion, but I’ve also found myself helping out with the school’s many extra-curricular activities – choir, debating, various sporting activities, giving talks as well as assisting with the liturgies. I’m also sometimes called on to supervise the students (boys aged 13-18), although I find this most challenging as I’m no natural disciplinarian!
Having absolutely no previous experience of teaching, I was somewhat apprehensive before my début class of first-years. My fears were allayed by the sheer enthusiasm of the lads, the constant stream of their questions and their receptiveness to new information. It’s exciting to think that I am introducing them to important new subjects and concepts. It’s quite a responsibility too. Another class I teach are older students, in their fifth year. They represent a “tougher audience” but when engaged, discussions can be brilliant.
You might say that there are two religions at Clongowes. If one is Catholicism, the other is certainly Rugby. Since I arrived the Clongowes’ Senior and Junior squads have enjoyed successive victories in the Leinster Schools Cup. When the school plays in a Cup Match, practically all of the school’s 450 pupils are bussed down to the Donnybrook Stadium in Dublin to support the team. The atmosphere is electric, fuelled by a series of match songs and chants which the whole school has rehearsed the evening before. Alas, if only participation in the other (official) religion was similarly animated!
It seems that there is a tradition here in Ireland that congregations do not sing: it’s certainly a challenge to engage the lads in the pews to sing at the Sunday school Mass. But that’s not to say they don’t pray. I’ve been genuinely moved by the depth of the spirituality of many of the students here. There is little doubt that the Jesuit presence here facilitates this – giving them access to the sacraments and being a very tangible reference point for the Ignatian way of life (even if we do live in a Castle).