Monday, 28 September 2020

Thank you, Mr. Sweetman!

 The Ireland I grew up in was a strange, beautiful, but often brutal place.

 

It had been seared by emigration. It was a rare person who left Wexford for the USA but many departed for Canada, and even more for Australia courtesy of a subsidized 5 pounds voyage to Sydney.

 

The majority took the boat to less glamorous England to toil in factories or construction.

 

Everyone believed in God, His Blessed Mother, and a dizzying array of saints.

 

There was little money; even the wealthy seemed somewhat strapped. We blamed this on the English though down south we’d had independence for 40 years.

 

Still colonialism had undoubtedly bequeathed us a national inferiority complex that wouldn’t begin to dissipate until the era of self-driven superstars the like of Bono and Roy Keane.

 

And what of beauty? That came courtesy of our families – mostly large and nourished by love. The little you had you were ready to share. You didn’t expect much else from the Land of de Valera.

 

To paraphrase Brendan Behan: getting drunk was not a crime it was an achievement.

 

By the time you were old enough to take a drink, however, you had already experienced the brutality of Irish life courtesy of our schools.

 

After three years in the relative safety of convent run nurseries you “made your First Communion” and were transferred to the tender mercies of the Irish Christian Brothers.

 

Some of these educators and their government trained lay teachers were decent thoughtful men though often overwhelmed with classes of up to 50 boys from all social strata. Others, to put it mildly, were mere steps away from sadism.

 

Corporal punishment was the norm and the thick leather strap, pointer stick, and even fists were not spared.

 

By the time one transferred to Secondary (High) School, after being confirmed in the Catholic faith, your trust in any kind of teacher was strained.

 

It was then at the age of 13 that I had the good fortune to spend some years taking English, History, and Geography with Mr. William Sweetman.

 

Wexford CBS was his first posting and I believe he had spent some years in a religious seminary, not unusual for a young man in those days; whatever, he seemed somewhat unworldly and not totally at ease among our class of hard-bitten, teenaged cynics.

 

When he hadn’t beaten or even threatened anyone in his first week we began to relax around him.

 

I was well read by then, visiting the County Library twice weekly to borrow books for my grandfather and myself.

 

Still I was thrilled to be reading Shakespeare for the first time and having Mr. Sweetman explain the obtuse parts of Henry IV, Part 1, this great story of a harried monarch and his dissolute son who would later become King Henry V, victor at Agincourt.

 

So many worlds began to open up as our teacher explained the historical background and what was happening concurrently in Ireland.

 

He also expounded on the importance of Shakespeare, the lyrical depth of his sonnets, and the many words he had added to the written English language. 

 

Through a rigorous study of his characters we discovered that Shakespeare had helped create and introduce the concept of the modern thinking man.

 

He read aloud to us the poetry and essays that were on our national curriculum, lamented that Yeats only merited one poem and that Joyce was considered too subversive for a Catholic education.

 

He also encouraged us to give our own unvarnished views on the subjects we were studying; in essence he taught us that our opinions mattered.

 

The day we graduated from his classes he took me aside and quietly encouraged me to read Graham Greene – a daring move in those repressive days, for Greene questioned everything including himself.

 

Years later when I came to write plays I already knew the basics from my two years immersion in Henry IV. And whenever I need to introduce a moral conundrum in a lyric or a novel, I have only to draw on Greene.

 

William Sweetman went on to write a number of fine books on the Wexford Rebellion of 1798 – a subject dear to his heart.

 

He passed away last year and I have much to thank him for.

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