Monday, 11 April 2011

An Irish Dominican nun that was intensely disliked and feared

                                                      RIP

Today is the anniversary of the death of Sister M Catherine Walsh OP, Headteacher, for many years of St James' Secondary School, Burnt Oak, London.
Known to both staff and pupils (behind her back) as 'Kate' she cut an extraordinary figure. Around five feet tall she was almost as rotund, her face resembled flayed pink leather and her mouth was a gash akin to a pillar box slit. I am being descriptive here, not gratuitously insulting.

In her time Kate reduced many teachers,  secular males and females, as well as sister nuns, to tears. She was a ferocious adversary and she was adversarial in all of her dealings. St James' School was unusual inasmuch that it was Secondary but had an academic record better than most Grammar schools. This was down largely to Kate's practice of cramming. Pupils started GCE (as they then were) studies at 13 and took the exams at the age of 14. The next year they took A Levels and sat exams within a 12 month period. Any exams failed were sat again the following year. Not a good base for learning but an excellent one for passing exams.

Kate was never seen without a large rubber strap that dangled from her leather belt for all the world in the fashion of a gunslinger. She used it generously on anyone who transgressed her code of discipline. The school was a mixed sex one but boys and girls were taught separately and had different break periods so no contact between the two was ever made within the school boundaries.
She was afraid of no person be they Bishops, Local Education Directors or Teddy Boys (yes, there were still a few of those around in the late fifties). A gang of them invaded the school playground one day and were trying to kiss the girls. Kate strode out to them and jutting out her Desperate Dan type chin uttered the immortal words: "If you want to kiss anyone, kiss me!" They melted away.

On one occasion two delinquent pupils tried to hang a boy in the lavatories (the last man to be hanged in Britian, James Hanratty, was also an ex pupil). They were under suspicion of the act but would not own up to it. Kate mustered the whole of the boys section in the Hall and made all of us kneel (until someone would inform). No one ever did, the fear of being dealt with as an informer was far greater than kneeling on a hard floor for several hours.

She had little concept of justice and would mete out punishment on a totally random basis. On the occasion of a tube strike I did not arrive at school until 11.15am (I had a one and a half hour journey on normal days, this day it had taken me over 3.5 hours to get to school). I was unfortunate enough to be caught by Kate as I arrived late and was expelled on the spot. Several days later and after several letters and phone calls from my Father to the school I was reluctantly re-admitted.

I have tried to make this post as charitable as possible but it has to be said that I know of many ex pupils who have experienced considerable behavioural problems as a result of the harsh and uncompromising methods employed at the school.

In her defence the school was in a rough area (at the time) and Catholic Schools were penalised more in funding terms than they are today. She fought her corner for the school and won new technology and resources purely because she of her harridan like style of doing business.

She was professed on 23rd October 1915 and died on 11th April 1984.

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.
 May she rest in peace. Amen.

46 comments:

  1. And then there's the other extreme that I am more familiar with. The modernist nun in cardigan and trousers. The slightly trendy priest who never preaches the actual Gospel,less it offends/upsets etc. The general "We're all cool and alright,let's recycle more, and give to CAFOD fluffiness" Only thing the same is the cramming for exams,as good results keep people happy.

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  2. Quite an insight! Makes us look back at our own school days and not always with affection. Thank goodness those days have gone. Today however, we are far too lenient. Sadly, the importance of good manners and punctuality has waned. People no longer cherish truth, honesty, loyalty or any of those fine qualities that made us better people. Finding the middle ground is increasingly difficult in education. I have the utmost respect for today's teachers, it cannot be an easy task!

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  3. I spent all my primary and secondary educational years first at the Annunciation and then at St James School leaving in 1958 at 18 to go to University. Sister Catherine was the Head Teacher for all my years at St Jamess. I therefore had first hand knowledge for the maximum time of Sister Catherine's teaching methods. She was a great Headmistress, she provided me with an educational base which has lasted throughout my career not only academically but also with a discipline for which I am grateful. I never witnessed nor did I hear about any of the incidents which have been alleged. References to a life time of behavioral problems as a result of the school has no basis. It was a great school and instead of deriding we should be thankful for the work the Dominican Sisters put into educating young people in North London.

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  4. Anon - I speak from personal experience and from statements made by many past pupils.
    I am not deriding, merely passing comment on fact.

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    1. I was also at this school in the mid to late sixties. What Richard Collins describes is exact and I am still in contact with other pupils of the school. We are all under the same impression and have countless experiences to tell.
      Saludos,
      Nina G.

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  5. 'graduation' from st jaymz = escape from stalag 999 - the colditz of norf lundun

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  6. Sadly what was said about Kate by Richard rings true to me. I was at the school for her last 2 years and she was too old and ineffective and largely ignored in that time.

    Her cramming style for exams was her legacy and St James was the first non Grammar school for a decade to offer GCE's. So the only History we ever knew was 1066 to 1485 but so what as just about everyone had an O Level in it.

    The downside was her style may have encouraged many teachers at the school to have naff all respect for the children of ratepayers who paid their salary.

    We were there for education and were not as it seemed as part of the penal system.

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  7. Just seen a photo of her,and my i cringed everytime i saw her at the school gate. i remember she made the girls run up and down the school playground in front of the boys classroom windows. also the school inspection when we had to pick up every leaf in the school playground. she scared me to death.also st thomas's school marsh lane stanmore, having to wear white plymsols all day because of their precious floor. people getting hit over the head with the bible and pencils being thrown at them. some people got their heads banged against the wall because they went on the school field, and if you were left handed you were made to write with your right hand like you were the devil, still all in all i did make good friends

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  8. Yes, this is how it was, but common place in schools right across the UK and Ireland at the time. I was strapped on a regular basis whilst at St James, usually I did deserve it. It was a harsh environment. But I also remember the love and care of the nuns. I remember a boy in my class, SH whose dad died and he worked from 6.00am until 10.00am every day to bring a little extra cash into the home. A blind eye was turned to his late arrival and he still left school with 8 O levels. I remember C pregnant at fifteen. The nuns schooled her privately in the convent, she went on to University. I remember a thug P. Who rather than being expelled and allowed to harass the local area was made to assist Mat the caretaker. Teaching him some disciplines and transferable work skills. I remember a girl J who got four grade A A levels and went to Oxford. She did so right for many, Kate and Veronica who followed her fought for each of us, I thank God for what they gave me. Donnchadh

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  9. Thanks Donnchadh. I was suspended by Kate for being late once when there was a train strike and, anyway, I normally had a 1.5 hour journey to school. I was there from c. 1958 to 1961.

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  10. I think that this is an accurate description of 'Kate' - I think that I learn to bulldoze
    from her! (Keep right onto the end of the road).
    I went to St. James from about '59 to '61, when my father died in 1960, Kate came
    storming into my class and said 'where's the girl whose father died?' I nearly did too!
    Subtle, she was not.
    There were some wonderful teachers there, Sisters Paul & Veronica were stand-outs.
    Also, Sister Rosemary. Very clever women, who gave me a life-long passion for history, literature and science. As footballers often say, 'all credit to them' and RIP.

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  11. I think this description is far too kind, yes there where some kind and very caring nuns there were also some thick nasty violent nuns and teachers who would today be call child abusers. I did not fall into the little angel category, been beaten for the crime of possessing cigarettes by a teacher who was smoking is an example of hypocrisy that has stayed with me till this day.

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  12. i was at st thomas and then st james and left 1969.
    I remember at st thomas's being strapped by a teacher for every french word i could not remember.I refused the strap after two hits and had to see the teacher after.This was a repressive school and like a lot of people i hated it there.

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  13. I was at The Annuciation, St Thomas`s and St James`s between 1967-1977 and met many fantastic nuns and teachers that gave me a great start i life. There were many times when among others Sister Veronica,Mr Enright or Mr McSharry gave me a hard time,but I suppose I probably deserved it.I Always Think fondly of Sr Francesca in the Annunciation and Sr Celestine in St Thomas`s. Anyway I think I would rather have that type of schooling than todays even if I thought it was not so good then. Would love to get in touch with past pupils to reminisce. Colin

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    1. Colin,I was so pleased to read your comments after reading all the others the other remarks made me feel I must have been a "goody two shoes"but I know I wasn't.I was always being told not to keep talking in class and often got told off and even the strap.One time,I cannot remember what for but I had to stand outside Sr.Katherines office waiting for my doom.I tried to look really casual about it and made out it didn't bother but my knees were knocking.Sr.Katherines made me wait out there for a long time ,so everyone could see me there,finally she called me in the office and said" are you ashamed for your behaviour" and I said "yes" and she just said"go",I know she was strict but most of the nuns I found really kind and I loved it there.

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    2. I went to school there from 1966 to 72 did not see any of the above, found it a good school, never have the strap and cannot understand whey the bad vibes.

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    3. Colin , I thought I'd posted this message to you already. Apologies if I have but I can't find it now! I think I was at the Annunciation and St. James's at the same time as you? Did you leave in 77 to go back to Ireland with your family? Monaghan? Maria Cleary

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  14. Colin, I left in 1961 and remember Sister Veronica, Sisters Rose,James, Paul, Imelda and Melody.And, Kate, of course.

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  15. It saddens me to hear comments from past Alumni of St James' to say that that they had a hard time, deserved a strapping, I was not good then. Strapped on a regular basis, but I deserved it,we were part of the educational system, not the penal system.' While I applaud anonymous of June and all the positive accolades she can name in her time at St James', I feel that the negative experiences have stayed with many. As middle aged adults our negative experiences from school have remained in our back pockets. Many of us have been lucky to go on in life to work hard and find love and families of our own. I made a conscious decision that my children would know God , but a God who loved them, not a God that they feared. I didn't know God loved me until I was 40yrs old. I proved myself educationally after I left school as I went to evening classes to get my GCE's etc. St James' is a bit of a horrible dream for me really,never nurtured as a young person,so feel very let down by that establishment. Still love God though!

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  16. I too attended The Annunciation, St.Thomas' and St. James'. I'm afraid I don't recognise a lot of what I am reading here. I certainly never came across wicked or cruel nuns. I left St. James in 1957. Sr. Rose was my last teacher.
    I liked the description of 'Kate'. She certainly was a character of some presence - and did use the strap, though not on me thankfully.The strap was endemic in education then - it was not confined to religious schools.Sr. Catherine did well for us educationally, as the first contributor said. St. James was a Secondary Modern where a Grammar education was also given. Some even went on to University - although it was much harder to get into further education on that level than today
    I loved my time at St. Thomas' and St. James'. One very progressive thing Sr. Catherine did was to allow a dance to take place one afternoon a month in the hall. We danced with the boys (no segregation there then) to records of the time - 4th and 5th Years only. The nuns just played the records and we danced. Wonderful for 15 and 16 year olds in those innocent days.
    I think of my senior schooldays with much affection. Thank you Kate.

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    1. I also went to Annunciation,St Thomas's and St.James.I left St.James in1952.I fully agree with all you said I to enjoyed my time there and at all three schools,I have lovely memories of the nuns and smile when I think of Sr.Katherine that I managed to steer clear of her most of the time.Happy school days.

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  17. I completely agree with Richard's description of Sr. Catherine's character, it's very accurate. The reality is that her brutal behaviour traumatised many, she did far more harm than good.

    Despite the fact that it feels good to finally get validation, it saddens me to read that some ex-pupils feel they actually deserved to be punished, I doubt that very much.

    I attended St Vincent's primary school, then St Thomas' and St James' from the early to mid sixties. In all three schools (with just a few exceptions) many of those teachers were not only bullies but exceptionally poor educators who were far more passionate about preaching than they were about teaching.

    By the time my last day arrived at St James', my only achievements were an O Level in History, an A Level in Guilt and a ? regarding my sanity.

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    1. I totally disagree with your comments and Richards.For you to say that the nuns were bullies and bad educators I wonder what sort of pupil you were.A great many pupils left that school with a great education and went on to do really well.Maybe those of us that didn't do so well was nothing to do with the school but our difficulty in learning.

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  18. I have a comment but it will only let me post anonymously!!
    Whats a URL????

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  19. Anon, that's OK, just leave your name along with the comment.

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  20. I loved the school and all the friends I had, especially my best friend, Jane McGee. I went to St Thomas and St James, and Sister Catherine rocked! I sang in Sister Rose's choir. Their strictness, and equally their kindness, knew no bounds.. from Lorna Hall.

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    1. Lorna, I was in the choir also...1960 ish?

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    2. great to hear.I fully agree with you.

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  21. To Richard Collins... I was in the choir from the mid 60s. I remember there being a film crew when we did Handel's Messiah. Were you part of that? Do you remember Sister Paul who taught science? (from Lorna Hall).

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    1. Lorna, I was in that choir but could not make the filmed performance as it was on a Sunday and I lived in Hounslow, some 2 hours away.
      I remember Sr Paul well and Sisters James, Imelda, Rose and Melody.

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  22. I was also at St James in the mid sixties and remember being In the choir singing the Handel's messiah, it was amazing and something I remember to this day.
    I also remember Kate!

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  23. I also attended St Thomas' at Marsh Lane and St James' at Burnt Oak, it still hurts me to go past the old site at Marsh Lane which has now been developed - I have many good memories of my days at St. Thomas'.
    My time at St James' was not as good mainly because I was not academic and I left school at 15 - I remember being caught along with some other girls for being in the boys half of the playground. We all got send to Sr. Catherines' office for the strap and she asked us (just before the punishment was inflicted) our names and it appeared to me that your name destined the severity of the strap.
    I remember the awkward dances, I also remember (for a small fee) watching Margaret Rutherford films - those good old innocent days!
    In hindsight I feel Sr Catherine was only trying to encourage me to stay on and achieve.
    I honestly feel her heart was in the right place but life was different then and she had obviously had a hard struggle to reach her goals which made her a hard woman.
    God rest her Soul. - From Una Connolly

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  24. There is no question that strap or birch rod works. I applaud Sister Catherine's conviction and determination!

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  25. St James's was a truly dreadful school. I was a fairly timid child and, for me, the year or so I was there in the late 1950s was marked by fear and dread, which basically meant I was too frightened to learn anything much at all.
    The brutality I witnessed - largely from male lay teachers - I found terrifying. Notably by a smallish man with an angry pink complexion who taught maths and occupied a classroom which was the first on the left after one went through the main entrance to the school.
    There was one pleasant teacher - Sister Rose, who ran the choir. And that really was it, apart from one vaguely remembered slightly bohemian history teacher who, unlike practically all the other teachers, was not violent.
    I applaud absolutely nothing about Sister Catherine. She was just horrible, and she presided over an overwhelmingly vicious establishment where I witnessed scenes of violence against children that haunt me, and anger me, to this day. How sad that people seem to think they deserved brutality - of course you didn't. Don't brainwash yourselves. Instead, recognise - even at this distance - that you were victims of a nasty, brutish school cast in a very familiar Catholic mould. And be angry.

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  26. I feel so sad to see women who gave their lives to generations of children vilified and ridiculed now they are dead. Mr Collins betrays his latent objectification of Kate in his title. She wasn't a nun 'that' was hated. As a person with an identity she was a nun who was allegedly hated. Perhaps you didn't pay attention to your lessons, Mr Collins! My name is Mary Walsh. No relation to Kate. In fact I had a few contretemps with Kate during the three years I spent at St James'. I attended the annunciation, grammar school and lastly St. James '. I was in the same year as Nina G. St.James ' was an extraordinary place. In wartime, the sisters smuggled black market food after hours into the school to feed the children, Sr Paul and Catherine made many a trip. When clothing coupons were scarce, material would be given to girls for dresses. Thousands of children, failures at eleven, were given an education, enabled to hope they left the scrap heap to become doctors, nurses, teachers, priests, lawyers, nuns, accountants, celebrities. Girl or boy it made no difference. You were given the tools to aim for the top. Moira Stuart the first black, female newsreader was in my year. We had inspirational teaching. Sr. Gregory gave me a love of poetry and literature which has lasted all my life. I passed it down to my children and now my grandchild. My daughter is a journalist, my eldest has published technical works in her name and it makes me so happy to see my son reading the same poems and stories to his daughter. We sang the Latin mass at six years old and went on to sing with Sr. Rose, a brilliant musician. We sat A Levels at fifteen. I still marvel at Milton's description of pandemonium, studied with Sr. Veronica. Sr. Hyacinth was lovely and had such integrity. You were allowed to be yourself, something you could never be at the grammar school I attended. We knew Kate's foibles and you learnt to handle them. They were more amusing than traumatising. It taught you to stand up for yourself and others. The motto veritas, led you to seek the truth, to question. In all the bad times of my life,I have thanked god I was a dominican child. I walk with angels, some of them, dominican! I know that God is there no matter what or where. I am fighting cancer at the moment. I know I have the strength. I can 'walk a mile' in another's shoes as Sr. Catalda used to say. So too could Kate. She fought for Hanratty till the bitter end, never doubting his innocence. She gave boys going for interviews, money for haircuts, a voucher to go to Alfreds and pick up a suit, shirt and tie. She got a factory owner to donate woollen coats to girls who had none. A pregnant girl with no where to go was housed by the sisters. The plimsolls in St.Thomas ' were to protect the parquet flooring which was scrubbed and polished by the nuns on their hands and knees, either before or after prayers and a full days teaching. Other schools insisted on indoor and outdoor shoes from Clarks. Kate made it plimsolls so everybody could afford them. We had naps in the annunciation in infants, before hometime, with Sr. Imelda Whelan reading to you. Sr.Gregory took us to listen to Eileen Colwell weekly. Kate got us Agatha Christie films, we saw My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music etc at the cinema with the nuns. The last thing Kate did was to purchase the land for the new school at Graham Park, ensuring the children of Burnt Oak and further, had access to the education we were lucky enough to have. She has no elaborate headstone, just a simple wooden cross, she deserves to rest in peace at least, and with respect. If you can't say good then please, don't speak ill of the dead and may your god go with you.

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  27. Mary Walsh - I have not used the word 'hate' and your comment is incorrect and slanted as a result. I do believe that Kate meted out a much harsher form of discipline to boys than that she gave to girls.

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  28. my name is tom Maloney, just by chance I came across the pic from St James 1947 or so,and linen on the hedgerow. iwas at the annunciation and st james from 1936 to 1947 and wondered if anyone recognised any of the lads in the pic. I recognise them all but cant remember all the names. amongst them all is leo dunne,alf westaway, tommy power, jan jusinski,peter Sutcliffe,dickie brennan, Jackie loughrey
    Its such a long time ago and I remember all the nuns with a good memory of my school days. sorry about the poor pc skills the fingers are getting old. this is not a reply to anyone but more a cry from the heart. May your God go with you!
    https://plus.google.com/104266751142942216918/posts/PW7B2qbwDeP

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  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  30. I was sentenced to 4 years at St Thomas and St James from 1954 to 19458.I saw a previous comment "too scared to learn". Boy was I scared. I loved Shakespeare and Dickens but I was forced to do this subject called maths(Mr Kilraine I think) He asked me "trick questions" that he new I could not answer just to strap me 4 times! He thought it was fun! Sister Cate hated me from day one and terrified me for 4years. I found respite in the Choir with Sister Rose,God love her,she was truly the first Nun I ever liked.She inspired me in a way no other teacher could. Thankyou Sister Rose, whoever you may be.We sang the Messiah willingly and with gusto even though I had a lousy voice I was encouraged until I found my way.I did not take my GCE and ran off to sea and now live in Mooloolaba Queensland.My first job in Australia was a finance officer and I later became the youngest branch Manager in New South Wales in 1967. I think somehow I learned how to keep out of harms way

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    1. I completely concur with your comments; I was petrified from 1956 to 1960. In my case education was non existent & fear ruled. Fortunately I did get a good job & flourished thereafter. I simply educated myself but I still feel affected by the past.
      Extraordinarily I visit Moolooaba annually to visit my daughter who lives near by.

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  31. I do not dispute anything of what Mary Walsh writes, though I don't see why, in principle, people who are dead should not be "vilified" or "ridiculed" if those criticisms represent someone's sincere viewpoint. Would Mary bar freedom of expression? It's silly sentimentality to insist that the dead must not be criticised.
    I dispute nothing that Mary says because I take it that her stated version of events at St James's is, as far as she is concerned, accurate, I do, however, gasp in amazement at the malign changes that, accepting her version at face value, must have overtaken St James's between when she was there and when I was there in 1957 (I am the 'Anonymous' writing above on 12 August 2014).
    Fifty-seven years later I remain haunted by the brutality I saw there. Brutality is not a Christian, or a Catholic, virtue.
    That being the case, there are two possibilities. Either Sister Catherine and the bulk of her teaching staff thought that brutality was in fact a virtue; or they thought it wasn't but chose to practise it anyway. If the first, they were clearly unChristian and frighteningly in error; if the second, they were hypocrites.
    Either way, they were consequently unfit to be in charge of children, and the Dominican order needs to explain why the reign of terror at St James's was neither challenged nor stopped. It is safe to predict that, if this was now put to them, the Dominicans would say it was all too long ago for anyone to be able to say what, if anything, the order knew at the time. That is of course terribly convenient.

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  32. Does anyone out there remember Messrs. Quinn, Volkenburg, Philips and Freemen, all of were my teachers in the mid-fifties?

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  33. God rest the soul of Sister Kate! She had an imposable job as head mistress of St James. I recall the lower forms grossly over crowded and resources very limited. Unassigned a class in my second year Sister Catherine put me in T4 several grades above my age group and capability. It was keep your head down and persevere. Fortunately in my fifth and final year 1953 I had Sister Paul for science. However, after two years of national service it took several years of remedial classes to qualify for university.

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  34. I was a pupil at The Annunciation, St Thomas' and St James and left school in 1955. I fully endorse the brutality image of these postings. I enjoyed my innocent childhood until, at The Annunciation, I came into the hands of Mr Whelan, a violent, sadistic and perverted child abuser. He would crack me with his knuckles behind my ears, touch me inappropriately and ruled the class with a tyrannical regime of unquestioning submission. After I left school I read in the press that he was gaoled for indecency with a pupil. My memories of this Dominican experience therefore are hardly joyous.

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