Today's article was written in 1991 by the last Dean of Discipline, Fr. Jim Butler, prior to the closure of the boarding school. It is a reflective and hard-hitting article, which deals with the considerably poorer conditions for boarders in the past, while praising the then current conditions and prospects for boarders of the school.
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In the eyes of the public, boarding schools in this country have always fallen roughly into two main categories – the voluntary type like our own diocesan college and the more elitest fee-paying schools which are found all over the country. When you mention boarding schools today the traditional concept of a kind of Eton public school immediately springs to mind. Here the young boy or girl was sent at the tender age of eleven or twelve and most often against their will. Once they went to school in September they usually didn't see home again until Christmas and it was nearly always in a strict and rigid disciplinary regime. Many parents rightly or wrongly believed that this draconian type of rule could only be good for their children, especially if they were finding it difficult to control them at home.
“Boarding school will knock the corners off you” they were told. Very often it did. However, very often, too, the sadistic discipline of there places left a scar on the individual which was impossible to remove. In many cases it certainly left an anti-religious feeling with many people which lasted through life. I'm sure many readers can identify with what I am saying. Many people would have availed of boarding, too, because there were fewer secondary schools available to them and, of course, no such thing as school transport. In our own case, many young men would have been sent here with the eventual possibility of a priestly vocation very much in mind. Very often boarding schools in the past were made up exclusively of the children of rich parents of the farming or business world and also the off-spring of professional people like doctors, solicitors and vets. The children of the poor families just didn't get a secondary education, either boarding or day.
The boarding school today (1991) is very different from the traditional type that I have described above. Many of them are now five-day boarding only, so children are no longer totally separated from their parents at an age when they need them most. The strict and almost sadistic type of discipline no longer exists. Relations between the authorities and the students are much more human and relaxed. The modern student can now exprerss an opinion without the fear of being “half killed”. And even that old evergreen chestnut, the food, has improved considerably. Families in general are now much better off financially and so you get a much broader cross-section of children in as boarders. Parents also send their kids to board for very different reasons from those of the past. In many cases today, both parents are working and the boarding school is a better option than the 'latch key' child returning home to an empty house in the evening. The fact that both children and parents are off at the week-end allows them to appreciate each other in an opportune and appropriate way. Many of our boarders today would also be the children of parents who are separated for one reason or another and they find that the boarding school environment provides a better atmosphere than that which they might experience at home. Many of our students are also the children of busy farmers and business people who fit it almost impossible to study at home where they are almost always in demand for the cow calving or the ewe weaning. Many parents also decide on boarding for their children simply because their son or daughter just cannot discipline himself or herself to sit down to study at home.
There can also be considerable benefits for the students themselves. For a start they won't have to be out at bus stops in the early hours of winter mornings or walking home in the dark wet winter evenings. On top of that they have three or four hours of organised and supervised study. Incidentally, many day schools are now adopting this too. The majority of students today go to third level of some kind and so the boarding system prepares them to be much more independent young individuals. Because they spend so much time together they also form strong and lasting friendships and can be a tremendous support to each other. Many life-long friendships have been formed in boarding schools. They also have access to teachers and staff at a time when they day-pupil has not. Sport and leisure has always been an integral part of the time-table in boarding schools and the modern facilities have enhanced this greatly with a much wider selection of games and pastimes available to cater for nearly all tastes. Here in St. Peter's no longer is it necessary to be a hurling or football fanatic to be catered for in sport. Athletics is now a very popular sport with many students and they also participate in inter-schools competitions. Swimming is proving increasingly popular. For those who don't like the cold or the wet we have indoor soccer in our magnificent gymnasium provided by the Past Pupils Union which also incorporates two excellent squash courts. As well as these we still cater for the other sports as before. Hurling and Gaelic Football are still number one. Handball, table tennis and basketball are also available. If the young student doesn't fit into any of these he can always amuse himself in the TV room or the library. Another break with tradition is that the senior students now have their own common room with TV, video, pool-table and so on and this has proven very popular indeed.
A noticeable trend of recent years is that not as many parents are sending their young children boarding in first year but opting to send them here for the senior cycle. It's not unusual to find as many as twenty new boarders coming here to fourth year each September. Being that two or three years older makes a remarkable difference to them in settling down and finding their feet.
Many people today question the boarding school idea for many reasons – some social, some educational, and even some psychological. There are no hard and fast rules one way or the other. For some students boarding is a greart thing and they suit it very well. For others it is just simply not suitable. But then, isn't that the way with everything in life.. One thing that I have always found here is that the boarder has shown a much greater loyalty to the place and has even given the school a certain character which might not ever have been established in a day-school only.
Working with the boarders here is something I enjoy immensely and I get great satisfaction from helping young people prepare for life, especially the Senior Students. With the way society is moving and taking into account some of the trends I have described earlier, it seems as if there will be a demand for boarding for some time yet. Here's one who hopes that it continues into the next century.
Fr. Jim Butler,
Dean of Discipline,
St. Peter's College