Posted by CahirO at 6/14/2009 10:54 PM EDT

People born before 1980 are old enough to have seen glimpses of the epic dysfunction that characterized ideas about discipline in the Irish Catholic educational system, but even a glimpse was unforgettable. Although I was a schoolboy in the years after corporal punishment became illegal, the principal of my school in Donegal – 160 miles beyond Dublin’s reproach – merely took it as a suggestion, not a rule.

Every day, for months, he made us stand up in his classroom reciting Irish grammar. If you made a mistake he caned you. What a schoolroom that was, part concentration camp, part lunatic asylum (a year later he was committed). Lessons were held in a high roofed, high windowed room at the top of the building. If you were passing by on the street you could often hear the screams.

The principal was obsessed with Irish grammar, for some reason. Perhaps because teaching it to us, his terrified charges, offered him ample opportunities to punish us for our mistakes.
“Feicim an fear a bhí sásta,” he would say. I see the man who was satisfied.
Looking at him, with his acute facial twitches and his eyes out on stalks, it was hard to imagine that he’s known a moment’s satisfaction in his life.
“Agus aris,” he would say. And again. And again.

Dara Flynn was 11 like me, but he was working class, and his father had absconded. That was the word adults used. Dara had a round open face and a gentle nature. He also had a complete inability to retain arcane Irish tenses. Every day, without fail, the principal’s cane would descend around his ears like Pentecostal fire.

“Agus aris,” said the principal, beating him. And again. And again. Once Dara became so frightened he urinated in his pants. These are images you never forget.

I usually got my Irish tenses right. One particular day I didn’t. But my father had money and connections and, mad as he was, I could see the principal calculate. My schoolmates were looking on in silence, wearily anticipating a judicial travesty. Would he dare? Or would there be a swift exoneration? No, determined the principal, the Proclamation said cherish all the children equally; there really was nothing for it.

He made me hold out my hands at arms length, palms turned upward. I noticed he had chosen ash wood for a cane, and he had wrapped green tape around both ends. That made it give a terrifying whooshing sound as it knifed the air in two. Then, connecting with my delicate hands, it echoed through the room with an unearthly thwack. It smarted, badly. Even at the age of 11 I knew this: caning isn’t undertaken to punish the receiver, it’s undertaken to relieve the giver.

Generations of Irish men were raised like this. Why did it take so long to call it what it plainly is: abuse? Every adult in my town knew that the principal was nuts. My father knew. The other teachers knew. The church authorities that gave him his job knew. The dogs in the street knew.

Nothing was ever said or done. It was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Irish Catholic style.

Sometimes I find myself thinking of the look of terror on Dara Flynn’s face. It’s hard to get over an image like that. He was only 11 then, and small for his age. I wonder where he is now. I wonder what great good was supposed to come from beating him out of his wits, day after day.

What Dara learned in that little schoolroom was that that he was poor and that no one would look out for him or take his part. Every day came another reminder. Was that supposed to strengthen him, equip him for life?

“Agus aris,” said the principal. And again. And again