Saturday, May 02, 2009

There's A Tower On A Hill............

For some reason my old school song (the opening words of which make up the title of this post) came into my mind the other day and I made up my mind to write about it again, even though I've mentioned it a few times before.  Naturally going to the school as a pupil for the first time was a huge moment in my young life and one that I vividly remember to this day.

In early September 1963, I had just had my 11th birthday and was being driven by my mum and dad from our home in Ballymoney, over the mountain road which led to the all boys Catholic boarding school which was to be my educational home for the next 7 years.

I remember being SO happy at the prospect !

Actually I was terrified and needed a change of underwear long before we started on the decent down to the picturesque towns of Cushendall and then Waterfoot on the famous Antrim Coast. It's a stunningly beautiful part of the world but none of that mattered to me that day. Even the realisation that I was going with my older brother didn't help to settle the vicious butterflies gnawing at my small intestines.  He was about to start his 3rd year at the school but even then I knew enough about peer pressure and sibling rivalry to be somewhat sceptical of any help and guidance from him. 

We passed through small rural villages and although familiar with them from many trips to the area already, I now glanced at them through the car's rear window like a hapless victim being taken to the guillotine. Even then, in my childish mind, I had the feeling I would never look upon them in the same way again.  For the next 7 years at least, they would simply be visual stepping stones along the road to my life of misery and unhappiness.

The sun probably shone on the bleak mountain moorland as we headed down through Glenariff, one of the 9 Glens of Antrim to pick up the coast road.  We passed vast tracts of mysterious forests containing beautiful waterfalls and flower strewn glades.  All part of the glorious countryside that makes up that part of N. Ireland.  All wasted on me that day.

Then we left the glory of the glens and hit the part of the main A2 which is known as the Antrim Coast Road or even the Causeway Coast Road which hugs the Irish Sea for 25 more miles all the way to the ferry port of Larne.

Finally we drove past Waterfoot Bay and the church and parochial house where we used to actually stay on holiday to look after the house while the priest, a close family friend (but not THAT close) was away on holiday.  Yes we were that Catholic.

This was the last built up area before the steep private road up to the school and if you imagine a school built up on a wide ledge on those mountains to the left of the buildings in this next photo, that's where it was.

Again I looked out the car window as we passed the church (seen on the right in the photo above) and would've considered making an escape inside its welcoming walls and claiming sanctuary if I'd known what that meant when I was 11. 

I didn't and so we drove on until we came to a partially hidden sign telling us that the narrow road to the right led up to St. MacNissi's College.  This particular saint lived at the time of St. Patrick (480AD) and gave his name to the school as he is the patron saint of the local diocese of Down & Connor.

And still this blog continue to entertain AND educate !

The school was, and obviously still is, on a plateau about 200 feet above the coast road.  As it wends its way to the school grounds, the narrow mountain road takes you past the school's own version of calvary built, I think, to remind all the pupils that they were there to suffer and not to enjoy themselves !  That's my theory anyway.

That photo was taken from the road and although I was going to the school to start my 1st year there, I'd already been many times before when we'd go to visit my brother, usually on a Sunday. We'd take him out to the nearby town of Carnlough for fish and chips and ice cream by the seaside and it hit me that from then on I'd be taken out too !  A brief moment of freedom or being 'out on bail' to look at it another way !! 

Further up the road we passed the football pitches and as this was N. Ireland, that meant gaelic football in those unenlightened days. You can see the goal posts which look like those used in rugby football, even America football. I hated gaelic football with a passion which was apt really considering this photo of one of the pitches was taken from calvary.

They were also on different levels of the mountain and it was quite a trek to get to the furthest one and thinking about it now, their very existence was the result of quite a feat of construction. Once again, all wasted on me at the time.

Then we got to the imposing school gates and my time in the outside world was over, for a term at least. We drove past the school church which was a modern building as the school had only been created 13 years earlier using a castle as it's base.

This castle had been the summer residence of the Marchioness of Londonderry until 1915 when it became a hotel and then taken over as a school in 1950 with the construction of several academic buildings, sleeping quarters for the boarders and tennis courts, handball courts and playing fields to keep us fit and out of mischief. 

I don't have a photo handy of the dorm building where 1st years slept but these next two show where we spent years 2-5 and then lower 6th and upper 6th. That final building was made up of individual rooms so that these older boys could study as well as sleep and was a good preparation for University life I suppose.

I think part of the reason for the bullying I received there was down to my bypassing that top building altogether.  When I became a 2nd year and should've gone with my peers to that dormitory building, my brother was a 5th year and so we 'qualified' to get one of the few double rooms in the other building. I'm pointing to it (the room on the top floor above the door) in the image above. 

By double I mean it had bunk beds in a standard single room !!  This meant I was separated every evening from my age group for a few years and as none of my brother's friends wanted to have me around them either, I began my life of solitude, lonliness and being bullied.

Are the violins out yet ???

It really wasn't that bad.  Not good, but not that bad.

This penultimate photo shows the road down past the rooms building (on the left) towards the other 2 dorm buildings and on to the handball courts and finally the play fields. The mountainside was to the left and to the right was the cliff edge and 200 feet below that, the Irish Sea.

And so on that first day, I was settled into my dorm cubicle which had less space than a prison cell as it contained a bed and a tall thin cupboard and....well that was it. If you stood beside the little single bed with your back to the cubicle wall, you could bend over across the bed and almost touch the far wall. Privacy was non existant and the boy across the narrow corridor became your best friend very quickly, which for an 11 year old Catholic boy confused enough about sex, this wasn't really what you wanted.

I remember I was very anxious for my parents to leave as even back then I hated long goodbyes. Then the reality of my situation hit me and the tears started. Until that time I'd been the one getting back in the car, watching my brother getting smaller through the rear window.  Now it was the car was getting smaller and I was left in a very unnatural world, without the parents who had been with me every day for the last 11 years and suddenly surrounded by strange new boys my own age and a couple of 17 year old dormitory prefects who scared the shit out of me already. 

Maybe one day I'll post about my time at the school, especially as my therapist tells me it would be beneficial to do so and most of the people I named would be dead or in no position to sue me anyway.  Maybe.

But I'll leave this post with a photo which many will have seen before and it was briefly shown over on the right as the photo of the week.  It's the classic view of the front of the school showing it's exulted beginnings as a castle and you can see the church to the left.

More than any other image, it takes me back almost 46 years (holy crap !!) to that day when I stood alone and waved off my parents to start my 7 year sentence at Garron Tower.

The location may have been picturesque and the surrounding countryside may have been stunning but for me my schooldays were NOT the happiest time of my life. That time started 7 years later on the day I drove out through those gates again.

My sentence had been served and I was more than ready to put it all behind me and enjoy a brave new world.  A world to enjoy without priests, without bullying and especially without having someone of the same sex watching me getting ready for bed every night !!

I'm happy to say I'm still enjoying it.


Daphne said...

The photos are stunning and the countryside looks wonderful.
However, your account of driving there made me scared just reading it! "It really wasn't that bad" - - HAH! I think boarding schools - even good ones - are cruelty to children and when I'm in charge I'll be closing the lot, so well-intentioned, loving parents like yours don't think they're doing their best for their children by sending them there: and so other, rich parents who find children an inconvenience can't just dump them there. Grrrrr.

rhymeswithplague said...

Wonderful writing and beautiful pictures and a heartbreaking look into the mind of an 11-year-old boy.

I am looking forward to whatever else you will share with us.

Jennyta said...

Whatever was awaiting you at the other end of the journey, you certainly coundl't complain about the views. I'd love to hear more about your schooldays.

Debby said...

Gorgeous pictures as usual. Did I take the one of you pointing at your room?

Lovely big female hugs to you for your traumatic trip down memory lane.

No pictures of the dogs grave?

jay said...

I'm with Daphne. The photos are incredible and very beautiful - even the one of the school - but I too think that boarding schools are cruel and unusual punishment for innocent children. They are just wrong.

Katherine said...

Agree with Jay. I just want to rush over and hug you... X

rhymeswithplague said...

I just do not, repeat, not, want to rush over and hug you...

Silverback said...

Dammit plague, I had such high hopes too !

Thank you all for the kind comments re the photos and as for my schooldays, they weren't exactly on a par with Tom Brown but I'll maybe tell more about that another time.

(Katherine, I do fancy a trip to East Anglia)

Mortimer said...

I've made this trip through the Glens many times; usually as an anti-dote to having a depressed day.
Your account is very evocative and will put a different perspective on the trip next time I meander from the north coast down to Carrickfergus via Larne.

The Good Life said...

I'm a past-pupil of 'The Tower' too, a boarder of 7 years like yourself.

My journey took me from the open dorm of Dunmaul in my first year, cubicles in St Joseph's in my second and third years, and various rooms in St Mary's until my sentence was complete.

Reading your blog and seeing those images after all these years has resurrected some memories - good and bad. Looking forward to seeing and hearing more!

Silverback said...'re not James are you ?

The Good Life said...

Sorry Silverback, I am not (and have never been referred to as) James. Although my partner did once call out that name in the throes of passion...

I wish you hadn't reminded me! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I too was a a border and yes it wasn't called "The Tower" for nothing. Worst and most traumatic experience of my life. I still have the nightmares.....


Silverback said...

Drop me a line if you want, Jacko. Contact address is in my profile.

Anonymous said...

People probably will not believe this next story that I am going to relate but it really did happen. It was your photo of the road down to the dormitories (with St Mary's on the left) that reminded me. To put it in some wierd context it must be noted that this was in 1977 and the troubles were at their worst. Fr O'Neill (aka Sheen the Dean) used to wonder around with an uncocked shotgun over his shoulder (yes a priest did used to behave like this) and there was an empty crisp (potato chips) bag lying just beside that black rubbish bin on the lawn on the left. I was standing just were the photo was taken and Sheen was just to the right of the bin. He took the shotgun from off his shoulder, cocked it and fired a round at the crisp bag.....needless to say the bag was obliterated. "Now on your way boyo"...... As Martin Sheen says at the end of Apocalypse Now - "The Horror..."

steve primrose said...

Hello Silverback,

Loved the account and memories. I boarded there during the eighties and had a fab time.

Did you ever climb the hill behind and go to the hidden lake - the name we used..

All the best, Steve

Silverback said...

Oh yes, Steve.....climbed that mountain many times....I remember using the 'goat path' on most occasions. Didn't do the extra trek to the Hidden Lake many times though.

Glad your memories were happy ones. I think things changed enormously in the last couple of years before I left and continued to do so by the 80's it was probably semi normal !

Co Derry said...

Co Derry says

I too was a boarder from 1963 to 1969 and remember you well Silverback. You were always a sound lad.My memories of the place are like yours-terrible place.

Silverback said...

Co. Derry.....feel free to get in touch. My email address is on my profile.

Anonymous said...

Oh i remember the Tower well! It was a wonderful place to go to school. Some odd characters, including Fr O'Neill, who lets be honest was a cold bastard, but none the less it was great. Loved Fr Tom Bartley and Fr Alex 'Roar' McMullan.

Silverback said...

Glad it 'worked' for you, Anon. Even students from my time there have differing memories of course and certainly as the years went by and it became non boarding and co-ed, things changed a LOT at GT.
Some of the events I experienced would've had the perpetrators up in court if committed these days but that's how it works....different times, different standards.

Anonymous said...

Any memories you want to share Silverback?? Who do reckon was the worst for discipline? O'Neill was a given, Fr Molloy could be a brute if i recall but the worst priest at the Tower in my view was McGarry! Total snob and was President for most of my years there.

Silverback said...

No, none to share. Thankfully over the decades, names have faded from my memory. Apart from my English teacher, Mr. Hughes I think, none deserve to be remembered.

Anonymous said...

I started at GT just after you. Mr (Tom) Hughes was my Geography teacher - a real 'gentleman' (which is how he addressed us). Definitely one of the few worthy of respect!
'Beaky' McConville was the biggest thug/psycho - made me sick to see him doing the 'Epilogue' on TV!

(Sorry to be another 'Anonymous')

Silverback said...

Thankfully the real nuisance 'anonymous' wasters seem to have gone away now. Yes Mr. Hughes WAS the geography teacher and I've confused him with my very good English teacher...and I still can't remember his name !

Anonymous said...

Yes Mr Hughes was a total gentleman, I remember his classroom in the new block as a calm place. The 3 English teachers I remember were all good normal people in a distinctly abnormal place. I was there during the 1970s and maybe that drove some of the odd behaviour. Sheen was without doubt was an very unwell man, Beating a child with your fists and boots in any decade is abuse let alone the psychological bullying that at best went ignored or at worst was sanctioned. I am afraid the experience rather wreaked my life but good that so many survived and are living life to the full. Respect Anon

Anonymous said...

I am sure Pat Leahy was the English teacher, a true asthete though it was a shame I couldn't connect. Most would agree sheen was a cruel man who most probably had a seriously disturbed past. Our experiences would not be exceptional if you compare notes with peers in other schools.
I enjoyed the Tower and respected the people who devoted their lives to the school, I regret not having told them so as so many are dead. Frs. Bartley, Fitzpatrick, McCartan, Molloy. Big Alec and Aiden Kerr, Paddy McKenna I hope remain well.
Anonagain ;-)

cha said...

I also attended in the 70s and boarded for 2 years before moving to the glens very tough in Dunmall as an 11 year old in the freezing cold. Ditto the sheen comments often got 6 for going back late to study after the game of YO!!! Great pictures and some happy memories especially every Friday night at the gate lodge when we were going home once a month.

Neesus said...

Hi, found your article when sheen sprung to mind for some reason. jeez he was a psycho. some of the beatings he handed out had to be seen to be believed. I was there in the 70's and everything you said rang true. I escaped, to Ballymena Academy after one year. but still remember the awfulness of it to this day.. I cant recall one good thing from it. all the best

Cahal Finbarr said...

Very Interesting. It seems to have deteriorated. In the 50's it was not too bad.Yes I was bullied. I learned sloth and idleness and how to smoke. I was poor from Belfast and got the blame for everything. I was picked as a sub on the Senior Hurling team and left behind.My shins still bleed where Fr McKavanagh allowed F.C. to hack my shins.My spirit never recovered.

Silverback said...

It's great to still have comments added so long after this post was written. I'm sure a lot of that has to do with this post now being on the first search results page on Google.
I have to smile when reading the GT Facebook page as most (glowing) posts are from much younger ex students who went there when the school was a completely different place.
Of course I'm happy that they never had to go through what some of us went through; all I can say is that for me, those 7 years there contributed a great deal to putting me off Catholicism/religion in general and the clergy in particular for the rest of my life.

McKeown said...

I entered GT an a relatively innocent little boy but left after one year as anything but. Don't remember any names but I do remember being there in 1974. I recall being repeatedly beaten with a strap and a cane. Beaten up by another first year boy who was aided by his 5th year brother (they were local) in front of a large audience in one of the handball courts, then carried at head height to the matron's office by a crowd of boys. My dorm was called The Fruity Dorm for some bizarre reason. I was so mentally disturbed by the entire ordeal I kicked holes in the dorm walls. I was expelled for being disruptive - go figure. Ended up as a successful accountant/management consultant and happily married but will never forget being interned with a bunch of bullying psychopaths (Brothers)

Anonymous said...

It has done me good to see that everything hasn't been brushed underneath the carpet. It's time we started talking about the abuse. I was tortured and raped by a priest there. It went on for years, he even arranged a room for close to his in St Mary's, that's when the fun really be began.

Anonymous said...

I served my time at the Tower during the Sheen years. I never easily forgot the evening, outside the study hall, when, for a minor misdemeanour, he grabbed me by the lapels of my uniform (my children can't believe that I wore those colours!) and flung me against the wall. I stared him out as he gave me 6 slaps with his leather belt. I refused to let him break my spirits, no matter how sore I was. An outstanding location for a school and undoubtedly many good people, both teachers and pupils enjoyed it. I didn't and felt the corporal punishment was just unnecessary. Small mercy to have been a 'day boy' Sorry for the anon.

Anonymous said...

Such interesting comments. I know that it has had long lasting detrimental affects mentally on both my husband and his brother who suffered mental and physical abuse at the hands of some if the priests. Psycho paths is how they describe some of them. They boarded between the late 70s and into the 80s. Very traumatic for them both, living in constant fear. Can't believe no action has been taken but of course the perpetrators shielded behind their religion and status.

Anonymous said...

I was at the Tower 56-61, so early days. Looking back, the regime there was certainly cruel at times.Bullying was endemic, and corporal punishment the order of the day. The authorities did absolutely nothing about the bullying; I suppose it was part of the regime to keep order. Some of the teachers (including priests) would be in jail nowadays because of their harsh treatment of the boys, most of whom were just kids. I survived there for 6 years, emerging at 18 perfectly trained for an immediate career in some harsh institutional regime such as active army service.Actually I went into business , where being as hard as nails helped.
I would never send any child at aged 11 to such a place.

Donal McCollum said...

I was a boarder from 1953 until 1959. I enjoyed it, but 11 years old is too young an age to be sent away from home.
I became a (very good) teacher for 32 years and looking back to those years at GT, I can honestly say that most of the teachers hadn't a clue how to teach!
Sitting at a desk and dictating notes is NOT teaching.
And the favouritism!!!Unbelievable! 99% of us were not allowed to leave the grounds, but certain special students left to go HOME nearly every weekend. In fact, teachers (priests) drove them home! One student even spent a summer in Europe with a priest/teacher and no-one questioned it.
Imagine having to write 500 lines for having your hands in your pockets---a usual occurence from Fr McConville. How that man was allowed to associate with young boys is a mystery to me. Christian charity, my ass. i would probably have become a priest if it weren't for him.

Silverback said...

Hi Donal....could you please email me at as you seem to live in a part of the country I know very well and I'd like to keep in touch.

Paul C said...

I was there from 77-82 and was lucky enough to be a day pupil. All your comments bring back many memories both good and bad. I think the experience made me a stronger person for all the wrong reasons and was witness to many punishments that would seem unbelievable if seen in a movie made today. On one occasion our class was messing around and Sheen came around the corner lined the whole class up and gave every boy six of the best with one of his famous straps (always trying to get the tips of you fingers and if you pulled away added lashes to the six count), myself and two others were given twelve being identified as the culprits. Not sure if someone writing a screenplay "The Tower" would get much facetime with a producer.

mckaysoftware said...

they closed it ... nuf said !

Anonymous said...

fuckin shithole of a place garron tower run by abusive priests and nuns yes i was there 1979 to 1984 fuckin ruined my life

Anonymous said...

Was there from 74 to 81...the "elite" were mostly the spawn of bookmakers,publicans and moneylenders...never caused any moral problems for some fawning weak clergy.Soon as I got out,I set about doing everything the clergy piously preached against,and loved it all the more for that reason.In that respect only,The Tower Experience was great.It was getting my own back against all that hypocritical piety

Anonymous said...

I was there from 1965. It was not perfect but served its purpose. If Carlberg provided teachers it must be John O'Donoghue (History).

Anonymous said...

Glens Day boy
I was there from 74.
It was a dangerous place for many reasons - bullying, violence from pupils and staff and a strange atmosphere of danger especially during the "Sheen" years.
He was my French teacher in first year as well as dean of discipline. A truly strange, violent and unpredictable man that everyone was terrified of. I well remember his visit to the dining hall to report to the whole school a terrible disciplinary incident he was investigating and the silence was such that you were afraid to move in case he randomly selected you for a demonstration of his power. On another occasion he entered the Chapel and spotted a Larne sixth year talking. He waded into the pew grabbed the boy by the hair, dragged him to the aisle and beat him with fists and feet before literally kicking him out of the Chapel. It was the random nature of his personality that terrified me most, he could turn on you for nothing and either physically or physiologically assault you. He once held a roll call on a Friday afternoon to catch mitchers who had left early to hitch a lift home. He decided that my reply of HERE was not loud enough, took me outside and gave me four of the best.
His random use of violence, I believe, led to a culture of bullying and violence throughout the school.
The priests with the exception of Fr Alex were snobs who ignored the day boys and licked after the boarders who arrived in the biggest cars. Some teachers were good, some truly awful and some were an embarrassment to the profession. You picked your A levels with one eye on which teacher you might be unfortunate enough to get in Lower Sixth.
My views of the place were so jaundiced that I was unwilling to send my children there even though it is now a totally different place. I was persuaded by them to relent and they had successful experiences there.
I wish I could say the same of my time.

Anonymous said...

Was dragged from a pew for talKing in the chapel and punched and kicked out the door punched in the head and body and spent all day in the sick bay with sore head and ribs Fr Macarton was a bully boy like the rest of them.

Sean said...

I was a boarder for a few yrs early 70’s
I remember certain characters ;
O’Hagan’s, Delargy’s, wiezneski, M.Tohill, M.McNulty, R.Oleary, C.Sharkey, S.McGarry (shark knife) P.Thompson, Torr’s, Apache (shameful) Kaiser, Daddio, Gorman’s, & many others I can’t recall by name. A certain guy who punched my nose on the first day M. Smiley. Who would have thought Michael would have turned out to be a good comedian actor? There has been some bad memories of Sheen written about. I was in the sick bay struggling for breath with a very bad asthma attack. He came in and stayed with me encouraging me to try & control my breathing. Eventually he left but not until I had recovered sufficiently to be left with the nurse. I was always careful around him but I saw a different side to him that day. There are many other stories to tell, alas political correctness & peoples right to privacy is a bit of a spoil sport in that respect. I enjoyed my time there in one of the most spectacular of settings. I sometimes walk around the grounds when the school is closed for summer. There was some negativity at times but hey shit happens . Was there a game of free for all football called Yo ?

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