Sunday, 13 January 2013

Growing up in Broken Barnet: the making of Mrs Angry



 Mrs Angry, bride of Christ

What made Mrs Angry angry? What made Mrs Angry, come to that? 

Because she was made, and not begotten, nearly three years ago now, in order to beat the London Borough of Broken Barnet into submission over an injustice being perpetrated by them (Mrs Angry was very naive, and thought that this was unusual, and might require a wider exposure: in fact Mrs Angry continued in her mission once she realise quite how many instances of injustice there are in Broken Barnet).

But talking of beating into submission: the earliest genesis of Mrs Angry, and the blogging diva that she was to become, took place a long, long time ago, in early childhood, at a Catholic primary school in Broken Barnet, and one which, by no coincidence, also nurtured, if that is the word, the education of fellow blogger Mr Roger Tichborne, of the Barnet Eye. 

The school, St Vincent's, on the Ridgeway in Mill Hill village, was run by the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, who lived in the adjoining convent, based in the beautiful seventeenth century house, Littleberries, (sometimes claimed to have been owned by Nell Gwyn). 

Sister Gabriel was the formidable headmistress, and she ruled the school with not a rod of iron, exactly, more the rule of the cane, and a bat. It was a pretty effective deterrent.

 the Sisters of Charity

Within the convent there was a late Victorian chapel, which we attended once a week for mass, and benediction, trying not to end up kneeling next to the glass fronted tomb of a Holy Innocent child martyr, in which lay a life size painted effigy, perhaps in wax, dressed in bejewelled velvet clothes, lying on a silken bed and tasselled bolster: school mythology said this was the embalmed body of a real child, and we would stare in fascination at the figure: quite frequently children would feel faint at the sheer horror of proximity to such an object, if they were made to sit near it. 

Ironic, of course that the chapel should be dedicated to a martyred child, and the loss of innocence. St Vincent de Paul, incidentally, whose statue presided over the school, the founder of the order of nuns who were entrusted with our education and spiritual well being, was himself a deeply compassionate man, dedicated to the principle of practical charity, of support for the poor, and in particular the care of foundling children.

Memories of the interesting educational experience delivered in his name at this school are never that far away, all these years later, but resurfaced with renewed vigour this week on hearing the news that a teacher at this school, the infamous Miss O'Donovan, died this Christmas, at the age of 97. 

Mrs Angry had assumed that this woman had died decades ago, and has often comforted herself with the thought that she must now be accommodated  in the place she was so keen on explaining to her six year old pupils, in such salacious detail: the inferno of eternal punishment and expiation of sins. If you've read the first few chapters of Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', you'll get the picture: devils, fire, unbearable and unrelenting torture, and serving you right for being a sinner - the usual kind of Catholic vision of hell.

But only just beginning her own term in hell, then, Miss O' Donovan: arriving at the gates to eternal punishment, trembling, like the infant Mrs Angry, all those years ago, a new girl, standing in the doorway of the classroom, regarding the rows of fifty or more already traumatised children who would be her fellow pupils.

The children in this class were divided into three groups and labelled accordingly: the Top Table, for the brightest, by the window;  the Middle table, and on the far side of the room, against the partition wall, the 'Baby' or 'Lazy' Table, for those who were struggling - including a notable number of children with quite severe learning disabilities.

These categories were used openly, casually, without challenge; and the streams into which the children were put were almost entirely unaltered as we moved up through the classes. This was the era of 11 plus, where measuring intelligence and ability was a practice keenly observed, and grammar school potential was something to cultivate, at the expense of those who were destined for the waste bin of local secondary modern schools. The sort of educational principles of which Michael Gove would highly approve, in fact.

The children on the 'lazy/baby' table spent a fair amount of their time being punished for their slowness, made to climb up on their chairs and stand, with arms up, hands on heads, for tortuous lengths of time. CIA type routines, guaranteed to crack even the most obstinate six year old caught speaking in class ... Empty vessels make the most sound, as Miss O'Donovan would tell them, sneeringly ... or failing some other unwritten rule of our tyrannical teacher.

The privileged members of the top table generally escaped this humiliation, but Miss O'Donovan had a full range of other measures calculated to keep the class in a state of perpetual fear. Mrs Angry was subject to most of these: her membership of the top table did not spare her from the regular beatings on her six year old hand with a wooden ruler for spelling mistakes, or difficulty in learning the times tables, or making some other sort of unforgiveable mistake. It wasn't enough to receive the ruler, in fact, the hand had to be held in a tight fist, so that the knuckles would receive more of a crack. It hurt: a lot.

Learning difficulties were not recognised then, of course, but being dyspraxic meant, for Mrs Angry, that quickly learning anything by rote, or following complex instructions, was almost impossible: our foul tempered teacher had no patience for any such weaknesses, and mercilessly punished any child who made any sort of error.

Every opportunity for punishment was taken with evident glee, in fact: a child who needed to leave the classroom to visit the loo was invariably refused permission, for failing to use the facilities during breaks. The predictable and frequent result would be that shamed children would leave pools of urine on the floor, unable to wait any longer. They would then be punished for that, as well, and made to clear it up.

There was one poor boy in the class who had severe learning and physical disabilities. Miss O'Donovan had little time for him, so it would often be the duty of top table children to take care of him - sometimes Mrs Angry was instructed to spend the afternoon trying to teach him the alphabet, pointing at a chart on the back of a door, with a long wooden stick, like a child in a Victorian village school - or rather like Smike, the victim of Squeers in Dotheboys Hall. Eventually this boy's worried parents came in to see Miss O'Donovan - an unheard of impertinence - he disappeared, then, and the class was told that he had been sent to a school for 'the subnormal'. 

St Vincent's Convent Chapel

The other abiding memory of Miss O'Donovan's class is of the terrifying distortion of the Catholic faith that was promulgated by this teacher, and her partner in crime, the local priest, Fr Kavanagh, who attended regularly as we were preparing for our first confessions, and then first holy communions. 

This entailed more learning by heart of prayers, rites, catechism: more torment. 

The pair of them would also delight in telling us tales of Catholic saints, overseas missionaries -in one instance African martyrs captured by 'pagan' chiefs, who had their limbs hacked off, were then rolled up in matting and set on fire, dying agonising deaths: this tale gave Mrs Angry nightmares for years. It was intended to: a nod to the fiery fate awaiting us if we failed to lead lives according to the faith.

Fr Kavanagh was a bad tempered old devil, who would arrive in class in his black biretta, stand next to Miss O'Donovan and address the children, his cold, baleful eye sweeping the class, looking for a victim to order to stand up and repeat their lesson. She would stand next to him, preening herself, calling out names in her shrill, peevish voice, heavily Irish accented, daring any of us to get anything wrong and give her another excuse for a dose of her discipline. 

Miss O'Donovan was a remarkably vain woman, despite what seemed to us as her advanced age, always impeccably dressed, in smart wool suits, stiletto heeled shoes, her dark dyed curly hair in a rigid perm, mouth a blood red slash of scarlet lipstick, her lined face grotesquely smothered in powder: ( think Joan Crawford, or Bette Davis in 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane') ... and nails that were manicured, and buffed, and filed to a point, all the better to jab sharply into the flesh of your upper arm to make a point, and leave a mark, when chastising you for some perceived misdemeanour. 

On the little finger of one hand she wore a signet ring, set with a blue enamelled image of Our Lady- a Miraculous Medal. 

Mrs Angry can vividly remember one stormy afternoon, standing at her table nervously reading to her a dreary story of working elephants in India carrying logs in their trunks, whilst thunder and lightening blasted the sky outside. Miss O'Donovan stopped, and made the sign of the cross with her claw-like fingers, the protective image of the Virgin Mary darting across her head, heart and shoulders ... if you didn't do this, when a storm broke, she said, and you were struck by lightening, and died on the spot, the devil would take your soul. (In later years Mrs Angry was struck by lightening, and luckily survived, but came uncomfortably close to testing this theory). 



We were also instructed that we should perform the sign of the cross, with the invocation INRI, the sign pinned to the cross at the crucifiction, last thing before we went to sleep, just in case we died during the night, unblessed, our infant souls ready prey for the devil. This used to cause a fair amount of worry over timing: would you be falling asleep right away, or should you wait a bit? If I should die, before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take ...
 
The same afternoon, on leaving the classroom, feeling very unwell, the cool rain falling on Mrs Angry's fevered face felt like a blessing, and indeed a miracle, as she knew her illness meant time off school, and an escape from the daily torture. 

Later that afternoon, safely home, lying curled up in bed, reading a child's guide to the Greek myths, (yes, a library book) luxuriating in the thought of no school, was absolute bliss. A temporary reprieve. Of course, on return to school, so many lessons missed meant more mistakes, and more punishment from Miss O' Donovan. 

Was this regime meant to ensure a lifetime of adherence to the church? We were lectured on the need for faith, which was an act of grace, and would arrive, like a lovely present, when God decided we were ready. Were our souls ready? Mrs Angry consulted her prayer book, which had a picture of a rather smug child kneeling in prayer, his soul a radiant white cloud of amorphous spiritual matter glowing in his chest, newly cleansed of the stain of sin: ah, yes, there was first the matter of sin, which needed to be dealt with by our first confessions. 

Mrs Angry's prayer book admonished the young reader preparing for this sacrament, and asked them to examine their conscience. Had they, for example, had any impure thoughts? In adult life, Mrs Angry has had many impure thoughts, but at the age of six? The prayer book illustrated this with a picture of a young girl lingering outside a cinema, admiring the posters. The infant Mrs Angry thought guiltily about her own visits to the cinema: Disney films, Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music: had these engendered any impure thoughts? No. Only a lifelong hatred of Julie Andrews.

And Miss O'Donovan, then. Why was she so hateful, and so cruel? 

She enjoyed her regime of terror, and relished the humiliation of very young children. 

Like many other bullies, she probably would have defended her behaviour as a duty to oversee a rule of discipline. But she took pleasure from it. To some children, carefully chosen, she could choose to be more favourable: but only when it suited her. It is impossible to recall any act of kindness, sympathy, or glimpse of humour. The only time she smiled was when she had succeeded in some petty triumph over a child, or when a visitor came to the class. The calculation of someone who knew exactly what she was doing.

One might imagine that she was gravely disappointed in her life's journey: a woman so preoccupied with her appearance must have hoped, at one time, to get married and have her own family, presumably - or perhaps she was, like many of Mrs Angry's teachers, a nun who lost her vocation. Doesn't matter,  really: what she became was something shameful, and abhorrent: someone entrusted with the care of children, who abused her role, and caused untold damage. 

Equally unforgivable, she and all teachers and clergy like her betrayed the very thing they claimed to be defending: the true, loving Christian values that they disgraced with their own perverted interpretation of the church's teachings. 

It is a miracle that any of us retained any faith at all, after such an education, and that some did so is only due to the better examples set by other clergy and teaching staff who had genuine vocations, and a real sense of religious duty.

Miss O'Donovan taught at that school for more than thirty years, and many children were traumatised by her behaviour. The younger brother of one classmate, for example, was so badly affected by his time in her class, his parents removed him from the school, and took him to a psychotherapist for counselling.

Why did she get away with it? Because we didn't tell anyone. We accepted it, although we knew she was doing something wrong. We had to.  Life was unfair, and harsh. It was the way things were. Would anyone have believed us, or dared to challenge it? And we didn't want to tell our parents that we had been in trouble with a teacher. Parents at that time accepted the judgement of teachers without question. They accepted the authority of the church without question. 

Imagine Mrs Angry's feelings, then, looking at the death notices of this woman, 'much loved', apparently, and even  'adored' by nieces, nephews, great nieces, great nephews, given the honour of a requiem mass at Westminster Cathedral ... on a lesser scale, but still, rather like seeing those BBC stories dedicated to celebrating the life of Jimmy Savile, infuriating, offensive.

The stories that have emerged over the last year about sexual abuse of children by Savile, and others illustrate exactly why children subject to exploitation of any kind are inclined to remain silent. In those days, authority, respectability, was unchallenged. And children were seen, but not heard. 

In many years of Catholic education, sexual abuse was something, fortunately, that was unheard of, or unspoken, in Mrs Angry's experience. Not to say that it did not happen, of course, but it is easy to understand why the victims of such treatment have been silent so long.

The bullying and cruelty, the physical, emotional and psychological abuse of children by this and one or two other teachers at this school, and undoubtedly at similar establishments all over the country, however, was real, and prevalent, and has had a life long effect. 

Such an experience seeps into the core of your self confidence, your sense of security. The sense of powerlessness in the face of such treatment is hard to undo, and may never be undone, in adult life. Worse still, it may educate you to expect all relationships to be based on an imbalance of power.

Still: a sense of injustice, an urge to challenge hypocrisy, institutionalised abuse, is perhaps inevitably forged in such an environment: in later life such experience teaches you to mistrust authority, to demand honesty, decency and accountability in public life, and to defy the bullying of those seeking to impose such injustice on others.

And the voice you did not have in childhood, you find in later life: so here, Miss O' Donovan, is Mrs Angry, speaking out - and wielding her own wooden ruler ...

Rest in peace. 

If you can.


21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am 70 and my sister 71. We were sent to the convent aged 8 and 9. It never leaves you - it shapes who you are. Could never have put it so heartwrenchingly well.

Why do they always win?

Anonymous said...

The nuns at my primary school were great. However this all stopped at my (Catholic Girls) Grammar School. Bitter and twisted nuns humiliated pupils on a regular basis.
Being poor was something to be publicised to all....those on free school meals had different coloured meal tickets and formed a separate queue.Pupils not wearing the expensive cardigan from the outfitters in town, but rather an almost identical one from a normal shop would be hauled before assembly for public humiliation.I suspect the school got a hefty commission from the outfitters.The uniform changed every few years so hand me downs to siblings joining the school couldn't happen.You had to buy new. At the end of every year we had the dreaded "Call Out Day". This consisted of each form having to line up in front of the whole year group. Names would be called out in order of who had come "top" of the class, 2nd, 3rd, etc until the poor sods who came last joined the back of the line watched by everyone else.What this was supposed to achieve escapes me.Sex education was 1. Meet a good Catholic boy 2. Get married. 3. procreate.Contraception is a sin.
And as you say,everything teachers said or did was ok by our parents.My parents were wonderful and completely selfless, but priests and nuns could do no wrong in their minds.
And no, I don't go to church anymore!

Mrs Angry said...

Anon 1: as the Jesuits say, give me a child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man ... but you know, I think they only win if you let them. I don't think such treatment was unique to Catholicism, either: it was a question of unchallenged authority over the vulnerable, whether children in school, in care, people with disabilities. Hopefully we have lost our unquestioning respect for authority of any sort.

Anon 2: I went to a Catholic convent grammar too: luckily the nuns there were generally more academic and liberally minded - relatively speaking. The problem with many nuns, priest, and many teachers in my childhood was that they were from rural Irish backgrounds and had gone into the church or teaching with no genuine vocations, and were dealing with their own issues, wreaked on our heads. That said, there were one or two who were inspiring, and dedicated to their chosen roles. Most of them were barking, though, frankly.

Mrs Angry said...

Mrs Angry's friend Paula - (whose hand was cut open by one of Miss O' Donovan's beatings, for the crime of misreading the word 'island' as 'is-land') claims now that when Mrs A arrived at St Vincent's, she chose to sit herself on the top table, and so Paula (baby table) hated her on sight - despite which we are still friends, all these years later ...

Anthony Sheridan said...

After all these years I feel that pain of terror in my stomach when I remember those awful women, sister gabriel and miss o'donnovan, I hope they are burning in hell for their cruelty, never a day went bywithout a beating from sister gabriel and for no reason at all, she was a sadist I wish I could find her grave and spit on it, I am 53 now and that is how bitter that woman left me.

Mrs Angry said...

I know exactly how you feel, Anthony, although Sr Gabriel was ok with me, that was only because she seemed to find me amusing. Others had a different experience. O'Donovan was a wicked, child hating woman who should never have been given the care of young children. The effects of her cruelty pursue you into middle age, and beyond, no doubt.

Paul smith West said...

I was in the children's home at the back of st Vincent's
Plus I went to the day school
You was lucky and went home at the end of the day
The story of what we went through should be told to the public... For the sake of the children who suffered so much..

Fred said...

I went to st Vincent's school plus I was in the children's home at the back of the school you was lucky and went home at the end of the day' you can imagine what we went through
The whole story needs to be told to what happened to us' I pray to god justice will be done... E mail ragwize@hotmail.co.uk

Mrs Angry said...

Paul/Fred: if you are comfortable doing so, please feel free to email me, as I would be interested to hear more about the orphanage, which of course I remember, although we were kept separated for most of the time.
madashell999@hotmail.co.uk

Civilknit said...

I can't believe that the wicked, vicious tyrant O'Donovan has only just died and I find that I am really angry that she got to have such a long life.

I was lucky that, apart from her and the equally vicious Mrs Watts in the next year, all of the other teachers I had at St Vincent's were very nice (I managed not to have many dealings with the terrifying Sr Gabriel). Yet such is the psyhcological trauma those two inflicted that, 45 years later, I still feel such a deep loathing and hatred and I still shudder whenever I go past the school.


Mrs Angry said...

Yes, civilknit: I have the same reaction whenever I travel along the Ridgeway, and feel like I did when I was a terrified, powerless six year old, willing the coach not to stop outside school.

Ironically, although some of the old school has been demolished in the redevelopment, Miss O'Donovan's class still stands, a reminder of the generations of children who passed through her hands, marked forever.

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah! And Praise be to Mrs Angry and how I applaud you for your courage and honesty at exposing the truth concerning the monstrous cruelty of Miss O Donovan.

Thanks to Miss O and the like I spent 30 years wondering why our teachers preached about love and respect while hitting us at the same time, then someone gave me an explanation that finally solved the mystery.

It seems that back in those times in Southern Ireland it wasn't the Government or the Police that ruled, it was the local Priest, some of whom were to be greatly feared. Due to pressure put on many families it seems at least one male member and one female member were expected to enter the Priesthood, Nunnery or teaching profession, so of course if one is forced to go into a profession they never wanted, where does all that resentment go? The answer is it builds up into rage and we, the children (particularly the less confident ones, such as myself), were the scapegoats for all their anger.

Now, I'm not in the least bit condoning their actions (heaven forbid!) because there is no excuse whatsoever for such cruelty, but I finally got an answer to a question that had haunted me for all those years.

One can only hope after hearing the disappointing news of Miss O making it to 97 years old, that she is now doing penance for the next 97.

I also remember Sister Gabriel giving the whole class the strap because someone had the audacity to whisper and wouldn't own up to it (can't blame them). With any luck after having strapped so many, Sister G suffered from severe and permanent Repetitive Strain Injury.

After serving my time at St Vincents' I had the misfortune of being sent to St Thomas' and then St James' Schools where the same level of cruelty was given out. No one could ever forget the tyrant Sister Catherine (Cate), a law unto herself, whose monstrous physical appearance every bit matched her personality.

Some years ago, I was encouraged to watch the film The Magdalene Sisters, which perfectly captures the mood, so much so I sobbed throughout the entire viewing. Too distraught to phone the helpline, my loving daughter came to my rescue and I managed to go and see a counsellor and cried for another two hours, describing many awful memories - I remember sitting like robots in silent classes, year after year, which proves to me beyond any doubt that these useless individuals didn't know how to teach; they were completely inept.

To each and everyone of you who has suffered at the mercy of such outrageous individuals, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I salute you all, for you deserve to know what truly courageous survivors you are.

Yours, Mrs Lapsed Catholic from Letchworth.

Mrs Angry said...

Dear Mrs Lapsed Catholic:

I think the emotional and psychological abuse of children at these schools is something that has gone unremarked, and yet it was perhaps more prevalent and widespread than the undoubted horrors of sexual abuse.

I hope Miss O'Donovan is at the very least in purgatory, required to revisit her many acts of cruelty towards children. If so I imagine she will be there for a very long time.

Sister Gabriel could be kind: she spent a lot of time helping my badly asthmatic brother catch up on missed school work, but she was a terrifying disciplinarian. Remember the bat?

I think a lot of their agression was from deep unhappiness, and loneliness, forced into a life they did not really want. No excuse, but many Irish clergy, priests and nuns, clearly had no real vocation but opportunities for other employment in rural areas were few and far between, and it was an honour, or even an obligation for families to send some children to the seminaries etc. There were even boys in my class at school who were destined for that route: whether or not they went, after St Vincents, I am not sure.

I believe the book that the Magdalen film was based on was criticised for inaccuracies but the laundries and homes were definitely the most appalling places: only recently there were stories in a local paper in County Clare of women who are survivors of such homes in that area, still traumatised.

And all done in the name of God: a terrible blasphemy.

Anonymous said...

My sister and I were sent to the convent aged 5 & 6. It truly was a nightmare of a place. Terrifying. The nuns were vicious. I will never forget that place. And, as you so rightly put it "all done in the name of God" Wicked, evil women. We all did well to survive! My heart breaks a little when I think of the ones that maybe didn't.

With best regards to you all

Anonymous said...

I have only just now found your blog. I remember Ms O'Donovan. I have to admit that my stomach turned a somersault when I saw her name. I felt a fear that I haven't felt since I was six years old. May God forgive her because I can't !!

Victoria said...

I was in the orphanage from the age of 6 weeks until I was around 3 yrs old. My Godmother was Sister Columba. She wore a black gown with a square white/black habit. I have photos of me with her and I also have photographs of Sister Bernadette holding me in her arms outside the convent in her white gown. I learned in later years that Sister Bernadette had gone off to the missionaries and was killed by an African tribe....? Not sure if that was true. Sister Columba would regularly visit me in Whetstone to make sure I was ok and she bought me a beautiful doll called 'Katie Heartbeat'. I still have this doll which she gave me when I was 8 years old. I am now 50. I used to think this doll was so big, yet now I look at it and it feels so small! I don't remember any cruelty but I was only 3 when I left St Vincent's Orphanage.

Mrs Angry said...

I am glad you have happy memories of your time at St Vincent's Orphanage, Victoria - and that you still have your doll! There were some kind nuns and priests, and many of them gave their lives to their vocations. It's good to hear that you were treated well.

Mrs Angry said...

This morning I noted that the Holy See, Vatican City State, was reading this post, with a search specifying the children's home. Perhaps this means there is some current, or historic, investigation into allegations of abuse.

I would urge any reader who has any experiences they want to report to do so, through an appropriate channel, so that any issues that should be raised are addressed, even so many years later.

Mrs Angry said...

I note that today someone from the Westminster Diocese has also visited this post.

Anonymous said...

I am seventy five year old women I had the misfortune to go to St Vincent St Thomas and St james school's. I was abused by a priest and when I reported it one of the nun's I think it was sister Catherine locked me in a cupboard in her office and then got all my class in and asked them what they thought about me, she made sure they understood I was not a good girl, as I sat in the dark cupboard hearing her indoctrinating them, when I came out she told me I was a dirty minded little girl. This is just one instance of the hell I went through at school. I hope they all rot in hell

Mrs Angry said...

I am very sorry to hear this, Anon. I hope that you will consider reporting the incident even now, and that if you feel it would help, you are able to talk to someone in confidence about your experience.