Late on Monday afternoon with two old school friends I set out for Thurles to attend the funeral of Brother Brett, Superior of the Christian Brothers in Athy from 1955 to 1961. His time in Athy coincided with our entry into and subsequent departure from the Secondary School then housed in the upper floors of the old school premises in St. John's Lane. As we travelled along the road we reminisced about our schooldays and the part Brother Brett had played in our lives.
He was a giant of a man. A gentle giant whom we never remember raising his voice in anger or his hand to hurt. His fresh face complexion was a clear indication of his relative youth but to young 16 or 17 year olds he seemed well entrenched in the grey eminence of adulthood which to us then seemed so far distant. Now as we look back from the quickening years of middle age we are astonished to find that Brother Brett arrived in Athy as a young 39 year old.
He died last weekend aged 78 years after several years of illness which had seen his fine strong features change beyond recognition. As the funeral prayers were said for Brother Joseph we realised for the very first time that we had not previously known his christian name. To us he was Brother Brett or simply "The Boss", a name which was his alone, long before Bruce Springsteen arrived on the scene.
Hurrying through the Tipperary countryside, 33 years after we had taken our leave of the Christian Brothers, we recalled the generosity of spirit which was the hallmark of Brother Brett and his colleagues. As Christian Brothers they dedicated their lives to others. They had forsaken the joys and comfort of family life to live in communities of men bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The personal sacrifices made by men such as Brother Brett are not always appreciated. As we stood around his coffin it seemed to us so sad that a once young man from Balla in County Mayo should die almost forgotten and unacknowledged in a strange town mourned only by his own immediate family and the members of the Christian Brothers. His Brothers in congregation were all old men whose faces bore testimony to lives dedicated to prayer and service. They had come to mourn one of their own and in his passing they recognised the drawing of the curtain which could shortly signal the end of the Irish Christian Brothers.
For over 160 years the Order founded by Ignatius Rice has provided the bedrock upon which the future of young Irishmen has been secured. Their work commenced in times of poverty and ultimately famine but throughout good times and bad the Christian Brothers gave of themselves and their resources to help Irish men to achieve their full potential.
Nowadays it is fashionable to belittle the part played by religious orders in Irish education and even to focus solely on the unacceptable behaviour of the few misguided individuals who were found wanting. We can so easily overlook the good work which was done by the Christian Brothers. We must resist the temptation to do so. After all we owe so much to those men who helped to shape our young lives and gave us the confidence to face into the future.
Our old school in St. John's Lane is now closed. The new school in Rathstewart no longer has a Christian Brother on its staff. The Monastery on the Carlow Road is home to two retired Brothers whose presence helps to continue Athy's link with the past. Many Christian Brothers have come and gone since the Orders arrival in Athy in August 1862. Their work is not yet done but it is to other men and women unburdened by clerical vows that the responsibility must now pass.
The memory of the Christian Brothers will I hope always find a response in the hearts and minds of the people of Athy. We owe them so much. The passing of Brother Brett last weekend marked the end of an era for one group of middle aged men who as 13 year old youngsters bounded up the metal stairway of the old Christian Brothers School under the watchful eye of the newly arrived Superior. "The Boss" is now dead. His memory remains. Thank you for making that memory one to be cherished.