A poem for the day – A Protestant School

This one appears – in my second collection, Rasputin and his Children – introduced by an epigraph quoting from a standard equal opportunities monitoring form, gathering info for what they call ‘the residual method’ of determining an a person’s religion. The question is ‘Did you attend primary/preparatory school in Northern Ireland? If so, please give the name… etc.’

A Protestant School

My mother lies to get me into school.
‘What shall we put him down as?”Presbyterian.’
We’re kept in when it rains. The downpour
sizzles on the big hall’s churchy windows.
We slide in sock-soles across the parquet.
P7’s hard men plot deliberate failure;
in music & Movement, P1s and 2s
pretend to be trees. ‘How high and far can
Bruce Lee really leap? What really killed him?
Who is your favourite Bay City Roller?’
Each year, to please the skeletal headmaster
who hovers in his secretary’s doorway
(at his back the Coronation portrait)
a conscript choir sings Dona Nobis Pacem.

  • Turgon

    No one has commented on this blog.

    The poem is unfortunately completely inaccurate. There are no state funded schools in Northern Ireland which accept people on the basis of being from a Protestant denomination. The Christian Schools attended by some mainly Free Presbyterians may ask such questions but I doubt it. However, no state school asks such questions. Hence, a mother would not need to lie by claiming the child was Presbyterian in order to get them to a school. Except ironically maybe an integrated school which might be worried by having too many of “one sort”. Even then, however, lying about this would be unnecessary.

    I accept that poetic licence may be acceptable at times but this is simply untruthful be it poetic or not. Incidentally neither any of the schools I attended nor those my children attend have any portraits of the Queen or any other British (or for that matter Irish) dignataries.

  • Mike the First

    I was going to pick up on that too actually…but I noticed no-one commented on these poetry threads so thought maybe it wasn’t the done thing!

    Aside from the title, what really struck me about this poem was the opening two lines – where exactly would someone have to pretend their child is Presbyterian in order to get them into a school?

    Perhaps the author could explain this part.

    (Have to say I didn’t even pick up on the “Coronation portrait” bit due to the impact on me of the first two lines, but it does ring very oddly!)

  • pippakin

    Oh ffs! A poem doesn’t have to be factual! a poem evokes a mood, and anything else the writer chooses! Right now the commenters here are evoking a strong desire in me to wring their stupid necks! Does it not evoke a time or place for you? Perhaps it does for the writer, perhaps that’s how he saw protestant schools, perhaps he thought the headmaster was a sockpuppet for the queen and the teachers marionettes for the government. Perhaps he thought savage trolls roamed the halls at night devouring any young child foolish enough to stay late…

    Perhaps you read the Charge of the Light Brigade and imagine every republican poem since is nothing but a poor facsimile…

    I swore I wouldn’t do this!

  • Reader

    Pippakin: A poem doesn’t have to be factual! a poem evokes a mood, and anything else the writer chooses!
    Would it have evoked the same mood with the first two lines absent? They are somewhat jarring; and also finger the writer as an unreliable narrator. I prefer my mundane poets to be insightful observers, not fabricators.
    Actually, those 2 lines initially made me wonder if the writer was a southerner, as there are state supported Protestant schools in the south. Though I am almost certain they don’t expect Catholics to lie to get in!

  • pippakin


    I succumbed to my very bad temper… but! If the writer wanted the first two lines to jar with some then that was and is his prerogative. Its the very essence of poetry!

    Sorry to be brief. I’m going out now…

  • Did you attend primary/preparatory school in Northern Ireland? If so, please give the name… etc.’

    Is there a possibility that Methody’s prep schools would have given “preference” to “protestants” or even “methodists” in the dim and distant past (ie well before the reign of the Bay City Rollers)?

    Other than that, I too can’t imagine having to lie about your child’s religion to get him/her into any state school, nor where there any portraits of QE2 in the ones I attended anyway- but liked the last two lines mixing “conscript” with the idea behind “dona nobis pacem”.

  • Reader, I am fingered! Of course the narrator is unreliable – this isn’t history or documentary, it’s autobiography. This is set in the early 1970s, when my family (of mixed religious background, non-churchgoing) left Belfast and I had to start school in a town my mother didn’t know. She was asked what religion we were (happened then, happens now) and didn’t have an answer (other than ‘none’, which she was I think too timid back then to give.) So she ‘lied’.
    The ‘Coronation portrait’ did hang in the head’s study; if memory serves (which it rarely does) it was a head-and-shoulders detail from the Beaton photograph.
    And Mike, comment away!

  • Turgon

    Mr. Mooney,
    I have no fundamental problem with your poems in general. However, the start of this poem is simply untrue. You claimed that your mother lied to get you into school by claiming you were a Presbyterian. That is demonstrably factually incorrect.

    Even in the 1970s very many people did not go to church: as such saying no religion or we do not go to church would have been en entirely normal reply. The one context in which the question might have been asked was that since it was a state school the headmaster was attempting to establish whether or not your mother wanted you to attend RE classes.

    That much more prosaic and vastly more likely more explanation of course would not have made for as exciting a poem.

    Whatever the reason your mother did not lie to get you into school by claiming you were a Presbyterian: your claim is, I am afraid, a lie.

  • JR

    Was WB Yeates a lier because he wrote about the faries?
    You are a philistine, (in the modern sense of the word)

  • Mike the First


    I really think you need to get a grip of yourself with your rather angry-looking comment directed at me above.

    I simply posted my own reaction, as a reader, to the poem – the first two lines struck me and I did wonder where such a scene could have taken place. Much like Reader, I did wonder of the author was talking about somewhere in the South (perhaps there are requirements there like CofE schools in England), but there “Northern Ireland” in the preamble said most likely not.

    Martin has explained the backstory to the poem (thanks for that) – and yes I’ll comment in future then!

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Sorry Turgon, I’m with the poet on this. It is possible to criticise poems for containing lies or being propagandising (the hopeless drivel Bobby Sands produced in prison would be one example; my own teenage offerings another). And while poets should not be mistaken for reporters, we shouldn’t spare poets where they seek to deceive. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. He is writing about a truth and we should accept there is an autobiographical reality here we can’t really challenge.

  • Taoiseach

    I remember State schools with pictures of the Queen. And I think it quite possible that parents would be asked religion of child as it might be relevant, not as an entry requirement but as piece of bio.

  • JR

    We had one protestant in our class in primary school. I remember feeling sad one day after talking to her because I thought she couldn’t go to heven. When I asked my mum she told me protestants went to heven too and remember I felt very relieved. There is a memory I forgot I had.

  • JR, glad the piece jogged that one loose: that was one of the motivations behind this sequence of primary school poems.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Do all Protestants go to heaven?