Ten X 9 Belfast

Home From Home

“Is it easy?
Just to try it
Is it the same old line?
Well is it liberating?
Just to be so fine
Happens all the time”

Liberty Belle – Fontaines D.C.

Wednesday started in slightly unusual fashion…even for me. By Noon I’d bought three bottles of vodka. I bought them to illustrate a point to someone who’d asked for advice on a marketing problem. The point I laboured to make is that the contents of the three bottles was practically identical in terms of strength, taste, scent, and that it was only how each was marketed that made a difference.

My presentation would have gone better if we’d simply drank the vodka.

I them made my way to Belfast where I met my great friends Richard and Joan for dinner before we went to Ten x 9 , where I was due to tell a story.

Ten x9 is the best thing in the world…ever.

It was set up by two kind hearted souls, Paul and Padraig, as an event where 9 people each tell a  10 minute story on the same theme/topic, and the only criteria is that the story must be true. The event takes place monthly in the Black Box Theatre in Belfast. It’s free in and usually attracts a crowd of 250 to 300 DHBs…Decent Human Beings. Some nights there is a queue around the block to get in, and standing room only at the back. It’s never the same. There are a few regular raconteurs, but it’s mostly first timers, and there are always gems to be discovered. There are also  always tears , both of joy and sadness, gasps of shock, and howls of laughter.

The bizarre thing is that , although you are telling a personal story to a room of strangers, it never feels like that. It feels like the most natural thing in the world to tell this group some incredibly intimate details of your life, sometimes people reveal a piece of their life that they’ve never said out loud before. It is and honour and a pleasure to be a part of.

People come up to you afterwards and thank you for telling your story. It’s the greatest buzz. After I spoke on Wednesday a nice lady came up to me and thanked me for sharing my story. I said “You’re very kind.” A moment later a nice man came up and said how much he’d enjoyed my talk, I said “You’re very kind.” And then almost immediately another nice lady approached and said something , to which I replied “You’re very kind.” She looked puzzled, I looked puzzled, then she repeated “Have you any empties ?” I went bright red and reached down to gather up our empty Guinness glasses and handed them sheepishly to her.

Paul and Padraig have created magic.

I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed it until we returned on Wednesday for the first time in 18 months, and I got to see and hear Helen, Jim, Fergal, Herbie, Lorna, Donna and several Pauls.

It’s my home from home.

I am more than grateful to be allowed to take part.

This week I told this story.

O Brother, Where Art Thou ?

In 1976 we moved from Dundalk, which I thought was the centre of the Universe to what was actually the True Centre of The Universe, Monaghan. I was 9. I had just finished third class in the Christian Brothers School, which is the equivalent of your Year 5…only not as logical.

My Mum thought the disruption of the move from one town to another would be minimized for me if she enrolled me in the Christian Brothers School in Monaghan. So she did.

I don’t remember being asked for my opinion, but this wasn’t unusual, I was never asked for my opinion. At school I sat at the back of every class and I honestly don’t recall ever being asked a single question. I wasn’t asked to read anything out loud, to go to the board to do a sum, to point out a place on a map, or what I’d done over the holidays.

 And in my previous 5 years in Dundalk I hadn’t actually been taught by an actual Christian Brother.  I had seen them of course, stalking the halls, wearing belted habits, black trousers, black socks and sandals,  looking the complete opposite of whatever, you picture when you hear the word Christian. They always looked to be in a menacingly bad mood, and if they spoke, they confirmed it. The most menacing of all was Brother Dempsey. A giant of a man, who strode the halls with large wooden Rosary beads dangling from the left side of his belt, and a leather strap hanging from the other. These were the glory days of corporal punishment , and it was widely rumoured that Brother Dempsey had a lead weight stitched into his leather strap to maximise it’s teaching potential.

Everyone knew from their second day of school to avoid Brother Dempsey.

I was happily sitting down the back of Mr.Power’s class minding my own business, drooling on to a maths book when I heard him say “I need someone to do an errand.” A sea of hands shot up , as usual. Except mine, as over the last five years I’d learnt that there was no point.

“Bond !” he barked.

“Yes Sir, Mr.Power.” I answered , standing up nervously, assuming I was in trouble for something.

“Come here, I need you to do an errand.”

“Me, Sir ?”

“Yes ! Now please.”

I floated up to the front of the class , carried on a wave of euphoria, “Me a swan ??”

“Bond ! “

“Yes Sir !”

“Take that stupid grin off your face.”

“Sorry Sir !”

“I need you to go up to Brother Dempsey’s class and ask for the blackboard compass.”

I was no longer smirking.

I knew now why he’d asked me to do this errand. I was cannon fodder, no one would miss me.

I trudged up the green polished cement stairs to Brother Demsey’s classroom where he was teaching 5th class….your year 7. I seemed to walk along the hallway in slow motion, I could feel my mouth drying up as I walked. I stood in front of the door looking at my shoes, and summoned up the strength to raise my arm and knock on the door. And then I saw it. A large sheet of paper sellotaped to the door , shouting :




Brother Dempsey.

Hallelujah ! I’d been saved ! I skipped back downstairs to Mr.Powers room, knocked on the door, entered and proudly told him that there was a sign on the door :




Brother Dempsey.

“Get back up those stairs and knock on that door and tell him that Mr.Power needs the blackboard compass !”

I again trudged up the green polished cement stairs, moved slowly across the hallway, shuffling and sliding me feet along the floor, not having the strength to lift them.

I stood outside the door.

The sign looked even bigger this time.

I knocked on the door …tap…tap…

I saw my hand knock on the door but couldn’t even be sure I could hear it myself, as the blood was thumping through my ears.

Could I just go back downstairs and take my punishment from Mr.Power ? He just had a small stick that he’d hit us across the hand with occasionally, and without any enthusiasm.

Or would I dare just walk out the front door ?

Or….the door flew open in a whoosh. A gigantic Brother Dempsey stood before me.


“Yes Sir, Brother Dempsey Sir !”

“What does it say ???”

“Examinprogressdonotdisturbunderanycircumstancessignedbrotherdempsey, Sir, Brother Dempsey, Sir !”

“What class are you in ?”

“Mr.Power’s , Sir!”

“Go back to Mr.Power’s class and tell him…”

“Sorry Sir Brother Dempsey, Sir, but…”

He put his finger to his lips suddenly to silence me.

He put his other hand on his strap.

“Did you interrupt me ?”

I nodded.

“No one interrupts me.”

I nodded again. I was welling up. I was trying to catch my breath.

“Finish your interruption.”

“Sorry Sir, Brother Dempsey Sir, but I came up earlier to get the blackboard compass and saw the sign and went back to Mr.Power and told him that you weren’t to be disturbed, but he sent me back up and….”

“And ?” Brother Dempsey asked. I noticed his hand was no longer on his strap, and there was something on his face , that if it had been on anyone else’s face, I would have called a smile. “And ?” he repeated.

“And here we are Sir, Brother Dempsey, Sir.”

“Here we are indeed. Come in.” I followed him into the classroom. All the boys had their heads down, writing away furiously. “Here is your blackboard compass.”

“Thank you, Sir, Brother Dempsey, Sir.”

I took the giant compass and made for the door.

“Does anyone know who this boy is ?” I heard Brother Dempsey ask.

A couple of hands shot up. He ignored them, and answered himself, “Yes, you’re right, the bravest boy in the school.”

I closed the door and went and sat on the top step of the polished green cement steps and prayed that I’d never be taught by a Christian Brother.

We moved to Monaghan, I started 4th class, and was introduced to my new teacher, Brother McCabe.

Brother McCabe was not like the other Brothers. He wore a black suit instead of a habit. He had long hair, but he had no Rosary beads and no strap.

He had us act out plays in class, he had us doing projects on where our fathers worked which we then took turns presenting to the class. He never hit anyone. He never gave us any homework. When we did end of term exams he didn’t use the pre-printed folded cards that all other teachers used, he wrote each of our parents a two page letter about each of us. Really about each if us, what we liked, what we didn’t , what we were great at, and what we were not so good at.

He read our stories out to the whole class. He coached us in soccer after school, unheard of in a Christian Brothers School. He took in a record player and played us The Beatles, and Don McLean.

We loved him.

Our parents did not love him.

“Have you no homework ?”

“What do you mean he doesn’t hit anyone, is he a teacher at all ?”

“Plays ??? You’re doing plays ? At school ?”

 I only found out years later that lots of our parents complained to the school about him. For being nice. He wasn’t there the next year.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but I never sat in the back of any classroom after being taught by Brother McCabe.

A few years ago my Soulmate and I were having dinner with another couple from Monaghan, and the subject of past teachers came up, “Who was the best teacher you ever had ?” Ann asked.

“Brother McCabe “ Liam and I answered simultaneously , and then spent an hour telling our partners about how wonderful that year had been and how it had changed our lives.

“And did you ever tell him ?”

Well, no obviously, he left Monaghan in 1977, we were 10 at the time, and we never saw him again.

“He should know.” Ann and my Soulmate scolded.

I wrote to the Christian Brothers in Dublin asking if they could pass Liam and I’s thanks on, and got the following reply :

Dear Paul,

Many thanks for your surprise email in appreciation of your old teacher of almost 40 years ago, Francis McCabe. I did not know him but I was speaking to a Brother the other day who knew and he has the same opinion of him as you. He was in Monaghan CBS from August 1976 until January 1978 and left the Congregation that same year. 

You and your friend were privileged to have such a Brother teaching you and the way your described him reminds me of the film The Dead Poet Society where many people did not appreciate the teacher’s enlightened approach to education. 

We have an association of former Brothers who meet at various locations around the country for prayer and reflection and I will make inquiries if any of them are still in contact with Francis McCabe. They find these meetings a great support in their lives and many wives/partners also join them — and they are a great support to us, Christian Brothers. 

Again, Paul, many thanks to you and your friend and, especially, your wives for suggesting that you contact us as in these times it is always nice to hear some good news. 

If you are ever in Dublin please do feel free to call for a coffee.

Kindest regards,

Brother John Burke

That was 5 years ago. We have never heard anything further, but Tenx9 is magic, as we all know, so if you do ever hear this , Francis McCabe, thank you, you changed my life.



P.S. This is Liberty Belle

Author: paul

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