Castleknock College Union

Skinners in the 50's

John Kelly '53 remembers

May 20, 2017
Skinners in the 50's -


In his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, James Joyce describes in over elaborate detail his punishment whilst a student in Clongowes Wood College when, because he had broken his glasses, he was unable to do his lessons.

“Lazy idle little loafer! ‘ cried the Prefect of Studies. “Broke my glasses! An old schoolboy trick. Out with your hand this moment. “Over the following two pages in the Portrait, a graphic and fully detailed description is given of the pandies (slaps on the hand with a cane) he received with the result that “the scalding water burst forth from his eyes and burning with shame and agony and fear, he drew back his shaking arm in terror and burst out with a whine of pain.” There can be no doubt that this was a grossly exaggerated portrayal of the corporal punishment practice in Clongowes, which was, and still is, a great college run by the Jesuit Fathers.

Joyce’s time in Clongowes was in the 1880's and corporeal punishment for misdemeanours was universal practice in all the primary and secondary schools in Ireland. This was still much the same situation in the 1950's when I was a student in the very excellent Vincentian run Castleknock College. In our hindsight, we now regard such practice as wrong, maybe even barbaric, but at that time it was normal and accepted practice by both students and teachers in all our schools.

On my 5th year in Castleknock, aged 16 - 17, I kept a science copybook record of every skinner (our terminology for slaps) I received, what I was “sent” for, who “sent” me, and how many skinners I got. “Sent” was the term used for being told to report to the Dean for being a 'bad boy' such as for talking in the Study Hall, or in the dormitory at night after lights out, or for smoking when you got four if caught outside, six if caught indoors.

When sent to the Prefect of Studies for class issues, you were given a docket signed by the teacher and after the Prefect of Studies signed it, you brought it back to your teacher as confirmation that punishment had been administered. We had an enterprising boy in our class, Sydney, who had the makings of a graphic artist and was an expert at perfectly copying the Prefect of Study’s signature, and for sixpence, I recall was his fee, he would sign it so you could dodge the skinners. It was good value.

The usual number of skinners one got was four (two each hand) for a regular misdemeanour, six (three each hand) for a more serious one, and nine (three each hand and backside, referred to as three each way) for a very serious one, and which was indeed very rare.

To my great sorrow, I lost that copybook record of my punishments, but thankfully my good friend and fellow classman Joe MacAvin retained his, which he has now donated to the College Museum.

Photographed below are excerpts detailing skinners he received in his final year 1952-53  - 127 in total!


click on photos to enlarge

The Head Prefects for 1952-53 were Harry Slowey, Paddy O’Flynn and myself, John Kelly, referred to here as jjkelly. Our names occur often on Joe’s list, which is to be expected for whilst it was always the Deans who administered punishment, beyond the classroom, it was the prefects who were the primary source of their referrals.

In the five years before our 6th year, Joe and I were the best of friends, which friendship somehow survived our 6th year when he was not a Prefect, and was “sent” on a number of occasions by me - once for “not being in the study hall for prayers” and got 3 skinners, and later “for smoking in the parlour” when he got 6 skinners. We are still very good friends and have had great laughs in recent times in discussing his record.

On leaving Castleknock, Harry Slowey joined the Vins and later, was the College President. Paddy O’Flynn joined me along with two others from our Honours Maths class to do Chemical Engineering in UCD, where like me again, he spent his life on the staff there. Joe's record also shows that Harry and Paddy on the toss of a coin occasionally let him off. Paddy remains justifiably proud of this and delights in pointing out my lack of clemency in this regard.

On the excerpt for Easter Term, it can be noted that Gerry McManus, a prefect, sent the whole 6th year dormitory of Saint Aloysius, about 20 of his classmates, for general rowdyism after lights out. This we remember for when he came back to join us other Prefects playing billiards, we couldn't believe that he had sent all of his ALS classmates. We were gob smacked, so much so it was even remembered on my wedding day - Gerry was my best man.

Today these events would be viewed as unusual, but back then such punishment procedures was the norm and whilst not exactly our favourite part of College life, it didn't make us particularly sad or unhappy during our days there. Castleknock was a great college then and still is, and I have no doubt that we were very proud of being Knock boys and are very pleased that our parents in their wisdom, and with some sacrifice to their pockets, decided to send us there.

Professor Emeritus John Kelly

University College Dublin