Seán Hall takes a look at the history behind the famous Dublin school in light of the recent success of the film ‘Sing Street’
The film Sing Street is set in Dublin in the 1980s and centres around a middle-class boy whose family is down on their luck, resulting in him being forced to leave his private school, and enter the local CBS.
The school in question is the famous Synge Street CBS, founded in 1864 by the Christian Brothers, and based in the area of inner city Dublin. The film changes ‘Synge’ to ‘Sing’ as a play on words since the protagonist, Cosmo, embraces his musical talent whilst at the oppressive, less open state school he has been forced to attend.
The story makes for great entertainment, and is a true Bildungsroman for people who grew up during the period, but what is the real history of this famous Christian Brothers school which the filmmakers chose to focus upon?
Synge Street, located in the Jewish quarter of Dublin, is a part of the city steeped in history.
According to the author, M.C. McReady, a 19th century curate of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the street was named after the Church of Ireland Bishop Edward Synge of Elphin who owned property in the area at the time of his death in 1762.
He was a great-great-great granduncle of John Millington Synge, the famous playwright who wrote The Playboy of the Western World. The Christian Brothers were founded in 1806, in Co. Waterford, by Edmund Ignatius Rice.
Their purpose was to provide free primary education to the working classes of urban Ireland.
By the time of Rice’s death in 1844, the schools had spread to North Richmond Street in Dublin. The Synge Street CBS was founded on the basis of Edmund Rice’s mission. Their first pupil to enrol there was Paul McSwiney, the son of the incumbent Lord Mayor of Dublin, Peter Paul McSwiney.
Young Master McSwiney was only the first of many notable alumni to be produced by the school.
Popular RTE broadcaster and former host of the Late Late Show, Gay Byrne, claims to have discovered a love for jazz whilst attending secondary school there. This passion has since inspired him to host a Sunday afternoon show on Lyric FM dedicated to jazz.
Both David Kelly and James Plunkett of Strumpet City fame, as both actor and writer respectively, were pupils at Synge Street.
Flann O’Brien, of course under his real name of Brian O’Nolan, attended secondary school there in the 1920s.
Even a President of Phoenix Park attended, alongside the premier who ruled underneath him; Cearbhall Ó’Dálaigh and Liam Cosgrave respectively. In the world of music, Derek Warfield, lead singer of the Wolfe Tones attended the school, before entering an apprenticeship as a tailor.
In the Republican movement, Harry Boland, famously portrayed by Aidan Quinn in the movie Michael Collins, attended first before transferring to De La Salle College. According to his official biography on the Ancient Order of Hibernians website, Boland had a personality clash with one of the Brothers, perhaps foreshadowing a future of resistance to authority? Boland was killed by the Army of the Irish Free State at the Battle of the Four Courts in 1922.
In the world of sport, another tragic figure of Liam Whelan emerges from the school’s history.
He was a member of the so-called ‘Busby Babes’ in Manchester United, named after their manager, Matt Busby, who were recruited by Chief Scout Joe Armstrong and assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy.
He and seven others perished on 6th February, 1958, when British European Airways flight 609 crashed during a failed attempt at take-off from Munich-Riem Airport.
In academia, the school is noted for its participation in the Young Scientist Competition, which is competed by various schools across the island. Since 2000, the school has had three overall winners of the competition; Ronan Larkin in 2004, Abdusalam Abubakar in 2007 and Mark Kelly and Eric Doyle in 2012. Jim Cooke, winner of the 2012 EU Special Recognition for Inspiring Students in Science Award, was the main science teacher for many years at the school.
The school is clearly exceptional in its alumni of Science students. Despite only boasting 267 pupils as of 2012, the school continues to deliver a number of resounding successes in these extra-curricular field, particularly the Young Scientist competition.
The movie, Sing Street, would not have come to be were it not for the iconic nature of the Christian Brothers School established there in 1864.
Its past pupils have contributed such to the culture, governance and modern history of our nation, that we could market a secondary school, due to its iconography, to markets abroad at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
To me, that is a success for Irish education and culture.