School Days: Recollections for The Universe


by David Alton

Joan O’Neill was my first teacher. She was from the same part of Mayo as my mother and by a happy coincidence she had also arrived in London’s East End – where I had been born within the sound of Bow Bells. My dad was also a Cockney and had just been demobbed from the Eighth Army. He was a Desert Rat.

Joan eventually moved back to Tourmakeady and by another stranger coincidence her son became the village teacher in the West of Ireland school where my mother and grandparents had been taught. Even in the East End I was never far from my Irish

Roots. I’m proud to have an Irish passport as well as a British one – and so do my four children.

Whenever we get over to Mayo I try to see Joan and even in the face of persistent questioning from my children she has been admirably loyal in not revealing the wayward doings of her five-year-old charge.

In the late 80s, when I was in the Commons, and challenging the abortion laws, I met  some pretty rabid hostility and opposition.  I was particularly encouraged when a letter arrived from Joan, encouraging me, and reminding me of the first prayers which she had taught us infants at St. Anthony’s, Clover Road.

Years later, I presented the prizes at the neighbouring secondary school and afterwards they asked me if I would like to see the church. A Franciscan priest showed me the baptismal register and my entry in it. I asked him what had happened to Fr. Andrew, the priest who had baptised me: “That’s me” he said with a mischievous grin. The baptism had been more than 40 years before.  Incidents like that remind you of the years of dedicated service which devoted men and women have given the Church – and especially to deprived neighbourhoods and immigrant families.

At five, my family were rehoused to a  flat on an overspill Council estate near Brentwood. I began primary school at St. Helens. The school was run by the Sisters of Mercy. My first teacher there was the charismatic Sister Vincent. She was always unfailingly kind, vivacious and full of energy – lifting her habit and dancing on a table to a gramophone record of ceilidh music, playing children’s songs on the piano, introducing us to an unexplored world of language and stories. Other children said she had taught their parents and even grandparents but she never seemed to age.

Later, other sisters, like our head-teacher, Sister Thecla, taught us catechism and the foundations of the faith.

Under their tutelage I also had my first lessons in fund raising. A huge wall chart was put up in school and we were each given a child in the Congo. Every penny we raised moved our child another rung up the ladder.

I was thinking about that when I went to Congo last year. Four million people have died there over the past decade and through Jubilee Action, which I helped to set up, I’m still trying to raise money for Congolese children.  It says it all that the biggest donation for the new shelter for street children in Kinshasa came from the Sisters of Mercy and one of  the patrons of the project is the Bishop of Brentwood. Their influence and commitment really does live on.

After passing my scholarship at 11, I went to a brand new Jesuit grammar school named for the Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion.

Our first headmaster, Fr. Michael Fox, tragically died just six weeks after the school opened and Fr. William Webb became the acting head.  Fr. Michael’s younger brother, Kevin, was a scholastic who taught me. Years later, having sent my own children to the Jesuit school in Lancashire, I watched as Fr. Kevin, as chairman of the Stonyhurst governing body, presented them with prizes. It  underlined for me words like continuity, fidelity, and dedication.  We should never under-estimate the incredible generosity of the men and women of Britain’s religious orders.

Many of us were from working class and tough backgrounds and sometimes there had to be a fairly tight regime but I never found the discipline oppressive. Sometimes, going home, you would have to run the gauntlet from gangs from a nearby school on the way to the railways station. I was beaten up a few times and often called an “Irish Pig” and a few other abusive things because I went to the Catholic school.  In some respects it was a useful lesson and gave me some very early opinions about treatment of minorities and intolerance.

Any negatives were more than outweighed by the extraordinary opportunity we were being given. I wouldn’t have chosen a Jesuit school for my own children if I didn’t have anything but deep and profound admiration for the Jesuit tradition – and their belief that you should use your privileges and opportunities in the service of others by being “a man for others”. That’s at the very heart of Jesuit education and I hope that more Jesuits in England will re-engage in our schools which is where their gifts are really needed.

After the school was handed over to the diocese a group of us sent a petition to the Bishop asking for Fr. Webb to be returned to us as a chaplain.  What was the point of a chapel – paid for by Alfred Hitchcock – if we didn’t have a chaplain?

We were called in to see the Bishop and the petition was a success. As Fr. Webb’s sacristan, we became quite close. Not long before he died I gave him a birthday lunch at the Commons, a suitable parliamentary venue for him to tell me that he had just finished his treatise on why he believed Guy Fawkes had been innocent! When you walk through the Great Hall at Westminster, where Thomas More and Edmund Campion both stood trial, it’s hard not to remember that our religious liberties and political freedoms have been paid for by the blood of brave men and women. So often we take our liberties and privileges for granted.

This year, on Campion Day, the school will be celebrating the 450th anniversary of the death of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Mass will be concelebrated by priests who were at school, at Campion – of which there are an impressive number. Some were good friends of mine. The school’s current headmaster, John Johnson, was a contemporary  and he has built on the strong tradition he inherited. We had some great teachers – I was particularly inspired by my history and English teachers, some of whom were the embodiment of Mr. Chips – everything an inspiring schoolmaster should be. How could I ever forget men like Dennis Brunning and Tom McCarthy, who took us to Rome on a school trip, and their loud rendition of “Faith of Our Fathers” at an audience in St. Peter’s with pope John XXIII?

At times I talked to Fr. Webb about the possibility of becoming a missionary in Africa. At 12 I had written to the Mill Hill Missionaries and told them I wanted to go to work in Kenya. Unfortunately I hadn’t told them my age; nor had I mentioned this early career move to my parents! When a priest arrived at our flat to sign me up we had to have a long talk and put the idea on hold! In the end it was the mission field of politics which grabbed me.

I started a school newspaper, called Sanctuary – which ran some controversial stories and was briefly banned: an early lesson in censorship! I briefly horrified my then  headmaster, Phil Moloney, by being elected as Chairman of the local Young Liberals.  One of the first meetings was violently broken up by the National Front and the pictures made the local newspapers.

Once headmaster and parents got over their consternation they started to actively encourage my political interests and campaigns. So Upper Sixth was spent organising demonstrations against  Russian tanks trundling into Czechoslovakia, petitions against David Steel’s abortion Bill, and organising all night sponsored walks around the school playing fields to help war victims in Biafra. I even entered the lists in a school mock election and happily saw off the Labour and Conservative candidates but was pipped by the Communist candidate – well, it was a Catholic school where we were encouraged to have  minds of our own. He was a good friend and ended up teaching there!

During Upper Sixth the head let me do some teaching in the lower school and that decided me on what to do next. What better preparation for the road north? What better foundations for life as a student in Liverpool and for the privilege that would await me in representing its people as a City Councillor and Member of Parliament?

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