Originally written in 2006 for simultaneous publication by QNews and The Tablet, but neither Muslim nor Catholic publication went with it…

The Jameah Islameah Islamic Educational Institute at Mark Cross in East Sussex, was once a Catholic junior seminary, where I studied for two years in the 1960s. It struck me that an Irish Catholic upbringing in England half a century ago might have resonances for young British Muslims today.

The Jameah Islameah Collegeat Mark Cross was cordoned off by the police in September 2006 amid allegations that it was being used as a terrorists’ training camp. Formerly the Legat ballet school, it had been built as an orphanage before becoming St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Junior Seminary which closed  down in 1970.

Seeing my old school branded as a jihadi’ ‘martyrs’ college’ and surrounded by police cordons reminiscent of the days of the IRA campaign of the 1970s, caused me to reflect upon the influences that drove me to attend the seminary. In many ways they echoed the alienation felt by young Muslims in Britain who may be tempted to offer their lives to Allah, not least in a preoccupation with notions of martyrdom.

I remember being stoned as a kid. It was in the early 1950s and I was five or six years old. It used to happen on the way home from St Tarcisius’ Roman Catholic Primary School in the garrison town of Camberley, in genteel Surrey.  Our assailants came from the nearby ‘non-Catholic school’, as we called it, and we use to squat down behind a wall to escape their missiles.

It was my first experience of religious intolerance. My Irish mum told me my duty was to protect my older sister, just as the 10-year-old patron saint of our school had protected the Eucharist. Pagan children stoned Tarcisius to death for refusing to hand over the holy bread he was taking to early Christians awaiting execution in the Coliseum. He had the task because adults would be stopped by Roman soldiers.

The notion of martyrdom, as for many zealous Muslims today, was a significant influence on my early years. As an altar-boy I wore with pride the medal of St Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr. The patron saint of altar-boys was a Jewish scholar who converted to Christianity and challenged his former colleagues in the synagogue. They dragged him out of the gates of Jerusalem where he too was stoned to death. 

My mother instructed me to emulate him on one of the few occasions she delivered a beating for some youthful misdemeanour. Corporal punishment, a regular feature of home and school life then, was normally left to the men-folk.

We revelled in the stories of the ‘Forty Martyrs’, tortured and executed during the Reformation for their clandestine efforts to keep the faith alive in England. We prayed for their canonisation as we prayed for the conversion of England and lustily sang hymns like ‘Faith of our fathers’ and ‘Hail glorious St Patrick’. 

The Irish nuns and priests in Catholic schools taught us that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were evil monarchs, and Oliver Cromwell a cruel tyrant who massacred our forefathers, driving them ‘to Hell or Connaught’.  

Britain’s wartime hero Winston Churchill was the villain who sent the notorious ‘Black and Tans’ to terrorise the Irish, after Sinn Fein had won 73 of Ireland’s 106 seats in the UK Parliamentary elections of 1918 but was still refused independence. The hastily recruited brigade of British soldiers whose ill-matched uniforms gave rise to the nickname, were indisciplined squads who would move on to police Palestine, where the British were intent upon establishing a homeland for Jewish people in line with the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Churchill also played a key role in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that paved the way for partition of Ireland, civil war and the assassination of Michael Collins, the revered IRA leader wrong-footed in the treaty negotiations. The promised Boundary Commission that could have re-united Ireland – like the plebiscite over Jammu and Kashmir promised when India was partitioned after independence – never took place.

Britain’s duplicity will have resonances for Muslims, brought up with their own histories of the Crusades and subsequent conflicts in which successive generations of British imperialists carved up Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

As my mother washed and ironed she sang about the martyrs who died for Ireland – from Kevin Barry, hanged as a teenage rebel, to the injured James Connolly, strapped in a chair to be shot by the British after the Easter Rising.  

Irish people in Britain distanced themselves publicly from the IRA campaign of the late 1950s, as they did when the Troubles broke out again a decade later, but privately there was fierce pride that the struggle for a united Ireland continued. Showing me pictures from our copy of Dan Breen’s My Fight for Irish Freedom, one uncle pointed out a family resemblance with the Tipperary Brigade’s quarter-master. He was seeking to assure me our family had played some part in the War of Independence.

Nonetheless, the aim of most Irish people in Britain was to blend in, and make sure their children did well at school and moved up the social scale. Our skin colour made it easier for us than other immigrant groups, but our religion remained a barrier. As children of a Catholic policeman, we lived in a peculiar kind of ghetto with a very restricted social circle. It is difficult to know now whether we shunned or were shunned by the non-Catholics. Like some Muslims, we judged everybody according to their religion – pop stars, politicians, actors, writers: Catholics good, Irish Catholics better – the rest were Protestants, Jews, godless or, worse still in the family reckoning, homosexuals. 

I was told I was not welcome in the local Scouts because I was a Catholic. We were reliably informed that my father’s early career was blighted by his religion, because only Freemasons made it to the top. My Irish grandfather – whom legend had it was disowned for becoming a policeman when he emigrated to England – never rose above the rank of constable. 

We derided non-believers because they tolerated divorce, as anathema to us as ‘trial marriages’ or ‘living together’. ‘Lapsed Catholics’ were to be avoided, and anyone who married outside the Church was an apostate – an ideological position also familiar to Muslims.  I was 45 when I learned, from my non-Catholic aunt on her deathbed, that most of the stories we had heard about her were untrue. 

We were proud to belong to a universal church and to share a common language which, like Arabic for Muslims, meant that at prayer we were at home anywhere in the world, even if we did not really understand Latin.  In those days the signal for recitation of the Angelus, three times a day, was a church bell. Today more people are familiar with the muezzin’s call to prayer.

The liturgical year provided a rhythm to life. I could name the saints for every day of the year, until the 1969 Vatican Council changed everything.

On St Patrick’s Day, Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday we wore the badges of our belief with heads held high. We didn’t worry when our peers mocked us for not eating meat on Fridays or for fasting during Lent, because we got extra days off school for Holy Days of Obligation.

When they sneered that we owed our loyalty to Rome rather than the Queen, we retorted that non-Catholics had stolen all our churches during the Reformation, and the law forbade us from running the country anyway. We had little sympathy for the Protestant martyrs executed by Queen Mary; they had got what was coming to them. When we lit fireworks on Bonfire Night it was to celebrate the Gunpowder Plot rather than the execution of our hero Guy Fawkes. 

I never doubted the rectitude of my position, after all doubting one’s faith was sinful. My enduring ambition was to become a priest, like my missionary uncle in Africa. It was expected that every large family (we had eight children) would sacrifice a child to the Church. I only lasted two years at the junior seminary in Mark Cross, which would later become a ballet school when ‘vocations’ dipped, and was then sold on to its current Muslim owners. I rebelled against the censorship that tried to stop us reading newspapers (especially stories about the Profumo scandal) or any secular literature. The experience instilled in me a nose for hypocrisy and cant. 

My next headmaster refused to support my application to “that Marxist seminary” Sussex University, even though his brother worked for the News of the World, a newspaper then banned from Catholic homes. My parish priest withdrew permission to collect signatures against the arms trade outside church after one military man objected.

I discovered that it was part of my father’s unofficial duty to escort erring priests to the airport to make sure they went back to craggy Ireland, and that Catholic businessmen, who had founded the Catenians in 1908 as an alternative to freemasonry, were hiring Catholic ex-convicts because they could pay them below the going rate. Later still I witnessed parishioners in London hounding out an Irish parish priest with false accusations, just because he had stood up to the racists in his congregation.

Nonetheless at Sussex I chaired the Howard Society – named after one of the Forty Martyrs – and encountered new forms of anti-Catholicism. As a priggish student who fiercely defended his own virginity and that of all around me, I was shocked by the xenophobia and hypocrisy of my English girlfriend’s posh parents who warned her against going out with an Irish Catholic for fear that, being opposed to contraception, I might impregnate her! Even the peculiar fervour of evangelical non-conformists was preferable.

My personal tutor told me religion was ‘something you come to university to grow out of’, but it was the time of the Christian-Marxist dialogue and I was gripped by ‘liberation theology’. I was radicalised by Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, who said if we really wanted to change the world, we should start with the West rather than exporting our zeal to the Third World.  

Fuelled by my fascination with martyrdom, my adolescent writings were infused with a desire to take risks for my beliefs. No doubt they would land me in trouble today if the security forces were seeking out Irish Catholic zealots instead of Muslims. Like others at the time, I got a buzz to discover our efforts were attracting attention from the Special Branch. 

When I wrote a scathing response to an attack on ‘student revolutionaries’ by novelist John Braine in the Catholic Herald, he swore he would stop me from ever becoming a teacher. He had an unlikely ally at the secondary school where I got my first job, teaching religion. The head was something of a rarity, a Roman Catholic running a State school. He was paranoid that my appointment, while he was on holiday, would lay him open to accusations of favouritism and undermining the school’s Anglican bias. He refused to enter my classroom where we examined world religions and discussed what was happening in the North of Ireland.

The Troubles were in full swing again and, as now when stereotyping leaves a stigma on all Muslims, the media routinely represented the conflict as a war between Catholics and Protestants. Internment without trial, mistreatment of suspects, miscarriages of justice and media censorship were as familiar to us then as they have become in the post-9/11 ‘war against terror’. 

Anti-Irish racism ran higher than anti-Catholicism and after the 1974 Birmingham bombings even the most integrated Irish community activists found themselves under suspicion. Calling for Troops Out, defending IRA hunger strikers, or campaigning against the six year Broadcasting Ban – designed to deny ‘the oxygen of publicity’ to speakers, songs or programme that might be considered to ‘glorify terrorism’ – was a risky business. Like others with an Irish passport I was forever being stopped at borders.

Of course when I began to visit Ireland I quickly discovered that most of my surviving relatives had emigrated and, with no recognisable accent or family name, I had lost the roots I thought defined my identity. Children of Asian immigrants face a similar dilemma when they revisit the countries their parents continue to think of as home. 

My children have not benefited from the huge cultural blanket that comforted my early years, and the wealth of history and knowledge it gave me. It instilled in me a deep sense of justice and a willingness to identify with ‘the outsider’. However, it also warped my view of the world, insulating me from a broader range of influences which, in later life, have added immeasurably to my understanding.

The next generation has been brought up in a multi-cultural society, and anti-racism is second nature to them.  They know about their origins and respect those of others. Our family has expanded to include Anglicans, Protestants, Muslims, a Buddhist, and a sprinkling of agnostics and atheists as well as those who have lovingly ‘kept the faith’.  Gone is the latent anti-Semitism that surfaced when my brother married a Jew, and the homophobia which has caused so much misery among our friends.

It is so much easier to hide within the confines of a ‘given religion’ than to risk uncertainty and exclusion by trying to discover which parts of our early influences are ‘faith’ and which are ‘cultural indoctrination’. 

When the society around you appears to be hostile to your religion, and even your family history, it is tempting to adopt the clothes of the zealot and fight back.  But that does not eradicate the imperialism of the past – Roman, British, or American. 

I hope that today’s young British Muslims will not take as long as I did to realise that bigotry begins at home and takes hold of us in ways we find hard to admit. As a young man I would not have dared to criticise the Irish Jesuit who refused to baptise my first-born at the Easter vigil ‘for fear it would imply that the church supported your politics’; or my priest uncle who downed a half bottle of brandy before celebrating a family house Mass and humiliating my cousin because her marriage had ended in divorce. 

Challenging injustice and hypocrisy only makes sense if it includes a critical analysis of your own predicament. The starting point is to ask questions – of everyone, including yourself. It broadens the mind, makes the acceptance of ‘difference’ possible, and highlights the value of a message common to all world religions – ‘Do as you would be done by’.  

It is a message world leaders of every faith would do well to heed, rather than pursuing policies that foment distrust and fundamentalism on all sides. 

Bristol, 30 April 2006


Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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