Dad’s Diary

Dad’s Diary

In the deepest dusk, I found myself in a Hampshire woods, reading the names of Irish holy women from their graves. Many of these departed nuns were born in the 19th Century, and had lived through times of great upheaval, war and conflict.

It moved me to see my compatriots buried in exile, many long forgotten. I whispered an Ár nAthair. As I contemplated the distant times these sisters had seen, the thought struck me, that our baby, there asleep in my wife’s arms, might – God willing – live to see the 22nd Century, for a baby born this year will turn 82 in the year 2100.

We were visiting my wife’s old school for her reunion when we had wandered down the wooded pathway, that led us to discover the small old cemetery.

The school itself is a rambling, dramatic and eccentric gothic building, overlooking a broad spread of English parkland. It has been a girls’ Catholic school since the 1920s. Before that it had been the palatial home of Empress Eugenie, the widow of Napoleon III of France. She had lived here in exile, giving shelter to French religious escaping the persecutions of 19th-Century France and founding the nearby Benedictine Abbey.


This reunion marked 20 years since my wife had left school. It was my first time visiting the place, and it helped me make sense of my wife’s coming of age. She told me tales as we wandered down grand old corridors, and up winding stairs into towers.

She caught up with old friends and we met the former headteacher, a sprightly sister from Dublin. All those who work in education touch young lives. She was no different, having helped my wife in profound ways at a critical time of life.

It was also a pleasure to meet another favourite former teacher, a nun from Miltown Malbay in Co. Clare.

It was fascinating to think how so many such formidable, brilliant and kind Irish nuns have educated and influenced generations of young women in schools like this across England, and indeed around the world. The evening was also a rare chance for myself, my wife and our new baby to be together – just the three of us. Our other three kids were happy in the care of their grandmother just down the road.

I could see the impact that this unique place had on my wife. Secondary school is just around the corner for our kids now. Soon we must decide where to send them. It is a profound decision, which will impact the nature of the person they become.

There is no doubt that the culture and values of a school help to shape the child in perhaps permanent ways. Hence the current battles over religious ethos in schools in Ireland – their power is understood. Hence people spend so much on fee-paying schools.

Yet the thought of elite education troubles me. I do not like the idea of closing our children off from swathes of society. I hate the thought that children whose parents have less get a worse education.

At least we are a few years away from such decisions yet.

Yet those turbulent, critical teenage years loom ever larger. Perhaps what is most daunting about the short half-decade between the ages of 13 and 18 is that one moment you have a child, the next there is a fully independent man or woman standing before you.

That five-year period is the blink of an eye, yet the change is an utter metamorphosis. And then, with aching hearts, we must let go of them.