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An Old Boy's speech 48 years in the making

author: Lorrie Liston

25 Mar

An Old Boy's speech 48 years in the making

This is a full transcript of Peter Mackey’s (SPC 1966-70) speech given at the St Patrick’s College Old Collegians Association’s St Patrick’s Day Luncheon on Saturday March 17, 2018.

 

SPEECH TITLE: “If you cannot be a good example then serve as a horrible warning.”

                                        

I have been sitting on the interchange bench for 48 years waiting to give this speech.

It must be some sort of record. Let me explain.

In December 1970 I attended a Year 12 dinner, in the old dining room, and in my capacity as school captain I was supposed to deliver a short speech reflecting on my time at school and thanking teachers.

I never delivered this speech as the person seated next to me collapsed and died. I refer to the tragic death of Monsignor Bill McCunnie, who was our guest of honour.

Despite the best efforts of Sister Nancy Phelan and Doctor Walker, Monsignor McCunnie died within minutes of his collapse.

The Monsignor was a venerable old boy of St Pat’s. He was from Terang and boarded in the 1930’s; was the school chaplain in the 1950’s; and at the time of his death he was the secretary to Bishop O’Collins - one of the two Patrons of the school.

After the tragic moment, our school dinner came to an abrupt end, and I led my Year 12 school mates up to the school chapel to pray for the repose of his soul.

Afterwards, we were all still in shock having witnessed someone die in our presence, and I recall, with no disrespect intended, a certain school boy coping mechanism or black humour, kicked in.

For example one mate said: “Mack you didn’t get to give your valedictory speech”.

Another class mate replied “Don’t worry about Mackey not giving his speech. That was a case of divine intervention and God showing he was merciful.”

Finally, an even more ungracious utterance was made by a third class mate: “Some people will do anything to avoid listening to you Mackey”.

 

WHY I CAME TO ST PAT’S

Today I have been given a unique second opportunity to  look back at my time at St Patrick’s College which commenced in 1966.

I sincerely hope the person seated next to me today is not feeling a little anxious.                                 

Over the last 125 years, approximately 35,000 students have come to St Pat’s for an education in the Edmund Rice tradition. (I recently gleaned that statistic from the very helpful school archivist Catriona Banks).

There would have been many reasons why these 35,000 students were sent to St Pat’s.

My reasons briefly were:

  • My dad died when I was aged two. Mum did the best she could to bring me up, particularly after my two older brothers left home.

  • But when I was aged 12, mum was hospitalized for many months. Accordingly, I was cared for by my older brother John, who made the momentous decision to send me to St Patrick’s College, Ballarat.

  • My brother was told by a Christian Brother at Parade College that I needed some discipline and structure. I suspect I wasn’t unique in that regard.

  • My brother John may also have been influenced by the fact our uncle, was a Christian Brother, for 52 years. Brother Ignatius Mackey came to St Patrick’s as successor to Brother Purton in 1940.

He was the nineteenth Principal at St Pat’s from 1940 to 1942; and thereafter was the Provincial of all of Australia and New Zealand for 10 years (1943 to 1953) and Bursar for the new Southern Province, which is a tribute to his leadership qualities and brilliant acumen in administration.

The other matter I can add about my uncle, occurred many years after he died, and I finished at St Pat’s. Someone said to me: ”Peter you must of made a good impression when you were at St Pat’s because they named a rowing boat and a dormitory after you.”

I waited at least 10 seconds before divulging the Mackey boat and Mackey dormitory were named after my famous uncle.

The English novelist Graham Greene said in “The Power and the Glory” (1940) - “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in”.

This was my experience at St Pat’s.

 

LEARNING AT ST PAT’S

When I first arrived at St Pat’s aged 13, I was very naïve. For example:

  • I was surprised to learn Jesus was a Jew. I thought he was a Catholic.

  • In Form 3, I was the only student in Peter ‘Jake’ Farley’s English class who didn’t know that the word W.E.T.H.E.R. was a noun meaning ‘a castrated ram’.

  • I remember putting my hand up during quiet reading time and asking what the word meant.

  • Jake looked at me with disbelief as everyone in the class for some inexplicable reason, began to laugh at my question.

  • In hindsight, Jake had to make a decision whether I was ‘taking the Mickey” to get a cheap laugh or I was dim witted and obtuse. He made the right call and explained the meaning of WETHER to me.

  • But Jake never let me forget it and for the remainder of my time at school he would often ask: “How is the WETHER today Mackey”.

  • ‘Jake’ Peter Farley died in 2011 aged 74 after 40 years working at St Pat’s, which is a record only eclipsed by Brother Bill O’Malley’s 48 years of service.


In 1970 I was going to thank ‘Jake’ at the aborted Year 12 dinner for the influence he had on me at school over five years.

This related more to life skills learned outside the classroom than the English, Latin and history he taught inside the classroom.

For example after I lost the under 15 tennis final to John Ciezki 6-4 6-4 and I was a bit crest fallen, he told me to get over it, show some grit and be more resilient.

In 1969 Jake encouraged me to play basketball  in a squad of 11 boys to compete in the  school boy championships in Melbourne, which attracted around 30 under 18 teams through-out Victoria. Although I wasn’t anywhere near as talented as my school mates Patrick Murphy, Gerard Tatireta, Patrick Fallon and Graeme Jilbert, Jake got me to focus on what I was good at and not always on what I was trying to master.

Another time Jake drove myself and two other country boarders to Melbourne for the day. I went to the MCG to see the mighty Dees play. We were to meet Jake at 5.15pm outside Parliament House in Spring Street.

Unfortunately I waited outside the Old Treasury building in Spring St (not Parliament) and Jake waited for nearly two hours with the two country boarders before I realised I was in the wrong spot.

In class on Monday Jake told everyone that he took two country kids and one city kid to Melbourne for the day; and it was the city kid who got lost.

I don’t hesitate to mention that one of those two country boys was Bernard Clarke from Creighton’s Creek, near Euroa. Bernie and I played cricket together for five years.  He was my captain in the first eleven for our last two years; and I was vice captain in 1970. We also played in the Ballarat Public School’s combined eleven, for two years, against the best combined Melbourne school’s team.

When Bernie was a second year seminarian at Corpus Christi College, Werribee, he was tragically killed in a car accident at Euroa when visiting home in July 1972. I remember Bernie’s smiling face fondly today and our exploits on the cricket field.


CORPORAL PUNISHMENT (Exhibit A: The leather strap)
What I don’t have fond memories of was getting the leather strap from time to time from various teachers for, inter alia, smoking, leaving the school premises without permission, and adopting a “team approach” to learning the Latin vocabulary, with my good mate Allan McKinnon.

In this last instance, I learnt the left hand column of Latin vocabulary and Allan learnt the right hand column. The idea was we would sit together; and share our information when we did written tests in class. This came horribly unstuck one day when Allan and I had exactly the same wrong answer. Jake punished our cheating with the strap.

Ironically, it was an Old Boy of St Pat’s (and his political party) that introduced legislation that banned all Victorian schools from using the strap to discipline students. I refer to Steve Bracks, the 44th Premier of Victoria from 1999 to 2007.

I know many of you are wondering where I got this old leather strap from that I am holding up.

 Dr Peter Casey, who was an energetic Principal at St Pat’s for 13 years (2002 to 2014) - indeed the first lay principal of the school - has kindly made available to me today, this old leather strap, affectionately known as “the gat” from his memorabilia collection.

For a small fee payable to the Old Collegians Association, Peter may be prepared to demonstrate its effect on any old boys who are feeling nostalgic.

 

COUNTRY KIDS

When I started at St Pat’s I gravitated to the country kids at school who didn’t mind my ignorance of all things rural.

Indeed my very good mate Allan McKinnon invited me to his parents’ house in Ecklin South, near Terang, a number of times. Here I learnt how to milk cows, shoot rabbits and hay bale.

But I didn’t exactly endear myself with the McKinnon family when I nearly shot their ginger cat thinking it was a fox. Allan’s father Jimmy, used to assert, with much laughter, their cat used up eight of its nine lives, when I stayed with them at Ecklin South.

 

TALKING ABOUT SEX

It is fair to say that for adolescent boys, sex was a common topic of conversation. Three examples come to mind when I was at school.

Firstly, I recall my good mate Shaun O’Shannessy from Timberoo South, Ouyen asking me, early in our time at school whether tongue kissing with girls was a mortal sin.

I gave this grave moral conundrum a great deal of thought.

Unfortunately, Brother Timothy O’Brien’s Form 3 discussion about the mating habits of newts,  didn’t really inform my answer to Shaun. (Newts are semi-aquatic amphibians with a curious reputation for getting inebriated, which frankly I have never understood).

Ultimately I resolved tongue kissing was only a mortal sin if you had not introduced yourself first or you had chewing gum or food in your mouth .

Afterwards my sex discussions with Shaun became a lot more sophisticated; and I recall one item on the agenda was – how long was it polite to pretend to continue to listen to a girl after she has revealed she has a boyfriend.

Finally on this subject, I recall in Year 12 reading interesting novels like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1925) and D .H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” (1913) for English Literature taught by one of my favourite teachers Brother John O’Sullivan.

But Lawrence’s controversial novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1928) which was banned in Australia from 1928 until 1965 attracted my interest more. (If you were to read this book today you would wonder what all the fuss was about).

Anyway, I somehow got hold of a well-thumbed copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, which I tucked inside Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (1886).

 

In particular, I remember turning around to Michael Collins in night study to discuss a particularly salacious part of the book and said “Mick you’re not going to believe where the game keeper is placing the flowers on Lady Chatterley”.

Whilst we fell about laughing Brother Ormie Wynne appeared from nowhere and was less than pleased with my disruptive behaviour.

Indeed when I was appointed school captain two weeks later Brother Wynne came up to me and said: “If it was up to me Mackey, you wouldn’t have been appointed school captain”.

 

I didn’t hold any ill will because Brother Wynne was a most affable man; well respected and in the 14th year of teaching service at St Pat’s.

Also 12 months earlier he appeared to turn a blind eye when he saw Keith Dorman (from Birregurra), Des Curran (from Manangatang) and myself, surreptitiously walk back across Sturt Street from the imposing 1877 Bishop’s Palace, where the three of us had a cigarette under the Bishop’s beautiful rhododendron plants, after a successful cricket match. I admit this occurred more than once in 1969.

 

UNINTENDED GRAFFITI [Exhibit B: the benediction candle]

The other matter I need to “fess” up to occurred when I was an altar boy for Father John McKinnon . (Father J.S. McKinnon was chaplain at St Pat’s for eight years up to 1969).

 I remember being chosen to help with the blessed sacrament of Benediction.

But sadly I was only invited once and didn’t get the ultimate job of dangling the golden thurible so it puffed out incense at the end of every swing.

My direct Benediction experience really started and finished in the sacristy when I was asked to hold aloft a large lighted candle. Whilst I was waiting for Father McKinnon to put on his liturgical vestments, I held this long lighted candle overhead in the sacristy until it almost touched the ceiling.

For some mysterious reason I mindlessly made out my initials PM in black smoke on the ceiling. To my horror, my initials stayed because the flame touched the ceiling. I can assure you that is the first and last time I tagged graffiti anywhere.

I should add that after the mass this morning in the school chapel, I visited the sacristy to make sure my initials have been erased.

 

ST PATRICK’S DAY JOKE

These school boy experiences have helped form my sense of humour, and interest in human idiosyncrasies; and because today is St Patrick’s day I thought I would tell you a short Irish joke that deals with peculiar human reactions.

Shortly after take-off on an outbound evening Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Boston, the lead flight attendant nervously made the following painful announcement in her lovely Irish brogue:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m so very sorry, but it appears there has been a terrible mix-up by our catering service. I don’t know how this happened, but we have 103 passengers on board, and unfortunately, we received only 40 dinner meals. I truly apologize for this mistake and inconvenience”.

When the muttering of the passengers had died down, she continued “Anyone who is kind enough to give up their meal so that someone else can eat will receive free, unlimited alcoholic drinks for the duration of our five-hour flight.”

Her next announcement came about two hours later: “If anyone is hungry, we still have 40 dinners available”.

 

SPORT

I cannot sit down without saying something about sport. When I was at St Pat’s sport meant everything to me, whether it was cricket, football, basketball, tennis or handball in the old “jerks” courts that once stood where the Old Collegians Association Pavilion is today.

I wasn’t a very good student at school;  and I still don’t know what a parabolic curve is.

My school reports had words to describe me like “spasmodic”, “distracted” and “can be disruptive”.

Indeed one teacher summed it up by asserting: “most students drink at the fountain of knowledge. Peter only gargles there occasionally”.

Sport gave me discipline, skill challenges, camaraderie, self -esteem, and I felt valued.

Whilst I was an average footballer, I was a reasonable cricketer. At least I thought so until I attended one of those splendid quarterly Old Boy gatherings last year, at the Emerald Hotel, organised by Michael Dowd and my vice -captain of the college Noel Sheehan.

At this gathering our esteemed former first eleven wicket keeper John Szewczuk from Robinvale told me the reason he had “dodgy “ arthritic knees now, was because approximately 50 years ago he spent a lot of time diving and falling on the ground trying stop so many of my balls bowled wide down leg side.

All I can say is going to an Old Boy reunion is like barracking for the Melbourne football club - it keeps you humble and you cannot get ahead of yourself.

Brother Luke Guthrie (as he then was) was my coach in the first eleven and first eighteen. He was a shrewd and knowledgeable coach and I enjoyed the challenges he set me on the sporting field.

I spoke to Luke only last month. He is married, lives in Mildura and has four children and eight grandchildren. Luke and his wife Marion have for many years supported various English teaching projects in Peru; and spent a year living there.

 

TRANSITION FROM ST PAT’S TO LAW SCHOOL

Forty-eight years ago, I found study an uphill struggle in Year 12. In fact, I was on first name terms with St Jude, the Patron Saint of impossible causes.

I barely passed HSC, but somehow managed to get into Monash University to do an Arts Degree thanks to a good mark in Brother O’Sullivan’s English Literature subject (and some inspiration from Lady Chatterley).

After 12 months I transferred to Arts/Law and knuckled down so to achieve my dream of becoming  a  lawyer .

Someone asked me recently, what valuable life lessons I learned on the way that I can pass onto present and future students of St Pat’s. I have always enjoyed reading what other alumni have stated when asked this question. There is a common theme of resiliency, adapting to change, and a good mindset. For my part, I will just list three simple points.

Firstly, a mere number or exam mark doesn’t define you, nor is it a predictor of future success or failure.

Secondly, opportunity often comes disguised in the form of misfortune or temporary under achievement.

Thirdly, it sometimes takes several years and a few false starts to find your feet.

When my son Luke was at school, these lessons were eloquently encapsulated in one sentence by a VCE teacher Ann Rennie who wrote in the Age newspaper (December 13 2004): “...Success is rarely linear. The important lesson in life is about the circuitous, scenic, occasionally gridlocked route to the right destination”.

 

LEGAL CAREER

I enjoyed my career as a specialist family lawyer, and independent child representative despite the immense pressure, at times, of distraught clients with heart rending stories of emotional and physical abuse, torment, threats, and manipulation.

However, I feel privileged to have met some of the real heroes in our society, through my work, such as:

  • Mothers bringing up children with physical and/or mental disabilities with very little assistance; and

  • Fathers fighting for reasonable contact with their children in the face of insidious parental alienation, a cumbersome legal system and high legal costs

Now is not the time to recite war stories from my time in the Family Court.

 

WARNING TO BLOKES

Instead I will briefly tell you why I left the legal profession after more than 30 years and became a gardener/landscaper. This story may be of benefit to some of you.

In 2008 I developed a persistent irritation in the throat.

I went to my local doctor, at the urging of my dear wife Bronwyn. The doctor put me on antibiotics to no avail.

 I returned to my doctor and said;

“I have only had three days off work sick in over three decades. I know something is wrong now. If you don’t have the equipment to look down my throat, please refer me to a specialist who can”.

Little did I know at the time, but this persistence saved my life.

 A biopsy shortly thereafter by an ENT surgeon revealed I had an aggressive stage 3 carcinoma of the lower tongue base, necessitating multiple CT scans and PET scans; and six weeks of radiation in a custom made mask, fixed to a table. Because swallowing was not possible halfway through the radiation treatment a PEG tube was inserted into my stomach and I was fed through a tube for two months.  

I came out the other side tumour free without any metastases.  But I did incur some radiation damage to my salivary glands, and voice box etc which prevented me from resuming my career as a family lawyer that required me using my voice up to 10 hours per day.

The moral of this rather self-indulgent story, is we have to be pro-active with our own health. Men in particular don’t hesitate to get assistance when their car, lawn mower or electrical appliances break down.

But when a health issue arises there is a tendency to be stoic and do nothing. We simply cannot do that anymore, and get away with it.

I think you now know why I wanted to title this speech: “If you can’t be a good example, serve as a horrible warning”.

 

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, whilst I have very happy memories of my boarding school days, I am not unmindful this hasn’t been the experience of some who attended my school. I have taken a keen interest in the evidence taken by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Case Study 28 (Catholic Church Authorities in the Ballarat Diocese).

It is not appropriate now to give my personal opinion on the systemic failures at individual and institutional levels within the Catholic Church in the Ballarat Diocese.

But it is clear the findings of the Commission are deeply upsetting for the victims and survivors and their families; as well as the many Brothers and lay staff who have served St Patrick’s College so well for many, many years.

Today, I belatedly acknowledge the dedicated teachers during my time at school like Brother O’Malley, and Peter Farley, (referred to earlier) together with Peter Morris [SPC staff 1965-1969], Brother Ormie Wynne (SPC staff 1957-1970), Luke Guthrie (SPC staff 1967 to 1972), Tom Halliburton who spent an aggregate period of 23 years at St Pats (SPC staff 1941-1954 & 1963-1971) and Brother Timothy O’Brien (affectionately known as “Ra”) who spent at least 26 years of his 51 years as a Christian brother at St Pat’s (SPC staff 1933-1937; 1943-1945; 1961-1978). Brother O’Brien taught mainly at middle school level, but he was in charge of McCann House, for Year 12 students, in my final year. Like so many other boys, I appreciated his calm considered manner, and regret I didn’t get to thank him at that cancelled Year 12 dinner 48 years ago.

I also applaud the current school headmaster John Crowley and the senior students for the way they have engaged the Ballarat community and past old boys who were victims of hideous and outrageous abuse by some brothers and priests.

I know my school now has in place robust child protection policies and mandatory reporting practices to safeguard students, and to make sure that the school achieves its mission of “raising fine boys to the status of great men”.

 

NOW IN APPRECIATION

When I look back at my school boy achievements (no matter how small) I sometimes say to myself: “Thank you St Pat’s”.

When I look back at my life, my career and my enduring friendships with my old classmates, I say “Thank you St Pat’s”.

My class mates have witnessed many of my highs and lows; and despite the fact I am still subjected to good natured disparaging remarks, similar to what occurred outside the chapel on that fateful night 48 years ago, I acknowledge my mates’ contribution to my welfare.

When I have a drink and a bite to eat with these mates from time to time at the Emerald hotel and other salubrious establishments, and we wistfully recall our school days (and ‘politely’ correct one another’s recollections), I come away thinking “Thank you St Pat’s”.

And once again today, I say very sincerely: “Thank you St Pat’s for 125 years of service”.