Thursday, September 22, 2011

Breaking down the Walls

I have seen many walls in my time. Around houses and estates. Marking fields in the west of Ireland. And even under them in the excavations of the Ceidhe Fields.

I have walked along by the ruins of Hadrian's Wall in the north of England, built by the Romans to try and keep the Scots out of the furthest reach of their empire. I looked again recently at the remains of the Berlin Wall, now an artistically-graffited tourist attraction.

I have passed through the wall being built around Palestine areas in Israel. The builders a nation descended from survivors of their own walled ghettoes across Europe—and I wonder if they see the irony?

Walls protect us. They define where we are, and to some extent who we are. They provide us with boundaries. But they also divide.

The current lowering of what was, when I was growing up, the 'convent wall', brings that last into local focus. When the Cross & Passion sisters first came to Kilcullen they didn't have a wall. Indeed, they started with a small donated house. And they became  quickly very much part of the community. They visited homes, provided practical and spiritual succour to those who needed it. They set up schools.

The wall came with the building of the actual convent school that was to become the second landmark building in Kilcullen. The church being the first. And that may have been the beginning of the divide.

When I was growing up, that wall was always in my view. Because I lived in the house across the road from it. I knew some of the nuns. All the village's children did, because they taught us boys up until second class,  the girls all the way up to sixth. But we didn't know them outside of school, because they retreated behind that wall every afternoon.

There were others behind the wall. The girls who were boarded there. They came from all over the country, but we never got to know them either. No more than they got to know Kilcullen. Because that wall kept them in. Apart from the occasional walk out in crocodile when they paraded two by two, a nun at front and back. Many years before, an aunt of mine would also have been in that crocodile, and only got home at end of term—even though she only lived across the wall, where the Hideout is now.

Part of the mystique and mystery was lifted when the CPC became a day school, and eventually went co-educational. So some of my own children went behind the wall on a daily basis. But even in more recent years, when the sisters left, and part of the great building was acquired by KARE, the whole place gloomed behind the wall’s security.

Except that it wasn't really secure. Walking on the street outside one evening, two local people heard the sound of breaking glass. It turned out to be a couple of young lads smashing windows in the old convent.

This triggered the thought that opening up the place might be a better option. And in recent weeks, a project which has been six years in the planning is coming to pass. The wall has been lowered. A new decorative railing opens up the view of the parkland inside. A landmark building and its pleasant grounds are become part of the streetscape, no longer hiding like in a prison.

And the ghostly memories of a century of people and happenings behind the wall are freed to pass on their way.