Brother Barney Liston

I happened to be out on the town with my wife on Saturday evening when the conversation turned on philosophy and its influence on Western thought ….

(No! I’m serious. Our chat does occasionally rise above the mundane!).

The colossal figure of Socrates naturally figured and my better half inquired as to when I first learned of him, his teaching and his influence. By mere chance across the room (Foresters Hall) I spied an old class-mate and friend Davey Williams.

‘Wait!’ I urged. ‘I’ll be back in a minute with the answer’. I crossed the room.

‘Davey,’ said I. ‘What do you remember about Barney Liston?’

‘Christian Brother. Our class teacher. Great man. Obsessed with Socrates,’ said that man of few words.

After another short exchange, I returned to my own company.

‘I just had confirmation,’ I beamed.

We seldom get the opportunity, those old school pals of two generations ago, to meet up again but whenever ex Abbey boys get together you are sure to hear great praise for that particular group of Brothers, and figuring especially strongly will be C I Gallagher (our recent feature) Pearse McFarland (whose praises were sung by Michael Petty on Threads – Michael is on the left in the photo above, of the great Abbey Debating Team of that year – story to follow, I hope, from Mr Petty’s pen!) and Brother Barney Liston.

By way of further illustration I would like to recall a chance encounter some years ago with another of our class, Tony Gorman. Tony is brother of Hugh (the barber) and Tom (carpenter and Shamrocks stalwart). Without hesitation or faltering Tony launched into several passages from John Milton, William Wordsworth and William Shakespeare.

‘That’s what Barney Liston taught me,’ he beamed. Then he started another.

On Thursday afternoons back in 1964 we had a double period of English literature with Barney Liston. He never hesitated to teach us philosophy [though it was not per se on the syllabus] but poetry was his speciality! I still retain among my books that final anthology wherein we frequently delved.

But it was his inimitable style and personality that most impressed. We teenage boys of the time were far more likely to look for inspiration to the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s latest album, but for that hour on Thursday afternoon Barney Liston transposed us to the enchanted Elysian Fields, to the erudite Academy, to the vineyards of ancient Rome (Horace) or to the green English fields of Wordsworth country – as our inspired leader chose the passage for study.

Barney had many stories but one favourite anecdote to tell of his hero, Socrates. That Academy founder is known as much for his discursive style as for his original thought (he was the teacher of Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle).

He would, Barney informed us, ‘collar’ any acquaintance and detain him endlessly while he imparted to him his words of wisdom and original thought. He would ensure the listener would not escape by grasping the button of his tunic or toga. So consumed would the teacher become in his own course of thought that he’d close his eyes (for better concentration) while he discoursed. One particular ‘victim’ – who had clearly been caught before – cut the button free and made good his escape. Some time later the philosopher was seen, still talking to the button.

We laughed most heartily – but largely because we could not separate the mental image from the personage of Barney himself!

Brother Barney Liston was beloved of his fellow teachers, equally with his students. He has left a wonderful legacy in the fine young (but now fast-ageing) men he helped to produce – some of whom occasionally read this site. Indeed this site would not exist were it not for his inspiration. I wondered at first whether poetry might have any place among its pages, but the popularity of that section testifies to its enduring worth – and Barney’s lasting influence.

May our former Socratian incarnation rest easily now in his own special Elysian Fields.

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