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Best of 2023: The Empty Honour Board

  • 11 January 2024
Content warning: This article contains references to abuse. In his latest book, The Empty Honour Board: A School Memoir, Martin Flanagan reckons with the legacy of abuse in the Catholic Church by looking back at his experiences at boarding school in Tasmania. In an interview with Michele Gierck for Eureka Street, Martin talks about the process of uncovering what happened all those years ago. 

It’s 5pm on a Tuesday evening when I ring author Martin Flanagan for a phone interview about his latest book, The Empty Honour Board: A School Memoir.

There’s a tinge of tiredness in his voice. He tells me he’s been writing a piece about The Voice, and it’s not without its struggles. Years working as a journalist at The Age, well over a dozen books to his name, and still each piece he writes has its own demands.

When I ask about his writing, there’s a pause. Then, pronouncing each word as if it really matters, he says, ‘My writing is like fishing, and what I’m trying to catch is the live word — the word that lives.’

To get to that live word he says, ‘I just try to find the energy, and then I follow the energy. When the prose runs out of energy, I go back to the last place the energy was. And I start again.’

I suspect he needed a lot of energy to write The Empty Honour Board, which makes for compelling reading. There’s a graciousness, an authenticity in the writing.

Flanagan states, ‘This book is about describing my school days and their impact on my adult life.’ He also makes it clear that he is not speaking for anyone else — just himself.

For some readers this book might be confronting.

Flanagan was 10 years of age when he was sent to a Catholic boarding school in the north of Tasmania, from 1966 to 1971. (The school is not named, nor is the order that ran it.) How unprepared the youngster was for that encounter — hierarchies within hierarchies of power, from the bullies among the boarders to the priests who ruled with unchecked authority and power.

Near the start of the book Flanagan writes: ‘Three of the 12 priests on the staff when I arrived have since gone to prison for sexual crimes committed while I was there, and allegations have been publicly directed against others.’ 

While the book clearly exposes bad behaviour by