DEEP IN THE HEART OF DERRY: The Boys of St. Columb’s

By Thomas O’Grady
Special to the BIR
“The schoolmen were schoolboys first.” So James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus muse in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of Ulysses. These words would have made an apt epigraph for The Boys of St. Columb’s (The Liffey Press, 2010), Maurice Fitzpatrick’s book of commentary and interviews published as a companion piece to the film of the same name that he co-wrote and co-produced: both book and film focus on one of the most momentous events in the history of modern Northern Ireland.

Generally overshadowed by the outbreak of sectarian violence in the late 1960s that defined the last three decades of the twentieth century in the North, this event is the passage, in 1947, of the Education Act which made secondary education free for any student who passed the auxiliary test known as Eleven Plus. Essentially, in the film and the book, Fitzpatrick sets out to prove a thesis: that the implementation of this act gave rise in a single generation to a professional class of Catholics who would provide visionary leadership in reshaping the social and political culture of Northern Ireland in the last half of the century. His testing ground for this thesis is very specific: St. Columb’s College, a diocesan-run Catholic boys school in the heart of the city of Derry.
For some readers of the book and viewers of the film (available on DVD), the first attraction may be the new insight that Fitzpatrick’s focus offers into two of the best-known and most distinguished alumni of St. Columb’s—Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney and scholar, critic, and novelist Seamus Deane. Indeed, these two writers—and the relationship between those two “schoolmen” who were once schoolboys together—figure prominently in Fitzpatrick’s project. Yet they are still just part of a larger ensemble comprising a cross-section of graduates from diverse backgrounds and with diverse interests and talents who went on to become household names in one field or another: musicians Paul Brady and Phil Coulter; politician and Nobel Peace Prize recipient John Hume; well-traveled ambassador James Sharkey; political activist Eamonn McCann, one of the founders of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s; and Edward Daly, Bishop of Derry from 1974 to 1993 (the heart of the so-called “Troubles”) who as Father Daly had become known worldwide through the image of him waving a blood-stained white handkerchief while ministering to a mortally wounded victim of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.
While some of these men knew each other during their years at St. Columb’s (mostly during the late 1940s and the 1950s) and while most have in later life crossed orbital paths with each other, what they really have as their first common denominator is the experience of attending St. Columb’s. That in itself proves fascinating for the viewer of the film and the reader of the book, as each of the eight men featured has a unique recollection of and a unique set of reflections on that experience. For instance, the experience of attending the school was vastly different—in some cases for better, in some cases for worse—for boarders and for day students. It was also vastly different depending on personal domestic circumstances and individual sensibility. For some of Fitzpatrick’s subjects, their time at the college was transformative in a mostly affirming way. Phil Coulter, for example, asserts: “I would have no doubt that whatever combination of talent, tenacity, temperament and work ethic I have, I would owe that to St. Columb’s.” Likewise, James Sharkey remembers his final two years as “really a preparation for something extraordinary”: “No matter how much you were a rebel and rejected education, you were always aware that there were teachers of a certain sophistication with whom you empathised. . . . I owe those people a special debt of gratitude.”
For others, however, the St. Columb’s experience was utterly traumatic. A day student from the lower-class Bogside area of Derry, Eamonn McCann remembers being treated as “an interloper” and remembers also that “The regime at St. Columb’s was quite brutal and was run by fear”: “It was run by a lot of brutality—not just slaps but the use of fists. I was knocked unconscious in an Irish class once for something very, very trivial.” Paul Brady is even more emphatic as he summons up his earliest memories of the school as experienced by a sensitive bespectacled boy from the town of Strabane, Co. Tyrone: “Shock, horror, awe, shock. I had no experience that was going to prepare me for going into a boarding school. Being in a monocultural, monosex kind of atmosphere was quite a shock to me, and it took me a long time to get accustomed to it. I didn’t have any experience of other parts of Northern Ireland, say east of the Sperrin Mountains which is a whole different vibe altogether, with strange accents, which now I know to be only south Derry accents and Antrim accents. But at the time they might have been from Timbuktu to me.” Of the eight alumni of St. Columb’s interviewed by Maurice Fitzpatrick, Brady seems to have suffered the most from the concomitant cultures of violence and of conformity imposed equally by the priests and the lay teachers at the school and either resigned to or absorbed as the norm by the vast majority of the students. His interview is particularly poignant.
Not surprisingly, not one of Fitzpatrick’s subjects is unequivocally nostalgic about his experience at St. Columb’s. But of all the interviewees, Seamus Deane is most detailed—and uncompromisingly so—in his analysis of the ministry of fear (as it were) that defined life at the college. Perceiving the institution of the Catholic Church as “a system of authority that was changing itself into a system of power, and doing that mistakenly under the aegis of the Socialist Government’s Education Act,” Deane parses with riveting rigor the complex implications of the dynamic that played out at St. Columb’s: “They couldn’t handle the effect of that legislation. The Roman Catholic Church couldn’t remain what it had been: once they had to teach the working classes, their class prejudice revealed itself. Every one of them was anxious nevertheless to exert authority, reproducing the structures of domination that the state had used; mass education exposed a church that had won respect from being oppressed. The myth of the priest could not survive his becoming a teacher in a strenuous situation. So it was sort of a melancholy place in that respect, made the more so by the excellence of some of the very good teachers.”
Yet the prevailing theme of The Boys of St. Columb’s remains that articulated by Seamus Heaney in response to Maurice Fitzpatrick’s question about the enduring “impact” of the 1947 Education Act. Appreciating how “people with merit, with intelligence, were given the scholarship, so that talent brought forward a whole new set of people,” Heaney elaborates: “That arrival into the adult population, eventually, of educated people from the working class, from farming backgrounds, brought a new kind of critical intelligence, a new kind of appetite for excellence into play. They had a sense of adventure, a sense of themselves as a generation with some sense of possibility and advantage and renewal. They were aware of the people who hadn’t got the advantages in their family and among their neighbours. They were political in that they had a strong sense of being responsible.”
And in that regard the resonance—and thus the importance—of The Boys of St. Columb’s as a documentary record extends far beyond even the engaging “tales told out of school,” about school, by an octet of men as candid as they are articulate. One way in which their personal stories resonates is as evidence of the value of education in the particular context of Northern Ireland: as Fitzpatrick asserts in his Introduction to the book, behind the stock images of the Northern predicament and the sectarian conflict—first the media shots of posturing politicians and then the literal shots and explosions heard ’round the world—there was “history to be understood.” Perhaps just as important is the broader message that the film sends out about education as the great liberator because it is first the great equalizer. The Boys of St. Columb’s is thus a sort of parable for how education—not arms or armies—can be the vehicle for change not just in one particular context but globally.
Professor Thomas O’Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.