On Friday October 7th I was presented with the 2011 Alumnus Illustrissimus award for distinguished past pupils by my old school St Columb’s College, Derry ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Columb%27s_College) . The award itself is a beautiful piece of sculpture by my friend the late Eamon O’Doherty representing the voyage of St Columba and his fellow monks to the island of Iona in the year 563 AD. Previous recipients of the award are:
1994 The Most Reverend Dr. Edward Daly
1995 John Hume, Nobel Laureate, former M.P., M.E.P.
1996 Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate, poet
1997 Brian Friel, playwright
1998 Professor Sean Mullan, Neurosurgeon
1999 Monsignor Brendan Devlin, cleric
2000 Sir James Doherty
2001 Professor Raymond Flannery, physicist
2002 Martin O’Neill, football player and manager
2003 Phil Coulter, composer
2004 Honouring all alumni (as part of the school’s 125th anniversary celebrations)
2005 James Sharkey, diplomat
2006 Sir Liam McCollum PC, Lord Justice of Appeal in Northern Ireland
2007 Peter McCullagh/John Toland, mathematicians
2008 Professor Patrick Johnston, Director of the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) and Dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen’s University Belfast
2009 Professor Seamus Deane – Poet and novelist
2010 Sir Declan Morgan – Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland
Below is my formal acceptance speech.
‘Mr President, My Lord Patron, My Lord Bishop,
Allumni Illustrissimi, Right Reverend Monsigniori, Reverend Fathers, Ladies & Gentlemen.
I am pleased, honoured and to be honest, a little surprised, to be here tonight to receive the College Union’s 2011 Alumnus Illustrissimus award. I suppose, given my recent recorded comments about my experience as a student in the film ‘The Boys of St Columb’s’, I wouldn’t have been surprised to be considered persona non grata at any of the College functions! It speaks highly of the the Union that the achievements of even a truculent dissenter like myself can be acknowledged and appreciated in this way. For that I am grateful and applaud you.
I came to St Columb’s as a boarder in Bishop Street, Derry in September 1958 a few months after my 11th birthday. My only experience of schooling prior to that was at a mixed sex, mixed religion primary school in Sion Mills, Co Tyrone where my mother was a teacher. I probably wouldn’t have gone there if she hadn’t been teaching there as it was three miles outside Strabane where I lived and there were closer schools in the town.
It wasn’t a private school. Anyone could go to it. The mixed sex and religion aspect was enshrined in the school’s unusually progressive charter, founded as it was by a Quaker family, the Herdmans in the late 1800’s to educate the children of the workers at their linen mill which of course gave it’s name to the village. By the time I went there it had been subsumed under the control of the Northern Ireland Education Authority and was just another state Primary School. But the original mixed sex and religion ethos still remained.
Naturally, as children do, I took this reality for granted and…while on some level I knew it was unusual in Northern Ireland.. I didn’t think it was particularly special. I now know differently and realise that it was an ideal way to begin my education and that we were extremely privileged in Sion Mills school. This formative experience stuck fast and fostered the desire in me to later escape the confines of the tribalism that has caused so much separation in Northern Ireland. I personally believe that the way to real reconciliation in the North is through integrated education. After all, wouldn’t it be a good thing if the other community had an opportunity to know some more about our culture and history? But that’s another story for another day. As it was, my Sion Mills school experience unfortunately lulled me into a false sense of what schooling in Northern Ireland was mostly like.
To say that I went into shock on entering St Columb’s as a boarder would be an understatement. Nothing I experienced before remotely prepared me for the contrast. All male, all catholic, avowedly Nationalist, the only games on offer, handball and Gaelic football, neither of which I had any previous experience of. The gradual realisation that to the majority of the inmates (and here I talk about boarders) this culture was a continuation of a familiar and normal pattern made me feel a total outsider.
Also to be on my own for the first time in my life as I tried to deal with this was traumatic and terrifying as it must have been for many boarders. My previous enlightened education now seemed somewhat of a liability.
St Columb’s of the late 50s was a hard place. Boys were expected to be tough physically and to leave childhood behind as soon as they entered the gates. I had never been in a physical fight with anyone in my life previously but within a week of being there I was goaded into at least two bruising and bloody nosed encounters with boys I didn’t even know. Boarding school was not for cissies. The culture of beating up the ‘yaps’ as first years were called, was tacitly accepted. ‘To make a man of one’ I believe is the term. The sight of priests walking the grounds piously reading their breviaries, studiously ignoring the ritualised terror around them on the night of the ‘ducking’ remains one of my more bizarre and surreal memories. Strange times, indeed.
While fairly well co-ordinated physically, I was not really a sporty individual though I did enjoy handball and became reasonably adept at it. Gaelic football less so, my glasses being somewhat of a problem. Swimming was something I really enjoyed and still do. I was grateful for the weekly trip to the William Street baths.
The thing I was really interested in was music and, at that time, music to me was pop music and rock’n roll. 1958 was undoubtedly the high point of Rock ‘n’ Roll and before I entered the college I was totally wrapped up in it. It was a global cultural sea change which might as well have never happened as far as St Columb’s was concerned.
I had.. just the previous Christmas.. got my first guitar and was making some good progress over the summer of ‘58. A short selection of what was on radio then included:
Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’ and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’.
The Everly Brothers ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’,
Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘C’mon Everybody’,
Buddy Holly’s ‘Rave On’,
Elvis’ ‘One Night’ and Hard Headed Woman’, Little Richard’s ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’,
Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘High School Confidential’.
Revolutionary and glorious music that has stood the test of time.
As part of the college pre-entry consultations my parents asked if I could bring my guitar with me. The edict came from on high that guitars were not permitted in the College. This was a huge disappointment. I can only imagine that there was some irrational fear of the guitar, it being the prime tool of the new and subversive rock ‘n’ roIl. I will say now that that was a petty and ignorant attitude and one which undoubtedly slowed my progress towards what would later become my profession. The fact was that Music…and then only Classical music…strangely not even music from the Irish tradition… came a very poor last after language, literature, Science and Maths in the curriculum priorities. More so, Pop was not even considered to be music.
My visit early today to the college music department has shown me that all that has changed. I was amazed.
I was treated to a performance of some beautiful music both traditional and modern by the students who now have at their disposal recording, performing and rehearsal facilities I would have died for. The encouraging atmosphere towards creativity was palpable. Great to see!
In fairness, I suppose, a full time career in music was not considered a possibility or even desirable in 1958 and increasingly only became a viable option in the 60s with the advent of the Beatles. Still, I feel that the refusal to allow me to bring a guitar was motivated by some other atavistic impulse not connected with my future career prospects and it’s something that still mystifies me.
Of course, I studied piano at the College and did Classical Music at junior and O level. In my final two years I even was co-opted into playing the church organ at Benediction and sometimes Mass which I really enjoyed. I also performed in the college opera ‘The Yeomen Of The Guard ‘ in 1960 sharing the role of Dame Carruthers with Patrick Caffrey…possibly the first example of wife swapping in Gilbert and Sullivan! But I wasn’t interested in Classical music and spent most of my piano practice periods learning how to play the hits of the day or figure out how Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis made the sound they made. Again in fairness I would say that I wasn’t prevented or discouraged from this and was pretty much left to my own devices. But still no guitar!
In general, I kept my head down and plied a fairly solitary path throughout my time in St Columb’s. My grades were above average, even good, but not outstanding. I was not, as I said, a gifted sportsman or ever in the running to be a prefect which I wouldn’t have wanted anyway. I was not a favourite of the teachers nor was I considered a trouble maker. For several of my six years I was bullied by one particular individual, with all the stress, fear and anxiety attaching to that situation. The one occasion I tried to escape from under that involved my parents approaching the then president Fr Farren. They were told more or less that ‘students tend to exaggerate these things’ and… nothing was done. I was not exaggerating. Hopefully today there is a more enlightened approach to this pathetic and destructive practice.
To be honest, I would have to say that the St Columb’s of the late 50s, early 60s really did not know how to deal with someone like me or prepare me for the eventual career I made for myself. At that time it was a College mainly concerned with the conventional and obvious life choices and really was not geared towards the creative, the artistic, the inventive…. more towards the orthodox job market, teaching, the civil service, medicine, the law, accountancy, the Church…the exciting stuff!
The lack of this imaginative support meant that by the time I was in my first year at UCD in 1964, I still had no clue as to why I was there or what it was leading to. The extent of my expectations when I arrived was to perhaps be a teacher and play music for fun in the long summer holidays. In my first couple of years in Dublin I somehow found in me the confidence and imagination to entirely invent myself as a musician and singer and essentially… and not without a lot of guilt and uncertainty… finally waved farewell to the world of the orthodox job market as ‘not being for me’.
What St Columb’s did do for me was give me a love of language and words, in English, Latin, French and Irish which has remained with me. That has definitely led into my work as a songwriter. To be fair, that fledgling talent was recognised during my stay there as I had a couple of poems printed in the Columban annual college magazine in my final years.
By accident too, as we boarders were on our own and cut off from the day to day support of our families, I developed a sense of emotional and mental self-reliance and a kind of ‘lone wolf’ mentality that was an ideal state from which to develop into the artist and writer I eventually became.
Many of you will have had differing experiences to mine and to each others. I accept that, for those of an artistic bent, there is no real rule book or set of guidelines to prepare for the future. Part of being an artist means annoying people, bucking the trend, ignoring accepted wisdom, rebelling against the norm, inventing what isn’t there. So while I can lament the lack of early support I know deep down that the artist is destined to be on his own and needs most of all to find the inner strength to fight his corner in a society that is getting on with the business of the real world. I seem to have somehow managed to do that. I’m still here! In some ways the college has helped make a man out of me. An odd one, but a man nonetheless.
In spite of all I’ve said, I recall, recognise and respect that with a couple of unpleasant exceptions, the teachers in my time were gifted, considerate and conscientious men, who skillfully prepared the majority of the students towards success in their adult lives. The reputation of the college as having high academic standards was well founded. Today it goes from strength to strength and I wish it every success in the future. Everywhere I go I am asked how so many gifted and celebrated people came out of the same school. I am always surprised to be considered one of them.
All that remains now is to thank the still Excellent James Sharkey for his fulsome introduction and to once again say how touched and honoured I am that the College Union has chosen to acknowledge my achievements in this way. It’s a long road with no turning and I am very grateful.