Last night’s ‘The Boys of St Columb’s’ on RTE television: let’s get the vested interest out of the way first. I’ve completed twenty-four interviews with former classmates and staff from St Columb’s during the 1950s and am hoping to publish them in book form sometime this year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of our escape into the world.
Now the programme. It had about eight famous faces from the 1950s and early 60s, and while it reminded us that the school had two Nobel Prize winners, it told us more about the people contributing than it did about the institution. John Hume did a typical “I owe it so much” speech; Phil Coulter tried to pretend he was a working-class lad who played pop on the chapel organ; Eddie Daly was honest but unspecific about being lonely; Jim Sharkey did a diplomatic tip-toe through, expressing his gratitude; Paul Brady sketched himself as awfully artistic and unfairly picked on; and Seamus Deane presented the priests as uniformly brutal. It was left to Eamonn McCann – how astonishing! – to talk about his experiences with humour and insight. His conclusion: that there was a disjunction between the College, with its traditions and old ways, and the outside world where pop culture and and the coming upheaval of the 1960s had already started to shake society into new patterns. Even if you don’t agree with his thesis (and I’m not sure I totally do), you have to admire and wonder that the one person capable of producing an analysis of the time was the one figure who, in his every word and gesture, was clearly an outsider. The other contributors – with the possible exception of Seamus Deane – were insiders, . But not McCann. A rebel then, a rebel now.
As for the film itself: the recollections were listenable. My former colleague at the University of Ulster Vinnie McCormick put it best: the film’s second half dwelt on Bloody Sunday rather than St Columb’s, and in doing so seemed to exploit the horror of that day. The link between slaughter and institution wasn’t there, and the film seemed to exploit the suffering of that day because it offered image impact.
Needless to say, my interviews will present a far more complete, sensitive, complex picture.