This time of year is one that makes me shiver. It’s not due to a chill in the air, but to a memory. Because back when I was a teenager, the end of August meant the end of the summer holidays, and that meant going back to boarding school.
My mother and father would drive me from Omagh to Derry, sometimes with one or two of my sisters (day girls at the convent in Omagh) quietly gloating at my glum face. We’d go through Newtownstewart, then Strabane, then Sion Mills. Finally the Foyle river would make its appearance on our left, and after a few miles, St Columb’s College would loom, staring across the river at us. I used to feel an almost physical sickness.
St Columb’s was run on military lines. There was a time to get up, then compulsory Mass, maybe with the Dean stationed outside the chapel checking that you had polished your shoes, and God help you if you hadn’t. After Mass, breakfast in an echoing refectory, with inedible porridge and never enough bread or ‘butter’ (it was actually margarine). Then back up to your dormitory to make your bed, get your books, go to class after class, with a break for lunch (tea and pre-‘buttered’ slices of slightly stale bread). Classes ended at 3.20 pm, which was time for dinner. This was served in the refectory at tables which held twenty boys. If you were at the top of the table you got to dish out portions; if you were at the bottom of the table you probably got next to nothing. Teenage boys, as everyone knows, would eat a farmer’s ass through a hedge. Hunger is not good sauce; it’s nagging, it makes you irritable, prone to rage. No wonder fist-fights were a common sight.
In the evening we entered study hall at 5.00 pm, and with a short break at 6.25 pm and an hour for tea at 7.30 pm, it was study along with a couple of hundred other boys, in strict silence, while the supervising priest patrolled between rows of desks, reading his Office and sending the occasional warning glance at the reluctant scholars.
Then at 10.00 pm it was time for night prayers in the chapel and then bed.
Sometimes St Columb’s is hailed as a phenomenal school, it has produced not one but two Nobel Prize winners – Heaney and Hume, along with other headline people like Seamus Deane, Eamonn McCann, ex-Irish Ambassador to Australia/Japan/Switzerland Jim Sharkey, musical success Phil Coulter. I would say these people succeeded not because of St Columb’s but despite it. The core element of a successful education is that you can think for yourself; St Columb’s discouraged independent thought. The ideal student was one who kept all the rules and studied hard, never questioning why anything should be other than the way it was.
There were teachers – some priests, others laymen- who were exceptions to the rules, who treated pupils like human beings, who encouraged rather than terrorised. But they were working against the grain, not with it.
Ex-Derry City goal-keeper Eddie Mahon said that when he left St Columb’s, he wept for the loss of so many good friends and good times he’d met over five years. When I left after six years, I was dizzy with relief. Could it actually be that I had left the iron framework, the ghastly report cards, the hunger, the institutionalised bullying? Far from tears, I felt like running whooping with delight down Bishop Street, calling on the world to rejoice with me in my freedom.
So as August comes to an end each year I shiver. But I also hug to myself one happy thought: however bad things may be, I’m not going back to St Columb’s.