There is a stark universal truth that I have discovered and it is true today more than ever before: a school is only as good as its teachers. For fifteen years of my teaching career I taught in a school that would have been condemned as unfit for purpose or human habitation in Dickens’ time. Indeed, there are those who think that Dickens modelled Mr. Gradgrind’s school in Hard Times on St. Ita’s in Newcastle West! However, all who ever entered its hallowed halls would probably admit that it was a great school and is proof positive that modern facilities are not the only requirement for a good education.
I was also reminded of ‘the good old days’ recently on reading an article by Dr. Pat O’Connor, an illustrious past pupil of the school, which appeared in a commemorative booklet produced to celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of the school’s opening in 1986. He attended St. Ita’s from 1959 until he sat his Leaving Cert in 1964. He says that, “these were happy, constructive, creative times, and the school provided the milieu for a learning odyssey which continued throughout the palmy decade of the 60’s”.
The official name for the school was St. Ita’s Secondary School, in deference, I think, to the fact that Jim Breen and Dave Hayes both hailed from Killeedy, the one remaining St. Ita’s stronghold. However, the school was variously called ‘The Library’ (the building had originally been a Carnegie Library) and later ‘Jim Breen’s School’ as a local compliment and mark of respect to the man who became Manager and Principal of the school for nearly fifty years – the school becoming synonymous with his name.
Pat O’Connor is lavish in his praise for Jim Breen and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’ He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything. He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive. He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’ The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.
In those early years he gathered around him a small band of doughty men who came armed with a rich diversity of teaching skills. Tim Murphy was one of those early arrivals. Pat O’Connor remembers him as, ‘a quiet spoken, amiable mentor, thoughtful, and on occasion, thought provoking.’ He remembers with affection the prayer which Tim introduced to the Leaving Cert class of 1964. Given a sufficiency of faith, it had, he said, never been known to fail!
Another of that small band of teachers, Dave Hayes, brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin. According to Pat O’Connor he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’ This assessment was reinforced later during Dr. O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’.
Willie O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system. A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’!
Donncha Ó Murchú arrived on the scene as a very young man in September 1959. No sooner had he arrived than he was subjected to the kind of initiation rites that pupils like to try out on young inexperienced teachers. However, Pat O’Connor remembers that Donncha proved to be a doughty survivor who had a marvellous feel for history.
Pat remembers the arrival of Noel Ruddle to the school in 1963 and considered him to be the consummate teacher who introduced the new age of science to the school. He was enthusiastic, bright, analytical and able. Noel went on to become Principal of the school in 1977, although his time at the helm was cut tragically short through illness.
In the 80’s numbers burgeoned, thanks in no small part to Donagh O’Malley and his introduction of ‘Free Education’ in 1967. After Noel Ruddle’s untimely passing in 1981 the baton was passed to Des Healy who became Principal and later Manager after the death of Jim Breen in the summer of 1984. He was supported in its final years before amalgamation by Paddy Geary, Dave McEnery, Paul Edmonds, Donncha Ó Murchú, Pat Hayes, Mike Kennedy, James Egan, Andrew Ryan, Barry O’Brien, Tommy Devine, Sean Flanagan, Mary O’Shaughnessy along with the author of this tribute. However, by then the need for proper, modern educational facilities became a clamour which could no longer be ignored and plans for an amalgamation of schools in the town was proposed and acted upon by a vibrant committee during the 80’s, culminating in the opening of the new Scoil Mhuire agus Íde in September 1992. For many the traumatic move to Boherbuí was lessened in its severity by the knowledge that Paddy Geary, St. Ita’s to his core, was to become the Principal of the new educational adventure in Newcastle West.
A word of caution to all as we remember those days: in invoking and trying to preserve the past we can’t allow ourselves to be too maudlin and sentimental. As Michael Hartnett, Newcastle’s Poet Laureate, (himself a past pupil of the school) points out: ‘too many of our songs gloss over the hardships of the “good old days” and omit the facts of hunger, bad sanitation and child neglect’.
Most of us who experienced and survived the building, the poor sanitation, the lack of proper toilets, know that all this only added to its mystique; the telephone was not installed until 1986! All who entered under its portals were rendered immune forever from all contagious diseases following their exposure to the culture of the place!
In conclusion there is another stark universal truth that I discovered while teaching in St. Ita’s: a school is only as good as the students who pass through its doors. In this respect, as with its teaching staff down the years, St. Ita’s was truly blessed.