The year before last, my now-96-year-old father, Robert McQuillan, decided to take a little trip down memory lane.
He made contact with his old secondary school, the former Christian Brothers’ secondary in Dundalk.
He received a warm welcome from the current principal of Coláiste Rís, Padraig Hamill.
The old roll books were taken down from a dusty shelf somewhere and my dad’s name and the names of his fellow students were mulled over; memories flooding back for my father and the story of the school’s pivotal role in the education of the youth of Dundalk since 1869 unfolding once again as the two men talked together.
Listening to my dad reminisce about his education, I imagine his story as a fairly common one for his generation and the generations after his.
He was born in 1923, the third son of seven children. His father was a master blacksmith who worked on the Great Northern Railway but it was primarily from his mother that the wish for a good education came.
He started primary school in 1928 with the Sisters of Mercy and then moved in 1929 and went to the Christian Brothers’ primary, in the 60th year of the school’s founding.
His first teacher was a Belfast man, Johnny Barnes. My father remembers him fondly as a great soccer player – something with which the Brothers at the time were not too enamoured.
Robert McQuillan still remembers the names, and personalities, of most of the teachers, the laymen and the Brothers, who taught him.
He remembers the exact fee for the education he received – 30 shillings a term, with the third boy and following boys free.
My father tells me very matter-of-factly that without the Christian Brothers and other Religious Orders like them in the town, there would have been no education at all for boys like him.
He doesn’t ‘sugar coat’ it either, acknowledging the complexity of the history of the Brothers in Ireland.
But for my dad, he will always be grateful for the rich educational experience he received from them and what it empowered him to do with his life.
Four of the six boys in my father’s family – one little boy, Danny, sadly died from diphtheria as a child – went on to sit their Leaving Certificate.
His sister and two of his brothers sat the Intermediate Certificate, now the Junior Certificate. This was no mean feat in terms of academic achievement for those times.
One of my father’s happiest memories was the day the Leaving Certificate results were published.
Brother Sullivan came out to the family home and the envelope was handed over with very matter of fact words of congratulations; he had come in the top four candidates in the town.
The results were published in the Dundalk Democrat and my grandfather carried the newspaper cutting to show his friends at work. That was in 1941.
A number of years later and all of my uncles who achieved their Leaving Certificate results read at university, with one going on to gain a PhD in mathematics.
My dad graduated as a mature student with a Bachelor of Commerce (Hons) from University College Dublin.
It is worth remembering, of course, that all of this happened in my father’s family well before the introduction of free education.
Fast forward to this year, and having helped prepare many thousands of young people for the world in which we live, my dad’s old school in Dundalk will celebrate, with a certain very justifiable pride and satisfaction, 150 years of its existence in 2019.
Across every town in Ireland, north and south, similar schools were set up by large numbers of religious men and women. They were founded to serve the needs of local communities.
In the case of the Christian Brothers, founded by Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice in the early part of the 19th century, ‘the local’ mattered a great deal.
Local needs around education were met locally. Well over 100 schools were established up and down the country, the most recent one in Bray, Co Wicklow in 1956.
The history of these schools is obviously mixed – and that of course, must be remembered – but that they sought to serve local communities, especially poorer communities, is significant.
One of Blessed Edmund Rice’s most famous sayings is: “Were we to know the merit and value of only going from one street to another to serve a neighbour for the love of God, we should prize it more than silver and gold.”
The theme of Catholic School’s Week in 2019 – which is being celebrated this week – is ‘Celebrating the Work of our Local Catholic Schools’.
For all of us who benefited from a Catholic education, it is worth reflecting that when we talk about the characteristic spirit or ethos of our local Catholic schools, we are not just talking about the faith context of the school, although that is important; rather, we are also referring to the school’s history, and geographical and social context.
All of this will hopefully make for a rich, honest and very real celebration of all that has been achieved in Catholic education in local communities and in the lives of thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of young people.
Among that number my dad, Robert McQuillan, is very happy to count himself.
Kate Liffey is the National Director for Catechetics and co-ordinator of the National Faith Development Team Council for Catechetics of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
This article appears in the Faith Matters column of The Irish News newspaper of 31 January 2019 to coincide with the celebration of Catholic Schools Week 2019.