1964 – St. Joseph’s H.S. Golden Jubilee – 2014

August 11, 2014

By Christine Keighery

To mark the upcoming Golden Jubilee anniversary of St. Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen, The Examiner looks back over 50 years of the school through the eyes of teachers and pupils who were part of the establishment in its early days as it became the first Intermediate school in the area.

Contributors to this series of articles reflect on those fledgling years and the changes and developments which have seen St. Joseph’s flourish into the all-inclusive, high-achieving school it is today.

In the first of our series of reflections, we hear from Mrs Bridgie McMahon, a former Vice-Principal and English teacher who spent 37 years at the school, beginning when the doors opened for the first time in 1964.

As one of the first teachers drafted into St Joseph’s, Bridgie recalls making the move from Anamar Primary School into this new world of “Intermediate” or Secondary education which was completely alien to her, a young woman of 29 whose experience to date had been within the Primary school system.

“Primary schools back then were supposed to contain pupils until they were 15, but there was really no fully developed idea of what to do with them,” Bridgie recalled.

“Technical colleges were fulfilling quite an important job in education in Northern Ireland, taking children at 15 but they weren’t acknowledged and because they were state-run, they weren’t particularly popular with the clergy who at that time had full control of the schools and education system.

“Pressure was on the clergy in the diocese therefore to provide Intermediate schools for 11 to 16 year olds, but at that time much of the cost of funding schools fell to the individual parishes.   So part of the delay in building these schools like St Joseph’s, to cater for the older age group, was that parishes simply didn’t have the money.

“There had been a spate of building in this parish at the time, with a new school in Armagh and a new school in Crossmaglen, so it was the sixties before there was money available to set up St. Joseph’s, and much of that came from seven or eight years of fundraising throughout the parish.”

Building of St. Joseph’s was a joint venture between Mullaghbawn, Cullyhanna and Crossmaglen parishes and, according to Bridgie, the Canon at the time, Cannon McEvoy, was anxious to get it built and opened, and pushed ahead for it to open its doors in 1964.

“Canon McEvoy was so keen on getting the school opened that he went ahead with appointing staff in the Spring of 1964, while it was still in the process of being built.  The recruitment process was vastly different from today,” laughs Bridgie,

“There was a certain amount of agreement between the clergy as to who would get positions.  Archie McMullen was in the Tech in Newry and was highly regarded by Canon McEvoy so he was appointed as Principal and Bernard Crilly was appointed Vice Principal – a huge undertaking for Bernard Crilly as he was only in his twenties at the time.

“Similarly, many of the teaching staff who followed had no experience of teaching in an Intermediate school, having mostly come from the local Primary schools and having been selected mainly due to their connection with the locality.

“There were sixteen staff in all, who were brought together as a group to meet in Newry Tech in the summer of 1964 to learn that St. Joseph’s was to open, quite unexpectedly, in September that year. I was tasked along with Bernard Crilly to create the timetables.  With no experience of this or of secondary schools, we thought we’d get lots of advice from the Department of Education but we got very little apart from the absolute minimum time which was to be given to each subject and no advice on how to construct the timetable,” Bridgie recalls.

“Back then it was cookery and needlecraft for the girls, while boys got science and woodwork and then other subjects were common.”

Timetabling issues aside, the school opened in mid-September 1964 with an intake of 384 pupils from 14 contributory primary schools.

“I was just 29 when I joined the school so I was teaching students, some of whom who were only just 15 years younger than me! We had 12 groups of pupils and, as we had 12 spaces finished in the school, we could open.  The building was still in progress though, with rooms being finished off and no stage in the Assembly Hall.

“I suppose, in comparison to nowadays we must have seemed thrown together, in this unfinished building with an inexperienced band of teachers but back then there were no investigations or monitoring on the scale of today.  We were given a free-hand and we created the school and the system together over the years,” explains Bridgie.

“Due to the limited number of teachers, there was very little flexibility and teachers carried a heavy mixed workload of different subjects.  Class sizes were large with around 35 pupils in each class.

“On the plus side, children were quite naturally obedient. There was a respect for adults and an understanding that if you got in trouble in school, you were going to be in trouble at home too as parents by and large supported everything the school was trying to do.

“Most parents had been involved in the fundraising for the new school over many years so there was a greater sense of ownership among local people.”

Bridgie describes those early months as “hectic” and admits that with such large class numbers and limited staff, provision for less-able pupils was lacking initially.

“One of the blessings for St Joseph’s was that Vice Principal Bernard Crilly had extensive training in special needs and so had the interests of any special needs group always at heart. He taught them for many years himself and always regarded them as extremely important.  We also had Gerry Shields for years who did fantastic work in the Special Needs department.

“One of my fears in recent times when the league tables came in was that the emphasis on academic success would mean those children with Special Needs would be forgotten about.”

With the early years spent establishing the school and getting the staff balance right, Bridgie explains that it was a number of years before St. Joseph’s began to think about examinations for students, apart from the entrance exams for Newry Tech.

On the back of a movement in England in the seventies which was moving away from the extremely academic ‘O’ Level system towards a more child-centred type of examination known as CSE, Bridgie developed her own CSE programme, introducing more Irish elements into the English Literature curriculum such as Frank O’Connor and Juno and the Paycock.  She submitted it to the Education Department, who accepted it and allowed it to be used.

“The CSE was entirely my own concoction, for which I had been given the go-ahead by Principal Archie McMullen,” she says.

“Archie’s great strength lay in allowing staff to be innovative. He approved a lot of initiatives from staff, giving us the freedom to create and evolve.  He struggled with officialdom and wasn’t a controlling Principal. I think had he been more controlling, the school might have been quite different so he undoubtedly brought his strengths to it by being a bit unorthodox himself.”

Having spent almost thirty years in St. Joseph’s, Bridgie McMahon has seen a huge number of changes both in the school and within education, one of the most marked being the increased expectation pupils and parents have from education today.

“I think the downturn in the economy has forced young people to rethink what they get out of school now.  It’s more acceptable to perform well at school now whereas back in the early days of Intermediate and Secondary schools, anyone who stayed on after 16 was seen as a bit of an idiot by students – especially male students who could be earning a lot of money in a trade.

“Now things are very different. With the economic downturn, all the areas that were open to moderate ability pupils have dwindled so there is more pressure on education in the sense that more people have fewer options so students need to excel if they stand a chance of getting into the limited options available for the elite few.”

Bridgie also sees the increasing restrictions on teachers and schools as stifling and feels this has led to a reduction in risk-taking among teachers and pupils. She blames the emergence of the “compensation culture” for the increased bureaucracy, which is rife throughout most aspects of modern life now.

“There are a lot more pressures on teachers from the point of Health and Safety.  We really had a free hand from the Board of Education even in so far as what we taught and how we taught it. “Nowadays there’s a lot more bureaucracy, red tape and Health and Safety issues to consider. Everything now has to be pre-planned down to the last detail. Whilst the structures are good if you can make them work for the benefit of the children and the teachers, I think sometimes teachers must find it all very restrictive.

“We were all so free from constraints that to have to document what we were going to teach next week or maybe a month from now would be unthinkable. I accept that it makes everyone do what they should be doing but I feel it restricts innovation and that spontaneity has been lost in education.”

The age of the computer and technology has also devalued education somewhat according to the former Vice Principal and has led to what she describes as “a lot of copying and pasting without real understanding.”

As she nears the end of her reflections, Bridgie says her fondest and strongest memories are inextricably bound to those hectic first years of St. Joseph’s High School where everyone was learning from each other to provide an effective education system that got the very best out of every student.

“Because we were there when the school first opened, the first group to go through the school from first to fourth year always stand out for me and those students are the ones I recognise quicker when I meet them today.”

The raising of the school age from 15 to 16 is another watershed moment for Bridgie as was the changeover from ‘O’ Level to CSE.

“We were way ahead of [the rest of] Northern Ireland as we were doing CSE’s anyway and we were viewed with great interest by other places because we had developed our own curriculum, developed our own marking systems and had got it approved that we were under the auspices of the Northwest board in England,” she reveals.

“It was very challenging to create a syllabus that was interesting and it was great to have so much input into what we were teaching and how we were assessing it.

“There’s definitely a sense of pride as this 50th Anniversary approaches that we were part of the very beginning, the creation of this wonderful school which has served the children of this locality so well over the last five decades and continues to do so today.”