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

August 25, 2014

By Christine Keighery

In the third of our series of reflections on St Joseph’s High School, Crossmaglen to mark the school’s upcoming Golden Jubilee anniversary, we hear from former Principals Bernard Crilly and Frank McCreesh as they look back on the early years of the school from its humble beginnings in intermediate education to the all inclusive centre of educational excellence it represents today.

Bernard and Frank both share fond memories of the opening of the school in 1964 and the changes and developments which have seen the school flourish at the heart of the community for the last five decades.

Bernard Crilly was 27 years old and a teacher for just 5 years when he was appointed Vice Principal in St. Joseph’s in the spring of 1964, ahead of the opening of the school in September that year.

“Looking back at the original staff of 17, there were only a few of us who had teaching experience behind us.  For many, this was their first appointment,” Bernard reveals.

“It was a great mix of fresh and enthusiastic first time teachers with a few experienced teachers and it provided a great blend with fantastic characters.  Nobody stood on ceremony and we worked in a collegial way as a team with very little hierarchy.

“Principal Archie McMullen really facilitated that ethos among the staff.  He gave us a free hand and supported us all unwaveringly, backed us to the hilt,” he recalls.

With Intermediate education being a relatively new concept, Bernard admits that “nobody really knew what to expect” and very little guidance was provided by the board of education in terms of what subjects should be taught and the “end product as such.”

“The Ministry of Education had a very ‘laissez faire’ approach back then” says Bernard,

“The concept of the Secondary Intermediate school was to provide a broad education for those who were going to go to the factories and the mills, the farms, the offices and so on.  This might have suited areas like Belfast where there were opportunities for these jobs but in a rural area like Crossmaglen we had to develop our own curriculum to suit the exams that we thought were going to be most beneficial to the pupils in the area so to that extent it was no bad thing that we were given a free hand.

“It was up to the Principal and staff to develop the curriculum and with Archie’s experience in Newry Tech, he was very keen to develop the commercial subjects such as Shorthand, Book-keeping and Typing.  The school was very strong in those subjects but we didn’t develop the preparation for GCE examinations until later years as students were more interested in leaving school to earn a living in a trade.”

Bernard and Frank both pay tribute to the school’s first Principal Archie McMullen for his innovative nature and describe him as “being ahead of his time” in terms of his ideas and leadership.

“Archie wanted to develop a unit attached to the school where boys would have the opportunity to learn various trades such as building, plumbing and electrical work,” explains Bernard.

“It would have been ideal for boys in this area who would only have had a couple of years in the school before taking up a trade.

“The idea was never allowed to develop however as the department turned down the proposal because it was deemed to be competing with Newry Tech. Without a doubt, Archie was ahead of his time as the idea later came to fruition with the development of the Training Centre which provided apprenticeships for the trades.”

Recalling the opening of the school on 7th September 1964, both Principals credit the Canon of the parish, Canon McEvoy with forging ahead with the building and opening of the school, albeit in a somewhat unfinished state.

“Canon McEvoy had taught in St Patrick’s in Armagh and he was an ardent educationalist who was most keen to have the school opened as soon as possible so he really drove it forward,” Bernard explains.

“It certainly was no easy task financially. At that time the contributory parish had to provide 35% of the cost  so the three parishes had to raise almost £50,000  – a lot of money in the early sixties, which had to be raised via fundraising within the community.

Speaking about the untimely death of Canon McEvoy in April 1965, Bernard describes it as a “great loss.”

“The school was his baby and his heart and soul was in it” he says,

“It was almost as if he had a premonition that he was going to die. He pushed so hard to have the school open in September 1964, even though a lot of the building was unfinished.  We hadn’t the use of the Assembly hall, the music room or the craft room. The yard wasn’t tarmaced and the canteen wasn’t finished.

“We were teaching in classrooms where the workmen were installing cupboards around us!”

Frank, one of the longest serving teachers at the school, also remembers the school still being under construction on opening day and teaching heavy crafts during those early months in a dual purpose room which was being used by Rogers building contractors to store their materials.

“We did a lot of theory work to start with as we didn’t have the proper use of the metal and woodwork room,” recalls Frank,

“So with boys itching to get some practical hands on experience, we actually took on a project of backing the books in the library” he laughs.

“It’s only when we look back on it now, that we realise we didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the task we had taken on. Not only had we practical concerns in terms of the unfinished building, we were also trying to figure out how to best educate the students in the time frame available and steer them towards exams and opportunities that suited them,” says Frank, who joined the school at just 22 years of age, teaching students only 7 years younger than himself.

“We were writing the script as we went along,” agrees Bernard,

“But somehow we managed.  We took advice wherever we could get it – from Mr Kearns in St Joseph’s High School in Newry and from Dr. Fitzsimons in Banbridge but mainly we were out here in Crossmaglen and we were on our own.

“I think one of the key elements which helped tremendously in those formative years was that most of the staff were local and had taught in the primary schools so they knew the pupils very well and all their strengths and weaknesses.

“We were very much aware of the lack of employment so we knew what would suit the pupils best and that had to drive the direction of the curriculum. Staff definitely had a good grasp of what was needed to further the students’ chances of employment.”

This rapport and knowledge of their students was something that was often remarked upon by school inspectors over the years.

“Although we didn’t have many inspections in the early years because our location in Crossmaglen during the Troubles deterred many inspectors from venturing out to us,” says Bernard,

“When they did visit, they would invariably pick up on the good ethos in the school and would always comment on the caring that was provided and that the interests of the pupils and their well-being were paramount in the school.

“Because of the Troubles at the time, we were carrying out pastoral care before it was referred to as such.  The calibre of the pupils would also be remarked upon during inspections with inspectors commenting on how fresh and lively and open the St. Joseph’s students were, without being brash.

“I, of course, would agree with that and believe the calibre of the pupils is a big part of the school’s success.  We were lucky that we were blessed with lovely pupils.

“As teachers, we took the job and the task very seriously but we never took ourselves too seriously and I think that was the key to our successful rapport.

“There were some great characters,” he adds, naming Mrs O’Brien, Mrs O’Connell, Peter Nugent and Kevin McMahon as a few and not forgetting the inimitable Archie McMullen who he describes as “the biggest character of all – a true legend who was renowned throughout the area.”

Frank too recalls “a great sense of happiness and a great rapport between pupils which led to lots of funny incidents over the years and happy memories.”

“Past pupils have often told me that the care and encouragement they received from St. Joseph’s teachers was what they valued most about their school days” he reveals,

“We as teachers would often mother and father our pupils, pushing them to succeed, supporting and encouraging them, and, combined with the parental support, pupils would inevitably do well.”

“Inspectors often commented on how well the teachers co-operated with one another and supported each other,” he adds.

“I feel that was very true.  We were a great team of staff who always came together to ensure things went well.”

“I think that evolved because we all started on the same footing in this new school” Bernard agrees,

“Nobody had an agenda and we had a good combination of characters with a youthful, forward thinking outlook.”

The isolation of the school in Crossmaglen and the disruptions and dangers posed by the Troubles which raged around it, also contributed to the unity and resilience of the staff and students.

With helicopters continually hovering overhead and soldiers patrolling through the school grounds, staff and students had to find ways to function normally under such conditions.  Nearby rocket and gun attacks would see everyone taking to the floor until the danger had passed and some companies would refuse to deliver materials to the school, meaning necessary items would have to be collected from Newry Tech or St. Paul’s at Bessbrook.

“There was a lot of disruption to school life, and to extra-curricular activities,” says Bernard.

“There were numerous and serious enough incidents where the safety of the pupils was paramount, but I think in a way it helped to make the school a more self sufficient community and created a bond between us all.”

Bernard also recalls great sadness at the tragic deaths of some past pupils in the Troubles.

Fourteen year old Michael Donnelly, who was attending St.Joseph’s at the time, and a past pupil, Patrick Donnelly were killed during a loyalist gun and bomb attack on the Silverbridge Inn in 1975.

“Young Michael Donnelly had missed the school bus on the morning he was killed and I had given him a lift so it was particularly poignant having seen him on the same day he was killed at just 14,” Bernard remembers.

“We had to call a roll after lunch to make sure all pupils were back,” recalls Frank, adding that the roll call was done from a safety point of view rather than to ensure attendance.

“We would be on tenterhooks sometimes as there very serious things going on but we learned to cope.  It was life at the time and both the students and staff knew nothing else.”

“Indeed, there can’t be too many schools who had to enter into an agreement with the British Army Brigadier at the time to tackle the issue of soldiers patrolling through the school,” says Bernard who reveals that the meeting yielded an agreement from the Brigadier that soldiers would only enter the school yard if in “hot pursuit of a suspect.”

“The powers that be in education did not take into account at any level the difficulty of operating during the Troubles,” adds Bernard.

“We were still expected to be functioning the same as a school in the suburbs in Belfast, no allowances were made.”

Having weathered the difficulties posed by the Troubles to create a school which continues to be all-inclusive and provides an education for all, both Principals agree that there is a definite sense of pride from having laid the foundations for the ethos and spirit of St. Joseph’s that remains to this day.

Frank, who retired in 1997 as one of the last original staff members to leave, tells of his pride at having nurtured the abilities and personal qualities of all of his pupils and the satisfaction it gives him to see those who may not have been deemed as “academic” enjoying success in business and employment today.

“ A lot of people in south Armagh would have come through secondary education in St. Joseph’s and a large number of those who may have struggled in grammar schools, became very successful, well-rounded citizens who went into trades and are now running their own businesses. There’s great pleasure and pride in having been part of that to some extent,” admits Frank.

“Here I am 17 years after leaving St. Joseph’s and its still part of me.  As part of the original staff, it still feels like its “our” school and I think it always will.”

“We would both agree that there must have been a half decent foundation when the present school has flourished so well,” adds Bernard.

“It gladdens my heart that the effects of the ‘11 plus’ are nearly eradicated. I spent my whole teaching career preaching against it and now to see it nearly in its death throes is great.

“We in St. Joseph’s accepted all our pupils in their different makes, abilities and descriptions and felt it was our duty to cater for them at their level and develop them to the best of their ability.  What else would you do? Anything else is not very christian.”

Both men have high praise for current Principal John Jones and feel the school is in “excellent hands” with him at the helm.  Bernard recalls in particular Mr Jones glowing reference upon joining the school in 1983.

“John Jones’s reference from college was one of the best I’ve ever seen. It paid great tribute to him and ended with the phrase ‘full of joie de vivre’ – full of the joy of life. I’ve never seen such a description on a teaching reference either before or since and it really says it all about John.  He brings that energy and love for life to his teaching and his dealings with students and staff and will continue to be a inimitable leader for the school.

“It has been our privilege to be involved in the education of students throughout the local area.  It is wonderful to be associated with St. Joseph’s which continues to be a source of pride for all of the original staff.

“We have taught alongside some of the best teachers in the district and have been privileged to play a part in the development of so many youngsters.

“The caring and compassionate ethos remains in St. Joseph’s and we hope it continues to thrive and flourish in the hands of the present team for generations to come.”