Enda O’Doherty writes: “Sorry,” my friend said. “I didn’t get that.”
“What you said just now. Something in Latin I think … Not all of us, you know, had the benefit of a classical education.”
I can no longer remember what the offending tag or reference was but I doubt if it was particularly obscure, something, I would guess, a bit north of in vino veritas but south of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? For really my Latin isn’t all that wonderful. I did indeed have that enviable benefit of a classical education, but that was all a long time ago and the shards that remained even a decade or so later did not amount to very much.
Regularly dropping Latin tags, or even French ones, into one’s conversation is now generally regarded as a sign of pretentiousness, but there was a time when ad hoc, inter alia or primus inter pares were common verbal tics among the partially educated, as essential to civilised conversation as LOL or IMHO are today. “Having Latin” was also of course for a long time a requirement for university entrance and in particular a sine qua non (woops) for the study of medicine, veterinary or dentistry.
The secondary school I attended, St Columb’s College in Derry, had finally stopped teaching Greek (which had been timetabled as an alternative to French) in the year before I arrived, so that was one half of the traditional classical education that was never available to me. In a school with a good twenty or so priests on the staff (diocesan priests, posted by the bishop to work there as teachers, there being at the time no personnel shortages in the parishes) there were plenty of reasonably competent teachers of basic Latin. It was my good fortune, starting at age eleven, to be taught by an enthusiast, whose practice it was to punish not just those who were disruptive in class but anyone who stumbled over the declensions and conjugations they had been set to learn as homework. That, of course, was a lot of stumbles and consequently a lot of punishment strokes – four or six at a time (twelve was usually reserved for heinous offences like cheek or obscenity) administered with an implement made from leather reinforced with lead which I believe in posher schools was called a pandybat, from the Latin pande, stretch out (your hand). In St Columb’s, which educated in prose, it was called a strap.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum (of the dead, say nothing unless you have something good to say) is a motto that is often worth following. However, I am afraid I cannot find much bonum to say of this man, who went to his reward just a few years ago. I will at least refrain from mentioning his name. Let us call him Father X. In the longer term his particular talents ‑ or skill set as we might say today ‑ did not go unrecognised. A few years after my first experience of him in the classroom he was appointed the school’s dean of discipline; to the duties of this post he brought the most modern and efficient police methods.
St Columb’s had originally been chiefly a boarding school, with a broad intake of boys from across west and northwest Ulster, including Donegal, chiefly the sons of small farmers and shopkeepers. Seamus Heaney spoke movingly (in Stepping Stones) to Dennis O’Driscoll of his arrival at the school in 1951.
The sword of sorrow swung widely on the day I went as a boarder to St Columb’s College. That was a definitive moment. Nothing altogether prepared any one of us for what was happening. My father and mother were out of it too, I know: going to Derry, going into the college, into the president’s corridor, the president’s room, the strangeness and diffidence they would have felt there in the clerical presence, the relative grandeur of the milieu, leather desk, carpeted hush, book-lined walls and so on. At this stage of my life I feel I know the uncanny sense of their own individuality and responsibility that must have been with them that day. They were consigning me to an unknown and we were all growing up. The fog was lifting. Imagine this: the pathetic phrase I used to hear in those years before I left was, ‘They get a good dinner.’ That was the extent of the understanding country people had of St Columb’s College as a boarding school. And the extent of the expectation!
By the time I arrived at the school, eleven years after Heaney, boarders were less of a presence, perhaps only ten or fifteen per cent of the student body. Looking at old school photographs they are easily picked out as they were not required to wear the uniform, a black blazer with blue braid with, on the breast pocket, the crest and the motto Quaerite primum regnum Dei (Seek ye first the kingdom of God). We dayboys had to come to school and go home again through the city and so we were required to make some kind of impression; no one was going to see the boarders. The day pupils were mostly from Derry city, though a sizeable number of boys from Strabane (fourteen miles away) came in by bus. I would guess that a good majority of dayboys, maybe sixty to seventy per cent, came from working class homes. They were there because they had been identified as bright children through passing the Eleven Plus examination (also known in my time as “the Qualifying”). A generation earlier almost none of them would have got a secondary education.
On the whole the priests who taught at St Columb’s (it was about fifty-fifty priests and lay teachers) came from rural backgrounds, backgrounds of relative economic privilege one may assume in most cases. They could not be expected to have much natural sympathy for the children of Derry’s steep terraced streets and council estates or indeed for city people in general, yet by their own lights they did their best for them. Doing their best did not primarily mean bringing their charges closer to the regnum dei whose importance was stressed in the school motto – religion in fact was taught in a stale and unimaginative way; the kingdom on which everyone’s eyes were fixed in St Columb’s in the 1950s and 1960s was rather the one from which it was thought Northern Catholics had been excluded for too long ‑ the kingdom of this world, or at least that part of it that might be accessed by passing examinations.
It is sometimes argued that the status quo – the way things are and have “always” been – can be so deeply entrenched that it cannot be shifted without deploying at least a minimum level of violence. This, I think, was certainly the view of some of the teaching staff in St Columb’s: these young lads were not going to get on in life and storm the bastions of Protestant privilege simply by being left to themselves. They were going to need help: carrot and stick, the stick and plenty of it being favoured, broadly speaking, by older teachers and the carrot by significant numbers of the younger. But another powerful driver of success in the classroom was the personality of the teacher, which was frequently outsized. On the whole I have more memory of high-wattage eccentricity than of violent behaviour – though it was not unknown to get both in the same human package. In the area in which my academic abilities chiefly lay – languages rather than maths or science – I recall with affection two colourful presences: Mr McGonagle (“Nipper”) guided us expertly through our Irish irregular verbs with nothing more nasty than puckish wit and the odd twist of the ear or pinching of the lock; Mr Dunbar (“Corky”) conducted his classes entirely through French with the polish of an old-time music hall pro zestfully declaiming his repertoire of well-weathered catchphrases before an audience of soft-headed yokels.
By the late 1960s St Columb’s had swollen to a thousand-odd pupils, of whom a very high percentage was going to emerge with good academic qualifications. The school was highly efficient at preparing boys for state exams: indeed those who had been hothoused in the A-streams often found these tests surprisingly easy. Prizes, I suppose, are just another kind of exam and in due course two old boys (Heaney, S and Hume, J) were to achieve some distinction in this area. I might be wrong but I am not aware of any other school whose pupils have won two Nobel prizes and the Hogan Cup (1965). Mens sana in corpore sano – well, if you were good at Gaelic football anyway.
By 1967, ’68 and ’69 St Columb’s would have been turning out perhaps seventy to a hundred boys each year who were going on to university or teacher training college. This would over time produce a very noticeable social change; parallel to the Troubles, and to some extent independent of them, the Catholic middle class increased in size over a generation by perhaps a factor of ten – a change that is easily visible in the large area to the north of the city above the Foyle (Culmore Road) once chiefly fields and now given over to substantial tracts of middle class housing, miles of it, stretching out to the Donegal border at Muff. In the 1940s or ’50s the Catholic middle class of the city would scarcely have filled a golf clubhouse.
Up until a few decades ago routine violence against children – dignified with the name “punishment” ‑ was a widely accepted feature of primary and secondary education. Even the expensive prep schools favoured by the British ruling class have been exposed for their brutality and abuse, including the one attended (before Eton and Oxford) by future prime minister Boris Johnson. It was, at least until a decade or so ago, customary to say of such school beatings: “Sure it never did me a bit of harm.” But really, who can say if it did or not? In most schools, corporal punishment was rarely practised on older boys. But the memory of it could linger on and surface in a generally hostile attitude to authority, particularly perhaps in a decade like the 1960s where authority was increasingly being questioned in all kinds of spheres. The rebelliousness inside the school and the rebellion that would soon surface on the streets of Derry did not come from two entirely separate sources. In St Columb’s the dean, and the president, tried to keep a lid on the bubbling resentment, Father X patrolling the main thoroughfare of the school between classes, his pocket full of half-crowns, watching for any boy whose hair might be found to be curling over the tops of his ears. Offenders would be presented with the coin and despatched immediately to attend the barber’s. There was great admiration for the unknown pupil who got up in the middle of the night and sneaked into the grounds to attach a striped barber’s pole at the door of the dean’s (pre-fab) classroom. I was not displeased – though my parents were – to be described in a term report by the president (headmaster) as “surly”. But the palm surely went to “Macker”, a boy a year ahead of me whose report contained, in the box for conduct, a stream of adjectives beginning with “un”: uncooperative, uncivil, ungovernable, unkempt, unpresentable, unpunctual, unruly, unserious etc. This splendid indictment, addressed of course to his parents, was soon being waved around by the offender himself. Whatever else Macker might have been, his peers were inclined to think he was certainly not uncool. Meanwhile a verbal threat of expulsion was fairly extensively used to dissuade those inclined to be particularly brave.
After the great start in Latin Father X had given me (92 per cent in the first, Christmas term exam) my classical education continued under the care of Dr Manus O’Doherty. Dr Manus (a doctor of divinity) was a short, portly man with a rubicund complexion, round spectacles, a soft, mellifluous voice, fluent narrative gift and sometimes volcanic temper. He seemed allergic to noise, not, one might think, a great qualification for a teacher of teenage boys. But he may not have been a well man. On occasion he would briefly pop out of the classroom to visit his bedroom-study, which was close by, returning a little later, in somewhat better form and with a noticeable fragrance on his breath, a fragrance I am still far from finding offensive. Sometimes, perhaps when he was more than usually tired, he would confer with us on the subject of the day’s lesson. “What will it be today, boys? The deponent verbs – we’ll have to tackle the deponent verbs soon ‑ or … Roman history?” Thirty voices would demand Roman history and Dr Manus would sit back and relax into a masterly account of Caesar’s genocidal campaigns in Gaul, delivered to rapt silence.
After Dr Manus I moved on to Fr McGlinchey, probably the school’s leading classicist and a man to whom Seamus Heaney paid tribute in Stepping Stones:
I enjoyed [Latin] even before I went to St Columb’s, in those early-morning lessons that Master Murphy provided after I’d won the scholarship. It was so workable and predictable, once you got the hang of the declensions and conjugations and genders and all that. So when I started in college, I started at an advantage and never looked back. I was lucky too in the teacher I had during my senior years, Fr Michael McGlinchey, who loved the language and had a feel for the literary qualities of the text, especially Virgil. One of our set books was Book Nine of the Aeneid, but I always remember him repeating at different times, ‘Och, boys, I wish it were Book Six’ – which gave me an interest in that book long before I ever read it. [Heaney’s translation of Book Six of the Aeneid was published posthumously in 2016.]
I also remember Fr McGlinchey, though my relationship with him was neither as long-lasting nor as fruitful as Heaney’s. He was a shy and, I think, rather stiff man in whose character there was none of the casual cruelty of Father X or, indeed, the warmth ‑ sometimes rising to heat ‑ of Dr Manus. Why he was generally known to us boys by the absurd and undignified nickname of “Johnny Goat” I have frankly no idea. I had Fr McGlinchey in my O-level years (fourteen to sixteen) and, as usual, we were well ahead of “the book”, delving into Ovid and Virgil and picking up the rudiments of Latin scansion, areas of study more proper to the A-level years (seventeen and eighteen). But in fact I never made it to A-level, largely due to an unfortunate clash between magister and scholasticus towards the end of my fifth year. Leaning towards my desk companion one afternoon in class to whisper some piece of gossip or smart remark I was soon startled by the very unusual circumstance of Fr McGlinchey raising his voice. “There’s some kind of … buzzing going on in the class. Can you hear it? Is it you O’Doherty? [No response.] IS IT YOU O’DOHERTY?” The offence was followed by a swift banishment, perhaps not so severe as Ovid’s to the shores of the Black Sea, but still far from civilised company: “I want you to go down to that empty desk at the back of the class, O’Doherty, and I want you to stay there for the rest of the year, and not associate with anyone else in the class.”
I was not of course to be deprived of Fr McGlinchey’s teaching for what little remained of the final term and I did well enough in the O-level state exams to be qualified to pursue Latin further into A-level. But the A-level class was of course going to be taken by the school’s best Latin teacher. Would I be welcome in this select company? I was inclined to think not. So, no more Latin. The meaning I’m inclined to derive from these events more than half a century later is not that the world, in 1967, inadvertently lost a great classicist in the making but that many of the “decisions” I made and turnings I executed, in school and indeed perhaps afterwards, were not really decisions at all but simply the result of drift and chance. Of these one of the most foolish (in school at any rate) was certainly to give up, aged fourteen, the study of history in favour of the science subjects physics and chemistry, disciplines for which I had no aptitude.
The very sketchy acquaintance with the classical authors I have garnered since my schooldays has tended to come through translations and later writers’ appropriations. Latin literature is of course full of “wisdom”; indeed some authors, like Cicero or Seneca, seem to specialise in it. I find myself drawn, however, less to those who speak of duty, virtue and honour and more to those who emphasise the fleeting and contingent nature of our grappling with the world. As Terence put it, Ita vita est hominum, quasi quom ludas tesseris. Man’s life is like a game of dice. A bleak and reductive judgment some might think, but of course such games can be won as well as lost.
A very slightly different version of this blog was first published in April 2021 but it seems to have “fallen overboard” when we transferred our archive to our current platform that summer.