Friday, 17 April 2009

Catching up with old school friends

An aerial view of Gormanston Castle and Gormanston College

Patrick Comerford

It’s now ten years since I entered the Church of Ireland Theological College in 1999 for training for ordination, 25 years since I began studying for my BD at Kimmage Manor in 1984 and 25 years since I finished at the Irish School of Ecumenics, and thirty years since I was a student in Japan in 1979 on a fellowship provided for young European journalists by Journalistes en Europe and Nihon Shimbun Kyokai.

And it is forty years since I sat my Leaving Certificate exams in 1969 and left Gormanston College, Co Meath. Today, Gormanston is a co-educational day and boarding school under the trusteeship of the Franciscan Province of Ireland, but when I was there it was an all-male boarding school, with just a handful of day boarders.

The Past Pupils’ Union organises a dinner each year and makes strenuous efforts to invite all members of the jubilee years. This year’s dinner takes place next week at the City North Hotel, near Gormanston, on Friday evening (24 April) … and I wonder how many from the year of 1969 will be there?

Over the past week, I managed to count the names of 75 of my Leaving Certificate year, and already twelve of those are dead.

Gormanston College is about 30 km north of Dublin on the borders of Co Meath and Co Dublin, with the grounds placed between the Dublin-Belfast motorway and the old main Dublin-Drogheda road. In my days, the facilities included a swimming pool, athletic tracks, tennis courts, football pitches, handball alleys and a nine-hole golf course,. My brother Stephen (who was five years ahead of me), and I once asked each other whether we had been sent there because my father wanted us to play golf with him. I never played golf, and with hindsight think we may have been sent there because it was close to Portrane, where my grandparents were married and buried, and where my father spent some of the happiest days of his childhood.

As a schoolboy, I spent more Saturdays in Drogheda than I can recall, and loved the walks in the grounds, which include a river and a mature, tree-lined avenue leading up to a splendid vista of the castle. The eastern face of Gormanston Castle looks towards the sea, down a long straight field that we knew as “Cromwell’s Avenue.”

The chapel at Gormanston ... the design was inspired by Coventry Cathedral

The school opened in 1955, and some of my year, including John Horgan, Frank Hunt, Tom Lappin, John McCarthy, Alfred McCrann and Paul Nolan, turned up in 2005 for a special weekend of celebrations to mark the Golden Jubilee.

About 600 past pupils were present at one time or another that weekend on 4-5 June, including 400 who sat down in the “ref” for the anniversary dinner.

During the weekend, trophies were awarded to the Outstanding Footballers of the previous half century, one for each position on the field. Mass on the Sunday was celebrated in the chapel, whose design was inspired by Coventry Cathedral, by Bishop Fiachra O Ceallaigh, who had taught Irish and was Dean of Discipline.

Gormanston’s past pupils include the European Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, the actor Colin Farrell and the artist Jim Fitzpatrick. The first students who finished at Gormanston in 1957, included some who cam back as rectors at the college, including Father Pat McSweeney, Father Bob Doyle, and Father Paddy Timothy.

Gormanston Castle ... built in 1786 by the Preston family

Gormanston College was founded in 1955 when the Franciscans acquired Gormanston Castle and demesne from Mrs Pamela O’Connor, widow of the 16th Viscount Gormanston, who died in 1940. The Preston family, who built Gormanston Castle in 1786, have held the title of Viscounts Gormanston since the 14th century. According to local tradition, the foxes of Co Meath gather in the castle precincts when a member of the Preston family is about to die.

The Yew Walk was out of bounds in 1969, but popular with schoolboys in search of an illicit smoke

One of the most unusual features at Gormanston is the yew walk, a foliage enclosed triangular area dating back hundreds of years. The yew walk leads down to the college graveyard, where several priests and some students are buried. Four years ago, those who were back in Gormanston from the year of 1969 gathered at the small graveyard to pray and give thanks for the lives of those who had been in our year.

Gormanston College ... in among the 6C year on 27 June 1969

Over the years, I’ve managed to keep in touch with some of the year: Bernard Kelly was a friend in Wexford and Dublin, and shared some of my Romanian experiences; Shay Claffey and Michael Dervan both worked with me in The Irish Times; I’ve bumped into John McCarthy and Russell Shannon occasionally; and Frank Domoney turned up to hear me preach in the Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge, at the beginning of February.

How many of the year of 1969 will be present next Friday evening? The Leaving Certificate class of 1969 was (those who have died since are marked with a cross):

William Barrett, + Hillary Barry, Michael Bolger, Brian Brady, Aidan Brosnan, + Derek Browne, Henry Browne, Peter Burke, Patrick Cassidy, Seamus Claffey,

Patrick Comerford, Justin Connolly, Breen Coyne, Thomas Delaney, David Dennehy, Michael Dervan, Gerald Dick, Frank Domoney, Paul Egan, + Donal Geaney,

Michael Geraghty, John Grogan, Richard Hayes, Michael Hickey, Liam Holmes, John Horgan, Frank Hunt, Stephen Kane, Paul Keatings, Noel Keaveney,

Thomas Keenan, Bernard Kelly, John Kelly, David Kerrigan, Tom Lappin, Malachy Larkin, + Cyril Lynch, David Lynch, Liam Lynch, John McCarthy,

Alfred McCrann, Brian McCutcheon, Harold McGahern, Pat McGowan, + Donal McGrath, + Joe McGuinness, + Niall McMahon, Kieran McNamee, James Madden, Seamus Moloney,

Francis Moran, + James Moran, Peter Morgan, + Raymond Murphy, Paul Nolan, Kevin O’Brien, Dermot O’Callaghan, Dessie O’Connor, William O’Connor, James O’Dea,

Dermot O’Donoghue, + Tim O’Driscoll, Dermott O’Flanagan, Joseph O’Keeffe, Donal O’Mahony, + Michéal O Morain, Sean O’Meara, Joe O’Neill, John O’Reilly, George Pratt,

Dermot Rainey, Sean Regan, Noel Reilly, Russell Shannon, Paul Smith, + Maurice Sweeney, Donagh Tierney, Michael Walsh.

List of names revised 25 April 2009

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.