SÉAMAS Ó Donnghaile’s journey to taking the helm at Bunscoil Mhic Reachtain in Lancaster Street is far from typical, but it is a journey that is befitting of a man with a passion for education that is rarely encountered.
Having left school with just one O-Level in his mid-teens and completely disillusioned with education, Séamas found himself working the building sites, but it was also around the time he discovered his love for the Irish language.
He began attending Irish classes run by republican ex-prisoner Danny Murphy, who got out of Long Kesh in 1983, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“The best start that I ever got was with Danny Murphy in Iveagh Community Centre,” said Séamas.
“He was able to create Irish speakers very, very quickly, given the system that they used in the Kesh. He was a very, very good teacher.
“I was with him for about 10 months, and then it was my father who said to me about this place in Hawthorne Street – Cumann Cluain Ard.
“I went in there in 1984 and I was given a class to teach in 1986, and I’ve been teaching there ever since. I fell in love with the teaching methods. It was very different from what I was getting in school. I was turned off by education and school – I wasn’t ready to listen and learn.
“The big thing that happened to me was that when I was 15, I was introduced to a native Irish speaker, called Denis McAuley, who was housebound, and he was from Fintown in Donegal.
“I was there every single day of the week from when I was 15 until I was about 21 for two or three hours. He lived on the Grosvenor Road and he learned to speak English when he came to work in Belfast in the 1920s.
“I got a university education in terms of spoken Irish. He wasn’t a schooled Irish speaker, so there was an awful lot of purity in his Irish that I still hold very dear today.”
The Irish language paved the path that Séamas took back into education, but he explained that his years on the building sites taught him lessons that he has carried into his life as an educator.
“The best part of it was that if you have a squad of people on a building site, everybody knows what the other one is doing, nobody lets each other down, and they look out for each other,” he said.
“There are models of leadership and models of collegiality that you see every single day, that you sometimes don’t see in more formal settings. Those lessons have really stood by me.”
He continued: “I went back to school, I was in my-mid twenties. I did a degree in Irish and History, and then Bunscoil Phobal Feirste asked me to do a bit of subbing and I loved it.
“I genuinely feel that I never decided to teaching. I felt it was like a magnet drawing me in. Kids are the best company in the world. Pádraig Pearse always said to always bring yourself up to the level of a child, in terms of their creativity and imagination. It’s an amazing thing to do and to practice. I learn every single day from young children. I once asked a wee boy in here what a good friend was, and he simply said that a good friend is someone who is always happy for his friend when his friend gets a new toy, and I thought that there are many adults out there that couldn’t come off with an answer as good as that.”
Séamas went on to do his teacher training at St Mary’s University College after his year of teaching at Bunscoil Phobal Feirste. He then returned to the school for three years, during which he experienced some of the key moments in his career.
“I was working with the pioneers of Irish medium education in the north,” he recalled.
“I saw the tail end of something that was really, really magical. For three years I was working with people who really knew their craft.
“In the 25-year school anniversary photograph there are a lot of people who went on to be school principals, education advisors, vice-principals – people in key roles making sure the message of Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, the dynamic and the magic that was created there, actually found its way here to Lancaster Street, the Ormeau Road and all the other places where there are Irish-medium schools.
“All of these people brought the spirit of Bunscoil Phobal Feirste into different communities in the north and that’s very important.
“Irish medium education created children who are global citizens. It’s about being able to walk into any part of the world proud of who you are, but welcoming what’s on offer, rather than having a closed mind.
“Another thing that was pointed out to me was that these kids are very good at questioning the legitimacy of authority, and it’s not about undermining authority – it’s about defining what good authority is.
“If you need to become an agent of change, then you become an agent of change. If there is any social injustice, then you become part of the solution, and Irish-medium education is about creating those types of citizens. Learned, well-rounded, global citizens who can offer something to their neighbour – that’s the reality of Irish-medium education, along with the preservation of the indigenous language of this island.”
Teacher training was followed by a Master’s Degree and then a Doctorate for Séamas, during which time he researched the very ideological foundations of Irish-medium education.
“My doctorate looked at Pádraig Pearse and his impact on the thinking of people who set up Irish-medium schools,” he said.
“It was an amazing journey, and if you were ever to ask me what my favourite book was, it was actually less of a book, more of a pamphlet, called ‘The Murder Machine’. The pamphlet was, in essence, Pádraig Pearse’s attack on the education system that the English designed for Irish classes – The Murder Machine.
“It was simply because it murdered ever sense of our identity, our intellectualism and the mindset of the Gael. Our own hunger for learning was obliterated by this machine called education. He said that the fact that the English could create an education system that would be defended from attack by the Irish was the cleverest thing the ever did on this island, and the most wicked. I think that’s a very powerful sentiment.”
Reflecting on what Pearse might think of the current Irish-medium schools, Séamas said: “The one solid thing that jumps out of my mind is that I think he would be uplifted by it. I wouldn’t dream of speaking for Pearse, but I think he would be uplifted by the fact that there are children in Irish-medium classes who can understand other Irish speakers from all over Ireland.
“The re-Gaelicisation of the community is simply what Pearse was about. If there was any yardstick for Pearse to be looking at, then it would be how happy these children are in this very Gaelic environment.
“His big line was that we’re not teachers, we’re fosterers. My title in an English medium school would be Principal or Headmaster, and they’re very cold names which don’t really define what I’m about. In Irish I’m the Príomhoide, which simply means the Main Carer, the Main Fosterer, of kids.
“If you ask any pupil in this school – apart from P1 and P2 because they think I’m here to make tea and play music – then they will tell you that my main job is to take care of the kids. I’m here to foster them, to look after them, and to be a parent between nine and three.
“That’s all Pearse wanted to be, and I think that if he was to inspect this school then we would come out with flying colours.”