BBC film hails school that transformed Northern Ireland

28th August 2009 at 01:00
A new documentary shows how one remarkable grammar shaped a country's entire political and cultural landscape

The official school motto of St Columb's College in Derry is "seek first the kingdom of God". But for the generation of pupils who attended the school in the 1950s and 1960s, a more appropriate maxim might be, according to John Hume, Nobel laureate and founding father of the Northern Irish peace process, "education is liberation".

Along with the poet Seamus Heaney, Mr Hume is one of two Nobel laureates who attended the extraordinary grammar school, which boasts among its alumni some of the most notable figures to contribute to the politics, arts and diplomacy of Northern Ireland's recent history.

In a new film to be broadcast on the BBC on October 5, entitled The Boys Of St Columb's, seven former pupils - including Hume and Heaney - come together to talk about their schooldays and discuss how St Columb's College shaped their future.

Among the school's former attendees are: Phil Coulter and Paul Brady, both globally successful songwriters; Seamus Deane, academic and author of the Booker-nominated novel Reading In The Dark; Eamonn McCann, the socialist campaigner and journalist; and James Sharkey, the Irish diplomat, historian and ambassador to Russia, Japanand, most recently, Switzerland.

The film, directed by Tom Collins and narrated by The Crying Game's Stephen Rea, documents the history of the school leading up to one of the most tumultuous periods of the Troubles through interviews, news footage, poems and music.

McCann remembers a lecture about the evils of Elvis Presley, while Brady recalls terrifying punishments from the priests, including behaviour bordering on abuse that was kept quiet at the time.

Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995, draws on childhood experience in many of his poems, and recalls his time boarding at the school: "The grief of homesickness and then a growing independence; the movement from sorrow to certitude."

Their generation was the first from Northern Ireland's Catholic working class for which going to university was a realistic proposition, as a result of the 1947 Education Act. The students from Derry who returned to their hometown with higher education were fundamental to the Civil Rights marches held there in 1968. After Bloody Sunday and the Battle of the Bogside, Hume went on to form the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in 1970, before being credited with brokering the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Deane says of this period: "A generation that was previously downtrodden found through education a way to make their voice heard."

- 'The Boys of St Columb's' is broadcast on BBC Two on October 5.

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