The Boys of St. Columb’s, shown the other night on BBC, was mostly a pleasant surprise, since I wasn’t expecting great things from it. It is not as if there is a shortage of cultural productions highlighting the individual achievements of well-known men.
Among the many problems with Northern Ireland is the fact that its representation in print and on film tends to rest in the hands of people who are relatively successful products of its education system, mostly those who have gone to grammar schools and university. How these people see and portray the world is inevitably grounded in their experiences of the school system that shaped them. I don’t think the documentary sought to address these problems: on the contrary, it relied solely on the account given by its subjects, who, for all their eloquence and acuteness of observation, and their biting critique of the institution that produced them, appeared as settled in the afterglow of past victories won.
The 1947 Education act, brought in by the British Labour government, which provided for free secondary education in Northern Ireland, had a seismic effect on Northern politics and society. Part of a generation of Catholics from deprived backgrounds gained access to grammar and third level education, through which they developed a radical perspective on the society of which they were a part, and the means to articulate a challenge to the workings of the Northern state.
If Seamus Heaney appears an accommodated establishment figure nowadays, some of his poetic inventions, threaded through the documentary, captured the conflict of forces impinging on that generation: the ‘guardian angel of passivity’ waiting to ‘sink a fang of menace in my shoulder’ was confronted by those whose intelligence, as ‘unmannerly as crowbars’ would ‘banish the conditional forever’.
But that was only part of the story. Most of the children of the generation portrayed here, as with today’s generation, didn’t pass the 11 plus to go on to grammar school and university. These were the other Boys and Girls of St. Columb’s, who were as much a product of the education system as any of the men featured. They also took part in civil rights activism and resistance to official discrimination, but there was no account of them given here, other than in the men’s awareness that they had been picked out as the ‘successes’.
This is not to say that the men were not sensitive to the fact of being among the elite: on the contrary, it seemed to sit uncomfortably with them all. Seamus Heaney had a particularly striking, and no doubt typical, story of how the teacher in his country school had awarded him, in the presence of his classmates, with a half crown for being ‘smart’ enough to pass the 11 plus. John Hume was conscious of how education had transformed his life, and his feeling of obligation towards those who ‘had not succeeded’. Eamonn McCann spoke of a sense of representing the wider community, that being chosen for St. Columb’s was an opportunity not to be wasted. Edward Daly talked about how the system had produced people who were able to articulate grievances in a way that was understood both by people living in the area and in the media.
That last observation goes to the heart of my reservations about the documentary. While the account given by the men of the school that had assisted in forming them was trenchantly critical and full of sharp insight, there was no probing of the dual function fulfilled by the school, and by extension the entire education system, which continues mostly intact.
If, on the one hand, it had existed to cultivate leaders of the community, most commonly in the form of priests and teachers (Seamus Deane memorably referred to a teaching career back then as ‘a sort of crime rampage’), then on the other it created subjects deemed to be there simply to be administered to, represented and led. The scope of the documentary was too narrow, perhaps understandably enough, to probe this latter function, but nonetheless its importance in the history of Northern Ireland is habitually underplayed. A good starting point would be in the fact that the 1947 Education Act may have led to the formation of the SDLP, but it also led to its disdainful characterisation as the ‘Schoolteachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party’. What’s more, the grouping that eventually took its place in Northern nationalist politics, having waged a decades long war against the Northern state, was led in Derry by Martin McGuinness, who had failed the 11 plus. Nearly his first act as minister for Education was to try and initiate its abolition. I look forward to seeing a documentary that addresses the other side of the story, but I won’t be holding my breath.