On March 12th 2020, the Taoiseach announced from Washington DC that all Irish schools would close that day due to the impending pandemic threat. The Sixth Form then thus never got the chance to end their school careers as normal, and go through all the rituals associated with leaving school.
Yesterday, at last under a pure blue sky, they returned to the College, many of them with their parents, and we had a chance to say a proper goodbye. Firstly there was a Chapel service at which the Warden greeted the visitors, three favourite hymns were sung, the former Senior Prefect Megan Bulbulia spoke on behalf of the year, and prayers were said by the Chaplain. You can read the Warden’s words below.
This was followed by a presentation ceremony in the sunshine outside Whispering House, with sports’ awards and Parents’ Association gifts being handed out, and then a tea, before all headed off for further festivities off campus.
745 days ago, March 12th 2020, is a day I remember very well and I am sure it is etched permanently in all of our memories. To cast our minds back, the virus that had started in China, had arrived in the north of Italy in February and was getting closer to these shores. I was due to take a parents’ trip to Florence in late February, but decided that it might have looked slightly cavalier to head off to Italy on a pleasure trip at that moment, so that trip was cancelled at the last minute. We thought we might rearrange it for the Autumn. The first few cases of Coronavirus had appeared in Ireland and rumour was growing that schools could close early for the end of term and staff and pupils were a little jittery. One or two pupils were even wearing masks, which we thought was over the top and creating an unnecessary sense of panic. Common sense Irish people don’t wear masks, we thought, perhaps considering it as a sign of weakness or surrender. I thought the situation called for some decisive leadership, so at the end of morning chapel I confidently strode to the front here to reassure everyone that it was business as usual…that if schools were to close early, which was unlikely, the government would obviously give us plenty of notice and we needed to stay focused on the task at hand. It was a good performance…I strode back to my seat, sure that I had delivered a strong and clear message. Two hours later Leo Varadkar closed schools with immediate effect! So much for my reassuring and wise words!
The news went round the school like wildfire and the message went out to parents that flights would need to be rearranged and that any pupils unable to leave that day would be allowed to stay until the next day. It was amazing how pupils who could not get themselves sorted to hand their essays in on time, unless it was for Mr. Finn of course, nor carry out restriction properly for Mr. Higgins, nor get motivated to turn up to games on time, could suddenly organise international flights around the world at a moment’s notice and get out of here within what seemed like minutes. By that evening we had about 20 pupils left in the school.
Of course, they took the minimal amount of belongings, because we were going to see them all in a few weeks…two weeks of online work, three weeks of holiday and we would all be back, once the Coronavirus was gone and life was back to normal. But, as we know, for all of you, that was your last ever day physically at school and we never got the chance to say goodbye. Some of you came back to get your stuff, creeping in individually by appointment, when we could be sure that you would not run into anyone else, but for those who live abroad Gillian and her heroic team, once it was clear that there would be no return during the following term, spent hours and hours boxing up your things and shipping them off…and many of you have not been back here until this afternoon. I promised that we would organise a farewell in the Autumn of 2020, then the Spring of 2021, then it was delayed again and again…and finally here we are…745 days later. In actual fact, we are in the middle of by far our worst outbreak among the staff and pupils at the moment, which is why you may not see some of those you were expecting. I hope that this will not be a super-spreader event!
So let me start by saying to you pupils, or rather Old Columbans, that it is an absolute joy and pleasure to see you here this afternoon and the fact that so many of you have made a big effort to be here reflects I would suggest both a love of the College and also a need to finally close out this chapter of your lives in an appropriate way. You haven’t changed that much, although some of you are a little hairier.
It is also a great pleasure to welcome back your parents, to whom, like you, we never got a chance to say farewell. You had been standing on touchlines together for years, sat on committees, hosted each other’s’ children and you also were deprived of seeing your child proudly leave school and of saying goodbye to your fellow travellers. I am touched that so many of you have come to be with us today and hopefully enjoy a social and convivial weekend in Dublin.
Turning back to the pupils, there is no doubt that your cohort, the leavers of 2020, got a very raw deal. It was tough for everyone, but you got the worst of all worlds. You missed out on the rites of passage that go along with leaving school: your final house singing competition (it hasn’t happened since, but we are doing it early next term), sports day, sports dinner, Columba’s Day, prize-giving, graduation…even the actual experience of sitting your LC exams (although I know, looking around here, that there were a few for whom that was a huge relief). Then, having decided that there was no point in having a gap year, since there was nothing that you could do anyway, as there were no jobs and no travel was allowed, you headed off to university, to online lectures and remote freshers weeks. You cannot relive your last term at school, nor have your first year at university all over again, but I do hope that coming back here today gives you a chance for some closure. And I do hope that your university experience has got better since its rather sad beginning.
It wasn’t easy for you, but it hasn’t been easy here either. There were times in those first few months of lockdown in 2020 when I wasn’t sure whether we would have a school at all in the September, as there was uncertainty over whether boarding schools would be allowed to operate and, if they were, whether international boarders would be allowed into the country. There were pre-term quarantine periods that tested all of us, including an almost total absence of many of the things that make Columban life so colourful: concerts, full school chapel, sports matches, debating, plays. It was very hard work and demoralising at times but we survived, somehow, through the incredible hard work of a lot of extraordinary people, and the wonderful support of staff, parents and pupils…and we have managed to keep smiling through it all. Or at least most of the time…I know that there have been some tears along the way as well.
Have a wonderful and I look forward to chatting to all of you later.