Form IV pupil, Philomena Schneider, reports on the recent College trip to South Africa.

During half term, the Warden and Mrs Boobbyer took a group of 12 senior pupils to South Africa on a school trip. I was one of them and in the following report I’m going to describe the activities in which we participated, as well as our experience in a country unknown to all of us.

The Friday before half term, the 9th of February, we went set off; first stop, the airport. We had two flights; the first one, 7 hours long, to Doha airport which was mind-blowing to all of us in its greatness and creativity. The next flight to Johannesburg took us about 8 hours, which we didn’t notice much, because we were sleeping most of the time. As we arrived in Johannesburg airport, we quickly found our luggage and went off to take the bus to Tiger Kloof, the boarding school where we would be staying. The Warden was the former principal of that school, so he knew almost everyone already. It was a very warm welcome, equally by the people and by the weather. Because we had a lot of traveling behind us, we just unpacked and got to know four very nice prefects who were greeting us in the evening.

On Sunday we started off with our programme, which this day included a walk around the school grounds after breakfast. This ended up being a 7 km walk, as the school is around 10 times bigger than St. Columba’s. On this walk we discovered the quarry and some ruins of old buildings. Chapel in the late afternoon was a very different experience than what we are used to. People were dancing and singing out freely, which, from my point of view, was great fun and not at all comparable to our chapel services. During this service, we first came across the amazing marimba band. This day was very exciting for everyone, so we talked about our experiences while playing cards after dinner, before we went to bed at around 11.00 pm.

Monday, the actual work started. Again, after breakfast, we made our way to the nearby primary school where we were supposed to help with classes and play with the kids. There was a little awkwardness on our side, but the kids soon were all in and had us playing with them until we couldn’t do anything any more. But that was not the end of the day yet! We had lunch after the primary school project and at 4:00 we went on to have two workshops. The first one was about how to do gumboot dancing and the second one about how to play the marimbas. Nobody from our group knew anything about either of these activities, so we watched and learned. It was very interesting to see how they would dance and it was very funny seeing them trying to tell us to loosen up a little.  It took us a few tries, but in the end we mastered at least the basics. Later that night we went out to dinner, where we got to witness a thunderstorm, which was really impressive. The rest of the night we played cards again until we went to sleep.

Something different was planned for us on Tuesday. We went to help Mamma Maria cook and serve food in a soup kitchen which she supervises. Because we were done with the food quickly, we went next door to play with the kids in day-care who were about 2 or 3 years old. Then it was time to serve the  aforementioned food to the people who came. The soup kitchen was located in Vryburg’s township, Huhudi, so most of them were starving and very happy about the meal they got. At around 2:oopm, we went to get our own lunch, of course, after helping Mamma Maria to wash the pots and plates. In the afternoon, we went to church again, where this time, a cultural evening was held by the Tigers. The marimba band as well as the gumboot dancers were performing. From our side Cerys was the only one brave enough to go forward and play something. It was rather spontaneous, so everyone who wanted to contribute anything could do so. For dinner we were supposed to cook our own meal, which was a chicken stew. Split into 4 different groups, we cooked it over an open fire and in the end, a “Jury” got to test it and determine a winner. This evening we went to bed early.

We got to hear the early bird song on Wednesday, at 5:30am. The sunrise walk was, in my opinion, very early, but totally worth it. It was really spectacular seeing the sun rise above the quarry, from where we were watching. Because it was so early, most of us went back to sleep right after it, to have a little rest before breakfast. This day, we were again doing the primary school project and got to see the kids again. Sadly, just short this time, because at 11.00 we drove off to another school to hand out sanitary pads as a part of the HER project at a school with major social issues. Right after it we went to have lunch and to go to a farm which had a huge wedding venue. There, we could do things like horseback riding or Kalahari surfing, but we mostly just played football. For dinner we had a barbecue, or braii, and went back to Tiger Kloof after that.

On Thursday we went to a disabled home, not far from the soup kitchen. It was very humbling to see the conditions under which the staff had to work and the people being taken care of. They were mostly children, but there were also 2 or 3 adults. We helped with feeding them and after a short break, where we went to see a lion farm, we got to play games with them outside and give them their lunch inside. We picked up our own lunch and later that day we went swimming in the quarry, where we played a few games like Marco Polo. For dinner we went to Orexi’s,a steakhouse in Vryburg, and after eating we went back to pack our bags for the next day.

Friday morning after breakfast we got a bus to take us to Pilanesberg. We said goodbye to everyone and off we went. The bus travel was about 5 hours with two short breaks. When we arrived at the game park, welcomes by monkeys, we had to hurry to bring our bags inside and go out almost immediately after, because we had a safari booked for 15 minutes after we arrived. On the first game drive we saw a lot of elephants, wildebeest, and even a warthog and three cheetahs, among many other things. This drive lasted for 3 hours, so when we came back, we jumped in the pool and went straight to dinner. We also went to bed quite early as we had to get up at 6 am the next morning.

As I mentioned, the second game drive was at 6:00 am. This time, the most seen animals were rhinos, which was very exciting. After this safari, we had breakfast and packed our last things. At about 10:00am, we took the bus to Johannesburg and first visited an African market, where everyone got souvenirs and later visited the Apartheid Museum. This taught us a lot about the apartheid system, which was very interesting to me and I wish we have had more time to spend in it. Finally, for the end of our journey, we drove to the airport, where we went on the 8 hour flight to Doha followed by the 7 hour flight to Dublin.

I think this trip was a once in a lifetime experience and I would recommend it to anyone considering it for another year. I brought back lots of memories I won’t ever forget.

Last night the ‘Junior Sandwich‘ which was this year’s Junior Play production came to a conclusion with two performances in the Big Schoolroom. Particular thanks are due to Mr Swift for conceiving this unusual evening of three short (and very different) pieces flowing into each other. They were very effectively staged in the round on the floor of the BSR, with the audiences on all four sides.

The evening began with the two-hander Now Hear This by Michael Frayn (whose Matchbox Theatre productions ran in late 2021 in the same space under pandemic restrictions, from Seniors). Finn Vanmalder appeared as Person 2, lay down on a mattress, and started trying to solve a Rubic’s Cube, a visible manifestation of his ignoring of Person 1, who came in to complain about how little he listened to her. Unfortunately Harry Casey, the original cast member, was ill, so stepping into the role of Person 2 was another Second Former, Alice Hutchon, and great credit goes to her for an excellent performance with one hour’s notice (she read her lines), with thanks to director Mr Jameson.

The lights went down, and the voice of Marianna O’Shaughnessy came over the PA to describe the odd creatures called ‘Shapeshifters’ in Frayn’s Blackout Number, masked figures dressed in black who scurried around in dim red light, setting up the props and furniture for the main play. Those First Formers were Richard Cosby, Max Heidenfeld, Louie Morphew and Tony Fang, and their movement caused much amusement for the audience.

So finally we saw J.M. Synge’s 1903 one-act In The Shadow of the Glen, updated to a remote part of Wicklow in 1981. Rebecca Flanagan welcomed stranger tramp Alice McCarthy into her house while the body of her ‘dead’ husband Ferdia Murray lay on the pool table in the corner. Of course, he was not dead at all (Ferdia deserves a special award for his sheer stillness for so long). The fourth member of the cast was Jack Francis McKeown, a young man caught by the man of the house at the end for a stiff Jameson or two. Congratulations to all four actors on the compelling way they delivered Synge’s distinctive cadences.

Congratulations to the winners of the Junior Art Prizes 2024. Harry Bowles, Form III, is awarded the Earl of Meath Art Prize (Junior) for his piece ‘Gazing’ – an evocative painting of a squirrel. Angela Ge, Form II, is awarded the Junior Craft Prize, for her sculpture ‘Under the Sea’ . Finally, the Junior Photography Prize is awarded to Sophie Dobbs, Form III<, for her photo  ‘Rugged Connemara’. Congratulations to all pupils.

This year’s Junior Play is made up of three short pieces ‘sandwiched’ together, hence the production title: Junior Sandwich. Two acted pieces Now Hear This and The Shadow of the Glen provide the bread while the central piece (the mature cheddar and pickle) is Blackout Number, a narrated item involving creatures seldom seen on an Irish stage.

The Junior Play is open to pupils in Forms I, II and III and from the eleven Columbans involved all three forms are represented.J.M. Synge’s ‘Shadow’ is as playfully twisted as his more famous full length play, The Playboy of the Western World. Michael Frayn’s Matchbox Theatre collection is the provider for the other two mini-dramas: wordplay and humorous observations abound.
Junior Sandwich will be performed in Friday evening (February 24th) at 7:15pm in the BSR, with two further performances on Saturday evening (7:00pm and 8:15pm).
All are welcome!
Update: See some photos from the first performance below:

I spent half term in South Africa at my old school, Tiger Kloof, with a group of 12 Columbans. In the past I have written about the extraordinary history of the school and its stand against the apartheid government, but that is not the subject of this blog.

I spent some time in the lead up to the trip telling the group about apartheid, but I am not sure what was going in. People of my generation and a little younger grew up hearing about it in the news regularly, but for the current generation it is a vague concept at best. They know nothing about townships, homelands, Sharpeville, Soweto riots, sporting boycotts etc., and although they will know the name of Nelson Mandela they probably know very little about him.

To understand South Africa now, you have to understand its history, or else it makes no sense. Why do the racial groups still live in separate parts of cities and towns? Why do some South African whites speak English and others Afrikaans? Why is there such a huge gulf between the rich and the poor? To go into the soup kitchen which I set up in 2015, surrounded by shacks and piles of uncollected rubbish, one cannot fail to ask questions and be disturbed. South African history is a little like Irish history…it is very complicated and confusing, but that does not mean that one should not try to understand it.

After most of a week at the school, we headed off to see another side of South Africa, visiting Pilanesberg, a beautiful game park. We didn’t see everything but we did see plenty and it made a great contrast with some of what we had experienced before. Then, on the way to the airport we stopped off in Johannesburg at the Apartheid Museum and I commented to my wife that this might be one thing too many; the group were tired, the weather was so hot, they were looking forward to going home. Let’s keep the visit to the Museum fairly short, I suggested, as they may not get a lot out of it.

I was wrong and felt slightly ashamed. It is a great Museum and it was apparent that the story of apartheid still has the power to shock a new generation. To the credit of the party they were gripped by the pictures, the personal stories, the brutality and the violence. They even clambered inside a Casspir, one of the armoured cars in which terrified young white boys used to patrol the townships. Be of no doubt that apartheid was dehumanising and only enforceable through violence. The sad state of South Africa now owes much to the legacy of those times…the deliberate separation of family units, migrant workers forced to work away from their families, the school boycotts, detention without trial. A regime that was enforced by violence and disenfranchisement has left its DNA in the new South Africa. Trauma does not heal overnight…it will take generations.

The genuine interest of our pupils demonstrated to me again how the story of apartheid in South Africa still has much to teach us. Next time I take a group there I want to go the Apartheid Museum on arrival and not on departure, because what you experience subsequently will make much more sense once you understand the history and the context.

South Africa can be depressing but when things are dark one can choose whether to despair or not. As the saying goes, ‘it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’ I choose not to despair, as I know so many wonderful people there who make great sacrifices on behalf of others and do extraordinary things for their communities. It may have many villains but there are also many heroes and they give me hope for the future.

Mental Health Awareness Week is under way, with a jam-packed programme of events, workshops and themed lessons focusing on gratitude as a central theme. On Tuesday, we welcomed the award winning Shona Project who spoke with Forms I to V. There are further workshops with psychologist Tom Tate with Form VI, morning walks and evening yoga, mindful music in chapel and movie nights. There is also a gratitude wall and art display in Whispering House and, finally, on Friday everyone is encouraged to wear “odd socks’ to celebrate our individuality!

Also, check out our Spotify Playlist! We hope everyone enjoys this important week.

It has been another busy half-term for the Transition Year pupils. Some braved the elements in the first week of January for an early-morning hike up Kilmashogue and the following week we had a TY Bake-along and made delicious chocolate cookies. We had a fascinating talk from Law Ed on the Irish legal system and Irish classes had a two-hour drama workshop which was thoroughly enjoyed by all. TY Geography classes visited Irish Aid and the EIPIC Museum in the city centre.

The highlight of the term so far was the TY Carousel Day. Pupils tried out at least three different activities throughout the day, including Barista Training, Segway Driving and Hurling or Croquet. We also had a very impressive talk and workshop from The Reptile Haven and we all had the chance to get up close and personal with tortoises, iguanas, lizards and snakes.

This week, TYs are out on their second week of work experience and some are heading off to Kolkata with The Hope Foundation and others on the South Africa Trip. We look forward to hearing about all of these experiences upon their return.

Sir Anthony Seldon, who has written biographies of the last 6 British Prime Ministers and is currently working on that of Liz Truss (a slim volume?), writes in the Spectator today that ‘our young people deserve inspiration, joy and love in their schools, which should be places that discover and celebrate what they can do, not what they cannot. At present, our lacklustre education system at large is failing our young people, employers and the country.’ Of course, he is writing about the UK and not Ireland, but I love the sentiment about what schools should be all about.

I actually think that Ireland gets it more right than the UK does in some aspects. In the UK pupils spend the last four years of their secondary schooling on a relentless exam treadmill, culminating usually in three A Levels, the narrowest finishing exam system of any country. Children at 16 choose just three subjects in which to specialise, when most young people have yet to realise where their gifts and interests lie. About 25 years ago AS Levels were introduced and pupils were able to opt for 4 or 5 subjects for a year, before going down to 3 or 4 A Levels for their final year. That was an improvement but it has been thrown out and almost all now just do the three subjects for their last two years.

One of the results of this is that creative subjects such as Music and Art in the UK are taking a hammering. If I want to do Medicine I need to do Biology Chemistry and probably Maths of Physics and there is no room for the luxury of the creative subject, which would provide balance and inspiration. Candidates for Oxbridge and Russell Group universities are told to avoid ‘soft’ subjects, which suggest a lack of academic seriousness. With four or five subjects there was some room for the extra creative option, but with only three…forget it!

There are three things that I think Ireland gets right and from which the UK can learn. Firstly, the exam treadmill only extends to the last two years of secondary school rather than four. Yes, the Junior Cycle exams are important but they do not carry the weight of expectation and pressure of GCSEs. And, of course, they do not lead straight into the Leaving Certificate because of the Transition Year, the second thing that Ireland does differently. It is a great concept to give our children a year without the pressure of public exams, as they puzzle out who they are. As someone who did all of his classroom teaching in the UK, I am a big fan of the TY. At its best, it allows young people, before choosing which direction they want to go academically, to experience a variety of new subjects; it allows teachers to go beyond the curriculum, or outside it altogether, and pursue areas of interest that do not need to fit into the narrow and unimaginative constraints of the dreaded syllabus. The year allows for work experience, service work, trips, speakers and (dare I say it) some fun! Is that allowed?

Thirdly, as I hinted at above, the Leaving Certificate, while it may be rather limited in the way it is examined, allows for a far broader range of subjects for 16 year olds to study, keeping options open for longer and not cutting off avenues for the future at a stage when, for most pupils, interests are still developing. The German Abitur is far broader for far longer; the International Baccalaureate is much broader and still very rigorous and growing in popularity in the UK for schools that can afford to make the change; students in the USA keep going with a broad range of subjects right through high school and into their first year at College, only specialising in the second year. It also allows undergraduates to do modules and get credits for courses that are not connected to their main degree. I can study Astrophysics and still indulge my interest in Ancient Greek.

I think the UK system of three A Levels goes right back to an age when most subjects were seen as inferior to the ‘serious ones’ and all were inferior to Latin and Greek (which is true of course…I am a classicist!). But no one, inventing an education system now, would suddenly say ‘I have a great idea. Let’s get our 15 and 16 year olds to choose just three subjects, even though they have no idea what they want to do with their lives…and let’s make it really hard for them to do the creative subjects, as that won’t improve their earning potential.’

I need to own up…Anthony Seldon was my Headmaster for 6 years and he was staying with us last weekend! He mentioned St. Columba’s in his Spectator article because he sent it to me in advance and we weren’t in it…so I told him to add us in! As he says, ‘our young people deserve inspiration, joy and love in their schools, which should be places that discover and celebrate what they can do, not what they cannot.’ Doing seven subjects for the Leaving Certificate allows the brightest pupils to study the subjects necessary for Medicine or Economics, while still allowing space for the humanities, and for Art or Music, which nourish the soul and make us fully human…

And doesn’t that give us a greater chance of making our schools places of human flourishing, of inspiration, joy and love?