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.

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?

I am sure that, like me, you were alarmed by the riots in Dublin on Thursday evening last week. The Irish like to think of themselves as welcoming and friendly …the land of 1000 welcomes… so it was a bit of wake-up call when the cry went out, as you may have heard on social media, to kill the foreigners in a city that is increasingly international and diverse. I know that many people have been seriously shocked by what happened. And it has made me ponder how common it is, and has always been, to blame the immigrant and the outsider for the problems in a country. It’s a very old story.

When we were living in South Africa there was an outbreak of xenophobic violence and many African immigrants from countries surrounding South Africa were attacked, their businesses were destroyed and some were even killed. In our local township of Huhudi, which a few of you will be visiting in February and from where many of the children came to the school I was running, a couple of immigrants were killed, including a Somali who had set up a bakery. The old cry went out that ‘these foreigners are taking our jobs’ and he was killed by a mob. The following week there was another outcry…there was a shortage of bread in the township. 

Discrimination and prejudice is usually the result of ignorance. It is harder to hate someone with whom you have shared your life, and whose concerns and fears you have made an effort to understand. It makes you realise that they are people just like you, with the same hopes and fears for themselves and their families. It is much easier to discriminate against people you don’t know or don’t relate to and to convince yourself and other people that they are somehow not like us and therefore of less value. That can happen on a micro level and cause hurt, but it can also happen on a much bigger scale and the results of that can be horrific and catastrophic. We all know what happened to the Jews before and during the second world war. 

In case you think that this was a unique occurrence, be warned that it is all too common. On Saturday evening my wife and I were invited to dinner with some Argentinian friends from our church. As we chatted the wife of the couple dropped into the conversation that her grandfather was Armenian. I immediately asked if he had fled from Turkey during the genocide of the Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire, in 1915. She said he had. Up to a million ethnic Armenians were marched into the Syrian desert and left to die, while their cities and towns were systematically destroyed and their culture and history erased. This is a fact of history that Turkey to this day denies was a genocide but is accepted as such by most Western countries. She said that her grandfather had been rounded up with all of his family and hit on the head. He passed out and when he woke up he found himself under the body of his grandmother, where he pretended to be dead for the next three days until the attackers left. He eventually emigrated to Argentina. Amazing to discover that story about someone I have known for a while. 

I asked her husband, Pablo, why you see many indigenous people from South America in countries like Brazil and Peru and Bolivia, but not in Argentina. He explained in a very matter of fact way that in the 19th century the indigenous people there were considered a nuisance and rounded up and killed or forced to emigrate. I had no idea about that. Argentina is an enormous country but there are basically no indigenous people left there at all. They were victims of an ethnic cleansing.

In Australia, the Aboriginal, indigenous people were considered to be sub-human and hunted down by the early white settlers, mainly British and Irish. There are many still around now, though often living in very squalid conditions. Such was the attitude towards them that for a long time, and until as recently as the 1970s, their children were removed from their families and forcibly adopted by white families, so that they would grow up to be civilised. I played a season of cricket in Australia in 1990-91 and I was horrified to hear the casual and racist manner in which white Australians referred to the oldest inhabitants of their land. Oddly enough, my aunt married an outback farmer and they lived in a remote corner of north west Australia known as the Kimberleys. The nearest white neighbour was about 50 miles away and so my cousins Joe and Matt grew up with the local Aboriginal children as their friends and grew to respect them. Joe is now one of the world experts on Aboriginal languages at a university in Sydney.

In 1994 in the small Africa country of Rwanda there was a genocide when the majority ethnic Hutus turned on the Tutsis and butchered up to a million of them in a couple of months. Ill-feeling, whipped up by propaganda, had been building until the cry went out that the Tutsis were ‘cockroaches’ who should be stamped on. They were vermin and to destroy vermin is doing everyone a favour. This happened even despite the presence for much of the time of United Nations peace-keeping forces. That is only 30 years ago.

In 1986 I was part of an exchange between British and Arab students. I spent a week in Jordan meeting young Palestinians who were refugees from the West Bank, from where their families had been forced to flee in 1948, or 1967 or 1973….you can go and research those dates. What is happening now in Israel and Gaza fills me with horror but also enormous sadness. Neither side in the conflict sees the other as human and, as I said earlier, when that is the case it makes it much easier to treat them as the ‘other,’ of lesser value. How many Jews really try and understand the pain of Palestinians who lost their homes after the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948? How many Palestinians understand the historic persecution of the Jews and the incredibly real and still raw trauma of the killing of 6 million Jews before and during the second world war? I am not going to attempt an analysis of an historically complex situation (I don’t want to walk into a minefield) but to see the hatred that people have for each other in the holy land, where Jesus once walked and talked, is hugely upsetting. Last week it was announced that Christmas this year has been cancelled in Bethlehem. 

I made a friend on that trip, Jeroen Gunning, who was so moved by the experience that he has become one of the top experts in the world on the region and knows more about Hamas and Hezbollah than almost anyone on the planet. He is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. I have been trying to pin him down for a fireside chat, but, as you can imagine, he is in high demand at the moment. 

You might think that these kind of things couldn’t happen nowadays in the West. However, when I hear Donald Trump, former and quite possibly future president of the United States, describe his enemies and detractors as vermin I do worry. After all, vermin is not really human and to destroy it is to do everyone a favour. 

In the South Africa where my wife grew up, along with a few of the staff here, non-whites were treated as second class citizens by law and did not have the right to vote. I have told you this before but her best friend was not allowed to go to the beach with her or travel in the best train compartment as those were reserved for white people. That same friend is now vice-chair of the South African medical research council and we are staying in her home at Christmas in Cape Town. 

When I started the job in South Africa we decided to have a few teaching staff round for dinner and we made sure that those coming were a mixture of different racial groups: white, black, mixed race, Indian…they were enjoyable evenings, but during one of them one of the black teachers, possibly about 40 years old, admitted that this was the first time that she had ever sat down to eat with a white person. What we had thought was normal was actually far from normal. But how can you build relationships between people of different backgrounds, mutual trust and respect, if you do not create the conditions for dialogue and honest conversation?

You may wonder why I am telling you all of these things, many of which are extremely depressing. I’m not entirely sure myself, but I guess that in some ways I am just trying to share with you what has been on my mind, particularly since the attack by Hamas on October 7th. And having observed the scenes in Dublin last week I also want to change the conversation slightly and ask what part we as Columbans can play in being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Yes, even we here in our splendid isolation on the hill have a responsibility.

This is a very multi-racial and multi-cultural school and it is being increasingly reflected in the city around us. In the 8 years I have been here I have seen Dublin become much more cosmopolitan. I think that is great, but some people clearly feel threatened by it or want to use it as an excuse for their own shortcomings. The same understanding of difference and diversity that is needed for society to function successfully should be modelled by us here in our own smaller and admittedly privileged context. How we respect each other, particularly those who are different from ourselves, how we talk about each other, how we talk to each other, is supremely important. Do you make an effort to understand the country your friends come from? Do you have friends who don’t look like you or talk like you? Can you disagree with your friends who may have different viewpoints from you, while remaining friends? Society is losing that valuable skill, the skill of disagreeing respectfully. Our diversity here is our strength and we must learn to cherish our differences. 

I hope that all of you take some interest in what is happening in the news. I think we all have a responsibility to know what is going on. And I think we also have a responsibility to get to know people from different communities, to really listen to their stories, because otherwise we risk getting our opinions from hysterical social media, from fake news and algorithms that manipulate us. It can feel like the big events in the world happen a long way away and do not touch your lives, but last week’s events here in Dublin showed that the culture of blaming the foreigner and the outsider is alive and well over here. And perhaps what I really wanted to say this morning is, let’s make sure that that is not something that anyone can ever accuse us of here at St. Columba’s. 

Each year, when Remembrance Sunday comes around, I wonder about its relevance. After all, there are no survivors left from the First World War and veterans of the Second World War are fewer each year. My father lost three uncles on the western front and I grew up with a keen awareness of that, but my own children do not feel any connection to that. For the generations who fought in the first war, and their children, the annual acts of remembrance must have been very poignant, with almost everyone being so personally affected. At this distance, it is impossible for us to understand the trauma of what they experienced. 

In the first war, 67 pupils and staff of St. Columba’s College were killed. Considering that this was a very small school at the turn of the 20th Century those numbers are hard to fathom. It must have been a common experience for the Warden to announce to the College the death of a recent pupil, remembered by many still in the school, or of a brother of a pupil in the school. Does one get hardened to that regular news, and cease to feel its impact, or does news of each death bring a new trauma? 

I think there are two reasons why we should still continue to remember those who died, even as it becomes more part of history. Firstly, it is an integral part of our history as a school, part of our DNA, part of who we are. It surely does us no harm at all to remember the sacrifices that were made by previous generations, so that we can live in a peaceful and prosperous country, enjoying the freedoms that we share. Secondly, the annual reminder of the pain and destruction of war, and how little is achieved by it, is surely good for us, lest we get blasé and complacent. When we see war in Ukraine, dragging on towards the end of its second year, and the endless cycle of violence and war in the Middle East, we can either despair or commit ourselves, in our own very small way, to build understanding between individuals and communities…or even nations. We can start in this school. 

In the Beatitudes Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.’ Not many are singled out for that praise. I guess that means that we are all called to be peacemakers, not just those in positions of power. I think that was a challenge from Jesus not just to the Nelson Mandelas among us, of whom there are few, but to each individual person in their family, place of work, community and even their own country. In chapel this morning, the reading from Luke’s gospel reminded us that anyone can love those who love them. That is easy. However, Jesus’s teaching that we should love our enemies and pray for who those persecute us is perhaps the most counter-intuitive and revolutionary teaching in history. No wonder even his own family thought he was mad!

It may sound absurd but what is more absurd is that throughout history so few people and peoples have taken him at his word.  

It was a joy to see so many of our musicians performing last week at the Wesley Feis and getting plenty of recognition. My own musical career was not spectacular. I did learn the flute for a long time at school and managed to scrape through Grade 5 and Grade 5 theory, before failing Grade 6 with one of the lowest scores ever. I have never played since. I don’t think I was ever very good and I am told that I had the wrong-shaped mouth, so it was probably the wrong instrument for me to take up in the first place. And at school, I was so involved with sport that I never had time to join a band or an orchestra. As a teenager, I strummed away on the guitar and enjoyed singing Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel songs…I still have the guitar but it rarely gets an outing. My only real musical claim to fame is that I sat in the back of the school bus for five years with a boy called Phil Selway, who was also in my French set. I never thought he was very good at French, but I suspect he was too busy practising his drums…he and some friends at school set up a band called Radiohead.

When my wife and I were in South Africa in 1993 I managed to acquire another flute and thereby hangs a tale. We were having lunch in Pretoria with an old friend of my parents, called John Mallory (you need to know his name as part of the story). Somehow or other we got talking about music and I must have said that I used to play the flute. He said that he had a spare flute, which no one in the family used and would I like to have it. Well, of course I said yes in order to be polite. It wasn’t a very good one, but I took it away and have scarcely blown it since. In fact, I am not sure where it is now.

Anyway, the story is this. John Mallory was at the time 72 years old. His father, George Mallory, had died when he was only two and he had been searching for his father’s remains and the truth about his death ever since. It is a sad but remarkable story. George Mallory was one of the most famous mountaineers of his day and he had been involved in expeditions to climb Mount Everest in 1921 and 1922, which reached record heights. When asked why he was so obsessed with climbing the mountain he replied, ‘Because it is there.’ By 1924 he had three children and, despite misgivings, he decided to return for one more shot at the summit. He and his friend Andrew Irvine got higher than ever before and on June 8th they were seen near the summit by members of their support group, as the weather closed in. Neither of them was ever seen again.

Many expeditions were launched over the years to search for their remains and even, possibly, to look for the camera that they were carrying. John Mallory spent 77 years not knowing what had happened to his father, until in 1999 another search party to the known area found a body that had clearly been there for a very long time. Since Irvine’s ice axe had been found nearby many years before they expected the body to be his, but to their astonishment they found name tags on the clothes with the name of George Mallory. There was no sign of a camera. That must have been an incredible moment and one can only imagine the emotions of John when he heard that his father’s body had finally been found. It was buried with ceremony where it was discovered.

No one will ever know whether the two climbers made it to the top, 29 years before Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, but it is fun to speculate. He had told his family and members of the expedition that he was carrying a photo of his wife to leave on the summit. Lots of things were found in his pockets, including a receipt from a London supplier of climbing equipment, but there was no photo of his wife…

Anyway, I really ought to find that flute.

The thing about great literature is that it is timeless. I read a lot but I rarely reread a book… in fact the only novel I can think of that I have reread purely for pleasure is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, with that awesome opening, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ Is that the greatest opening to any novel? Find it and read the first paragraph. Recently I mentioned to someone that one of my favourite novels, certainly in my top 5, is Resurrection by Tolstoy…then I found myself in town and I decided to go into Hodges and Figgis and buy a copy and reread it. I must have read it 25 years ago at least and I remember it having a profound effect on me, so I bought it, came home and tucked into it…and immediately the extraordinary and haunting story, that grabbed me all those years ago, came back. But what struck me even more was how very topical the story is. The setting is 19th century…the theme is 2022. What did I say about great literature?

The story tells of a Russian landowner who is a decent sort at the start of the book. He has a teenage romance with a maidservant at his aunt’s house when still young and it is delightfully portrayed. Their innocence and naivety is touching. He then doesn’t see her for three years and in that time he joins the army, becomes tough and worldly, starts drinking hard, and becomes a womaniser and a pleasure-seeker. Then he happens to visit his aunt again and the girl is still there, still innocent and overjoyed to see him. He is also excited but by now he has a different use for girls like her and he forces himself on her, despite her protestations. The next day he gives her some money and rides away.

Ten years later he has become a big figure in his neighbourhood. One day he is called up to do jury service and the first case of the day is a murder trial and, to his horror, he recognises the woman on trial as the girl he raped. Her life had gone downhill from the moment he last saw her…she became pregnant, got dismissed, had to beg for food and started to drink to escape her dismal reality. Eventually she turns to prostitution and when the landowner sees her she is being accused of the seedy murder of an abusive client. When he realises what has happened to this lovely innocent girl, and how it all started with his callous abuse of her, he is so horrified by the consequences of his behaviour that he vows to spend the rest of his life seeking redemption.

Resurrection was written 120 years ago, but it speaks to us in a way that is so relevant today. Is it not addressing what we would call ‘rape culture’ and consent, issues which we face today and perhaps in a far more deep-seated way? The sadness in the novel is that the protagonist changes from an innocent and decent young man, who looks out for others and loves the innocence of the girl, into someone who uses others to satisfy his own pleasure, regardless of the cost to the other person. In his case it was army life that changed him, with the need to fit in with his peers, the desire not to be different, not to stand out, to prove himself a man. Few young people go into the army now, so what is it in our culture that teaches young men to think it is okay to abuse girls, to demand what they want regardless of the feelings of others and assume that there will be no consequences?

Is it perhaps the fast-food diet of pornography and, with it, the normalisation of violent and abusive behaviour? The young man in Resurrection is between the ages of 19 and 22 when he starts to head down the wrong road, but I fear that many now are far younger than that when they have the same loss of innocence, at an age when they are ill-equipped to handle it. It is a hugely serious issue in my mind, but few people want to talk about it. Let’s face it, a generation of young people who don’t know what is appropriate behaviour in relationships has not appeared out of nowhere.

As for the effect of abuse on the victim, that is another whole narrative. So much dysfunction can be traced back to a trauma such as the one that Tolstoy portrays.

How did I get from Tolstoy to rape culture and pornography? Well, I said that great literature is timeless, because it tackles the real issues of the human condition. Tolstoy tackled it at the end of the 19th century and his writing was controversial, as you would imagine. But when you read the novel now, it addresses an issue that is surely even more real in our world and I am not aware of any great writer now who deals with it as powerfully and courageously as he did back then.

The ancient Greeks saw their poets as prophets, who called out the abuses prevalent in their world and called people back to the ‘old ways.’ Tolstoy too was a sort of prophet in the same mould, calling out the abuses that he saw in his Russian world 120 years ago. Are there any prophets out there who will do the same in our time?

The Warden writes (10th March 2022):

I haven’t blogged much this year, perhaps because there is a limit to how often people need to read my thoughts about coping with the pandemic and life has been dominated by that for so long. Now, of course, just as life is returning to normal, we are facing even more serious challenges in Ukraine and the world seems like a rather dark place. Ironically, from a school point of view, there is much to look forward to as Spring arrives and the daffodils begin to add colour to the campus. However, it is hard to be too upbeat when so many are suffering so much elsewhere.

Let me stay off the politics and the pandemic…it is that time of the year when I remind the school that my father scored the only try of the match for England v. Ireland at Twickenham in 1952 in what must go down as the most absurd game of rugby in history. The match was supposed to have been played in February but was postponed, for the first time ever, because King George VI died. It was rearranged for the end of March and so had to be played then regardless of the conditions. In those days, there was no such thing as health and safety or concern for player welfare and matches never got called off!

A few years ago I found the footage from the match on YouTube. In fact I found two different versions of the same match. Both are magnificent. The older among you will remember that when those leather balls got wet they swelled up and become like a bar of soap, which helps to explain the chaos that you see. The commentary of the shorter is wonderful, while the longer one has more footage and ends with an Irish player trying to start a snowball fight.

You can watch the two clips below.

Sport is not real life, but it can provide a great distraction in tough times. I hope this cheers everyone up!

In case you are confused, a try was only worth three points in those days, hence the final score of 3-0. Oh, and good luck to Ireland on Saturday. It is always a great occasion, but I hope you will not be too disappointed by the result.


I see that the huge statue of the Confederate general Robert Lee, in Richmond Virginia, has been removed from its plinth. That is a significant move. Let me explain.

Robert Lee was the leader of the Confederate armies in the American Civil War, an icon to those who supported the southern American states. He was certainly a great general, as he won great acclaim despite the fact that the southern states were less well equipped than those in the north, but we need to remember that the Civil War was largely fought to preserve the southern way of life, built on a culture of plantations and the right to hold slaves. Virginia was the front line of the south and Richmond its capital.

I visited Richmond in 2013 together with a couple of black pupils from my school in South Africa. We had a tour of the city, visited the slave museum and some of the significant locations from the civil war and also dropped into a black church. We got a picture of a city divided still along racial lines and its most obvious symbols were the statues of Confederate generals that sit in the middle of Confederate Avenue, the most famous of which was that of General Robert Lee. The fact that it has been taken away is therefore of great significance and doubtless would have been very controversial. Indeed, Donald Trump is up in arms about it, so it is probably a good thing.

Confederate Avenue’s line of statues is extraordinary for another reason. For a very long time there was one roundabout in the middle that did not contain any statue…perhaps they had run out of generals to celebrate. Then, in the 1990s a campaign was launched to place a new statue on the empty space and the people of Richmond voted to erect a statue of the great black American tennis player Arthur Ashe, a native of Richmond. Those of a certain age will remember him defeating the brash young Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon Final, one of the great upsets of tennis history. He was a man of great dignity, who sadly died of Aids contracted from a blood transfusion in his late 40s. As you can imagine, putting up the statue of a black tennis player in the centre of the line of Confederate generals was very controversial, but there it stands to this day, testimony to one of the great fault lines of American society.

Tearing down statues always stirs debate, particularly from the lobby that cries out that their history is being expunged. However, statues are symbols of what society values and their public presence can sometimes create great hurt. Rather than tearing them down, it makes sense to me, in many cases, to move statues to museums or other spaces where they can be discussed and put in their context. I am sure that Robert Lee’s statue will appear elsewhere at some point and continue to give rise to lively debate, but his removal does send a good message to the large black population of Richmond that their concerns have been heard and addressed.

On that same visit, we were privileged to be welcomed on Capitol Hill, by Congressman John Lewis, one of the greatest of the civil rights activists, who had been arrested up to 50 times for his protests. I think he is possibly the finest person I have ever met and spent time with, as he talked to us for 30 minutes about his career and his guiding principles.

It is easy to look at the United States and point the finger, but that can also deflect from us looking at the historic injustices in our society and the often shameful history of racial abuse perpetuated closer to home. I should know…I am British! And, even more important and appropriate, we need to look at our own society and our own community and see where we can still learn and improve.

Read more from the Warden’s blog here.

This is the text of the Warden’s sermon at the first Evensong of term, last Sunday.


Who is Your Neighbour?

Who is your neighbour? The two greatest commandments in the Bible, we are told, are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. So I ask you again…Who is your neighbour?

Religious people, unfortunately, are often inclined to try to create new rules, to want definitions, to know who is in and who is out. They like certainty and clarity. If you like easy definitions and simple answers this is not a good story for you. It is a familiar story, I hope, …but if it isn’t, let me explain.

A religious lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks him what he needs to do to please God. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer and asks him how he sees it and the lawyer gives an excellent reply: you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus is impressed and says so. The lawyer feels rather pleased with himself and asks a further question: who is my neighbour? The lawyer wants to define who his neighbour is so that he can be exactly sure who it is that he should be loving. Is it those in his family, or those with whom he does business, his friends perhaps, the people he likes and chooses to be in his circle? Or is it just the Jewish people, those who have the same world view, the same beliefs…those who look the same, speak the same and share his values? He wants a narrow definition that he can easily control and he also wants, I am sure, to know who is not his neighbour, those whom he doesn’t need to worry about. Life is easier when we know exactly who is in and who is out. I think he may have regretted asking that question, but it gives rise to one of the greatest illustrations ever told, the story of the Good Samaritan.

To summarise the story, a man is beaten up and left for dead. Two religious men, greatly respected in their community, pass by and ignore him, reluctant to get involved, afraid the muggers might still be lurking around, concerned that they might become unclean by touching a dead body, full of self-importance that they will be late for their important work. Caring for those who are in need can be a messy business. Then along comes a Samaritan. Now it needs to be understood that Jews and Samaritans did not get on and the Jews looked down on Samaritans as racially inferior. They had nothing to do with them. Why would this Samaritan man stop to help a Jewish man…the injured man would surely not have helped him if the roles were reversed. But this man does not pass by…he stops, he tends the injured man’s wounds, he takes time to nurse him and takes him to an inn, he pays money for his care and promises more if necessary.

Among other things here, Jesus is challenging our racial prejudices. The Jews may have been a chosen people, but that did not give them the right to despise others. Everyone, the Bible makes clear, is made in the image of God. We are all image-bearers, fearfully and wonderfully made. That is something we must remember at all times, a huge lesson for the modern world and a lesson for us too here at St. Columba’s, with our wonderfully diverse community. Every pupil in this school is made in God’s image and that surely demands that we should treat them all with respect and dignity.

The story of the Good Samaritan would have been a great story even if the man who stopped to show mercy had been Jewish, but by making him a despised foreigner it adds so much more power and nuance to the teaching. And it needs to be clearly understood that in telling this story Jesus is being deliberately provocative and his illustration of what it means to be a neighbour would not have gone down well with many of his listeners. Some of them would have been furious. Others, perhaps secretly fed up with the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, would have been delighted and amazed by his boldness and drawn to follow him and listen to him further. They were used to religious teachers or rabbis, but this one was a bit different. Jesus characterises the religious leaders of the day as callous and selfish, while suggesting that even those who were on the outside, not in the club, racially impure, were possibly more acceptable to God than those in the club. You can see why he fell out with the religious authorities, who eventually ended up plotting his death and handing him over to be tortured and killed.

So, with this story in mind, let me ask you again, who is your neighbour? Through every age there have been those who want to define exactly who their neighbour is, so that they can be sure to tick the right boxes and care for the right people. It makes life neater. However, if we are to take on board the lesson from this parable, this story told by Jesus, we will need to rethink our boundaries and widen our circle and be prepared for life to be a bit messier than we might like. Our neighbour, according to Jesus, is anyone we meet who may be in need, anyone who needs our help. In this age, that does not mean just those with whom we live but those whom we come across in any capacity whom we are able to help: the other race, the other community, the other religious belief, those who are suffering, those who have been abandoned. Perhaps our neighbour is the person we see on our screens whom we will never meet face to face, but we are able to support with our time or our finances. Perhaps your neighbour is the Afghan refugee or the asylum seeker, fleeing their country for a better life; perhaps it is the homeless person outside Lidl or the elderly person living on their own down your street; perhaps it is the person in your boarding house who lacks confidence and needs a friendly greeting. Loving your neighbour can be very costly, but sometimes it can also be very simple.

I don’t want to try and define or suggest who your neighbour might be, because Jesus is deliberately getting rid of definitions and comfortable parameters. ‘You can love these ones, but you don’t need to worry about those ones.’ Is that what you would like to know? The smug lawyer who came to Jesus, who gave a good answer and then asked Jesus to define exactly who his neighbour was, got more than he bargained for. I wonder whether he wished afterwards that he had kept his mouth shut after Jesus told him his answer was a good one.

So the question remains and has remained down the ages. Who is your neighbour? You must answer that question for yourself. It is one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself, but you need to be careful of the answer because it may be awkward or uncomfortable and there is a very good chance that it may not be the one you want to hear.


Illustration: The Good Samaritan by by Domenico Campagnola.

From the Warden:

16th June 2021

This is what I would have said at the St Columba’s Day celebrations in the Sports Hall:

How do I begin to summarise the year that is just finishing? Perhaps some future archivist will be trawling through the speeches of Wardens of yesteryear and will come across these words and wonder what had happened. Then he or she will look at the year and say, ‘Oh yes, 2021. That was the year of the pandemic. That was the year that our parents and grandparents told us about.’

On speech days or prize-givings Headmasters extol the successes of the year and celebrate the individual and collective achievements of the school. However, the achievements of this year have been of a very different kind and it feels like a monumental achievement just to have made it to the end of the year. What can a school principal like me talk about when we have not played a match this year, when there have been no full school concerts, no dramatic productions, no trips within Ireland, let alone abroad, not even a chapel service of more than a handful of pupils, with no singing and with faces covered?

It allows me instead talk about some things that matter more than the traditional list of achievements and highlight the strengths of the school in ways that are not measurable and tangible. It gives me space to talk about the value of the people who make up this community and who stick together through thick and thin and ensure that the future is much brighter than the present.

Let me start with the pupils. What a year they have had, living with uncertainty, being separated from their friends for a large portion of the year and, when they have been here, without so many of the aspects of school that provide the fun. It has been a joy in the last few weeks to at least hear some noise around the school and to see them running around in the sunshine. I know that many of them have battled and struggled to cope with all that has happened. I would be lying if I said that we did not have our share of mental health issues. Our young people are like all others, trying to navigate a confusing world of social media noise and bombarded with messages from all sides that tell them that they would be happier if they were thinner or had better skin, were more muscular or more macho, better at exams or better at sport. I think it was always like that, but it seems that much of today’s epidemic of dissatisfaction is intentionally created by industries that want to make all of us, and children in particular, feel inadequate and disappointed in who we are.

That gives a clear mission and focus for schools and especially one like this, which is such a full immersion experience for both boarders and day pupils. We have an obligation to cherish young people for who they are, to celebrate their differences, to affirm their varied characters and talents and teach them to love themselves. As a Christian foundation we uphold the command to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves,’ which, of course, means that we can only love our neighbour properly if we first love ourselves. Of course, I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way, nor that every person should not be a on a journey to develop their values and their character. None of us is the finished article. But I do mean that we need to encourage our children to love who they are, despite the constant feeds that tell them they are inadequate, make billions from their lack of self-esteem and leave a trail of destruction behind them.

This year we have been speaking a lot more about the values of the College, which were chosen by the pupils and staff: Kindness, Compassion, Inclusion, Responsibility, Determination.  And next year we will be using every opportunity to embed them into our regular conversations in chapel and assembly. I’m sure that all parents have the same hopes for their children, that they develop all their talents and fulfil their potential. However, I am convinced that, underneath it all, what we all want most for our children is for them be comfortable in their own skin and to treat other people with respect and love. If we as a school can help that to happen then we have done far more than can be proven by any list of achievements.

The second constituency I want to address is the parents. I have been very grateful for the support that parents have provided throughout the pandemic. I am sure that when you chose St. Columba’s as the school for your children you had visions of attending matches and plays and concerts, and coming to speech day in summer dress, and meeting other parents, with whom you could form friendships, at the same time as your children. I am sure that you wanted more from this year than your children have experienced. However, despite the frustrations, I have always felt that the parents have understood the challenges and how desperate we have been to provide a safe place for their children to learn, even if that safe place was online. I am excited by the prospect of seeing parents back in the heart of the school, attending events and collaborating with us in the joy and celebration of watching their children grow up…and perhaps sharing a few of the tears and heartache as well. But I would like to thank you for your support and your encouragement, which has meant a lot over the course of this wretched time.

Lastly I want to talk about the staff that work here at St. Columba’s. Working in a boarding school is not so much a job as a way of life, all-consuming and relentless, exhausting but wonderfully rewarding. It requires people who give of themselves to an extraordinary degree and don’t count the hours. I am not going to thank individuals but this year has been a team effort like never before. The sanatorium staff have been on the front line and kept us all on our toes; the cleaners have had to work harder than ever before; the catering crew have had to adapt everything that they do and work under stricter conditions than ever; the maintenance team have kept the place looking brilliant and the finance department have tried to balance the books in a very challenging environment, while making sure that everyone has been paying their fees! I cannot express adequately how grateful I am to them all.

Teachers are human and I know that there were times last summer when they feared for their jobs, when we were unsure if boarding schools were going to reopen at all and, even if they did, whether any of the overseas pupils would be allowed into the country. There were days last summer when I was not sure whether I was going to be the last Warden of St. Columba’s. In the midst of this stress, teachers have had to adapt their teaching to go online at very little notice and, if not living in the school, they have been cut off from their colleagues. Those involved most closely in the pastoral care of the pupils have never had to work harder and I am in awe of the work that they do. To say that I am proud of the teaching staff does not begin to do justice to their hard work, determination and commitment to your children. In my mind they are all heroes.

Next year, I hope, will be very different, even if it is not fully back to normal. And I think that we will take huge pleasure in things that we had previously taken for granted. You don’t know what you have until it is taken away. Morning chapel, singing rousing hymns and the gathering of the whole community every morning; sports matches of all kinds…I will be shouting extra loud on the touchline; plays, concerts and choirs…we have a lot of fantastic musicians in the school at the moment from whom we have heard nothing…and what is a school without music? We will need to create new memories and cherish each moment in a new way.

I hope you all have a wonderful summer. Best of luck to those who are leaving…we look forward to welcoming you back when the time is right. And to those who are returning, come back ready for action, ready to get stuck in and to make up for lost time. We are going to hit the ground at full speed.

Floreat Columba et floreant Columbanenses.

If you were not too distracted by the hysteria surrounding the announcement of the European Super League – thank goodness that plan is off the table – you may have been following the verdict following the trial of the police officer who killed George Floyd. I am sure that the whole world breathed a sigh of relief when the verdict was announced and we all hope and pray that it represents a new era in policing and racial justice in the United States.

I was interested this morning to read another headline on the BBC News website, with more encouraging steps to right some of the wrongs of the past. The British have always looked after the cemeteries of their First World War dead very well and they are very moving to visit. However, it transpires that non-white soldiers fighting for the British were never given their own headstones, but were merely listed on memorials, or in documents, or not at all. The actual graves of most are not known. As shocking as it is to our modern sensibilities, it was thought that ‘the average native…would not understand or appreciate a headstone.’ Thus the contribution of thousands of colonial troops to the British war effort has never been properly recognised.

An inquiry has reported that an estimated 50,000 Asian and African troops, who died in the conflict, were ‘commemorated unequally.’ There are now plans afoot to set this record straight and, although I don’t know the form that this will take, it is surely very positive that authorities are not saying merely, ‘let’s make sure we get this right in the future,’ but ‘let’s put right an historic wrong now, albeit 100 years too late.’

It reminds me very much of a trip I made in my last few months in South Africa in 2016, when I visited the historic battlefields of the Zulu War of 1879 and the Boer War, which pitched the British against the Afrikaaners from 1899-1902. At the time these wars captured the imagination of the British public like no other and tales of derring-do were eagerly reported in the British press. Now we are rather embarrassed by it all, although it is a fascinating period of history. My first visit was to Spion Kop, a major battle of the Boer War, as well as an embarrassing British defeat. On a rocky hilltop hundreds of troops from Liverpool were mown down, but their heroism was commemorated in the naming of a new stand at Anfield, the ground of Liverpool Football Club, which, because it was steep and high, was given the name the Spion Kop. As a Liverpool supporter I felt that I was making a pilgrimage.

However, the point of my story is this. On top of this rugged and distant outcrop soon afterwards the British, ever keen to celebrate their heroes, put up memorials to those who had died from their Liverpool regiments. They are all listed and it is moving. However, what was forgotten and not acknowledged was that these white soldiers were supported by large numbers of Indians acting as stretcher bearers and water carriers. Many of them died, but there was no memorial to them. The honest, tough Liverpool soldiers received a fitting monument, but perhaps it was not considered that these Indians would have ‘understood or appreciated’ such a memorial. Or perhaps worse, it was thought quite simply that the life of an Indian was not worth as much as a white man and that it would have insulted the soldiers to commemorate the Indians in a like manner.

Anyway, whatever the original thinking was, it was fitting that fairly recently (within the last 20 years or so) this wrong was put right and there does now exist a memorial to those Indians who died at Spion Kop and a tribute to the bravery of all the Indians who were involved, including, remarkably, a young stretcher-bearer called Mohandas K. Gandhi. Incidentally Winston Churchill was also there, working as a journalist. It is extraordinary that two of the giants of the 20th century were present at what was, in the bigger scheme of things, a minor skirmish.

It is never too late to right the wrongs of the past. The conviction of a police officer doesn’t change the past, but it does send a message to the future. And the building of memorials, even at a much later date, does also help to address the prejudices of the past and help us to look forward to a better and more just future.

I remember Thursday 12th March 2020 very well. The Covid crisis was escalating and there was talk of schools being closed before the end of term. One or two pupils were even wearing masks, but we told them not to be so silly and to take them off at once. Assuming that any announcement of school closures would be made with a few days’ notice, I spoke in chapel that morning to allay speculation. I boldly stated that we were fully focused on getting on with things, there was no imminent threat of schools being closed and any such decision would be made in a way that gave plenty of notice to everyone of what was to come. I was decisive, I was clear, I was reassuring.

About two hours later Leo Varadkar announced that all schools were to be closed that very day.

Within a few hours the school was empty. Pupils who normally struggle to hand in an essay on time, leave their books lying around and turn up late for cloisters every day, were able, within no time at all, to book flights home to different parts of the world, book a taxi and disappear. Of course, they left most of their belongings behind and their beds were unmade, but it didn’t matter, because we were all going to be back for the beginning of the following term once the crisis had been quickly knocked on the head. No need to say farewell to those leaving in June, as that too could obviously wait.

That weekend was an exodus, as St. Patrick’s Day was upon us. The family had booked long before to go to London to watch Hamilton and we decided to go anyway. After all, the theatres were still open and if we didn’t turn up we would have wasted a lot of money. So we went, met up with the family and went to the theatre. We were chatting outside, near the theatre, about an hour before the show, when someone came out and announced that the show had been cancelled, as Boris had closed down all theatres with immediate effect. I thought that maybe the cancellation would come into effect the next day, but no, it was immediate. We stared at each other in disbelief and disappointment, went and had a nice meal (which was still just possible) and flew back to Dublin.

And so began the strangest year of any of our lives.

I can’t believe that a year has gone by. A whole year. And we are still staring at each other, but now it is in resignation and frustration. There is no more disbelief and we are so used to disappointment that it is not worth remarking on. It has been a year of waves, masks, hand-washing, asymptomaticity (is that a word?), sanitiser, PPE, PCR, PUP, social distance, red lists, traffic light systems, quarantine and designer caravans.

It has been a year when I have barely seen a single parent, which is very odd and rather sad. You may not believe me, but getting to know the parents, seeing them at functions or on the side of the pitch, chatting informally about their children and sharing the journey together, is one of the best parts of the job (honestly!). I have no doubt that parents have missed school too, getting to know who is looking after their children and also getting to know each other. It is hard to build that sense of community on which we pride ourselves, when you can’t meet people. Don’t worry, we’ll make up for that in a big way next year. Or at least, we will if we can! Please tell me we will be able to!

Anyway, happy first anniversary.

I would expect that all parents would agree that, even though they want their children to get excellent grades and take advantage of all the other opportunities here, the most important things that they can learn at St. Columba’s are values that will underpin their life, their relationships and the decisions they make. I told you last term that we were going through a process of selecting the values that we think are the most important ones in the College, as chosen by pupils and staff. So here is the big reveal, the ones that came out top and are now recognised as being the ‘College Values’:






OK, so they are hardly unexpected and you might think that they are so obvious that putting them in a list is rather absurd, as if we have made a new discovery. Aren’t these values that every school should be striving to instil in its pupils? Well, yes they are, but my experience is that it is much harder to talk about shared values, and hold pupils to them, if those values are not articulated in a clear way. By selecting these values it enables us to start a conversation in house, in the classroom, or in the corridor. It enables us to talk about what is important in assembly and to use them as a framework for talks in chapel. It requires staff and pupils to think intentionally about what is right and wrong, rather than just assuming that we are all in agreement about it.

Young people learn their values in three ways. The first is by what they are taught, be it in the family, the classroom or perhaps the church or equivalent. That puts great responsibility on teachers of all kinds. What are we teaching our children? The second is by watching and imitating adults and what we do. By that reckoning, all of us bear a huge responsibility, whether we are teachers or not. What example are we setting?

If we don’t get this right, either in school or in the family, children will learn in a third way, from the media, from celebrity culture, from the behaviour of those who are often very poor role models. Do we want to outsource the values that our children learn to social media influencers, be they pop stars or politicians?

I have come to the conclusion that the teaching of values in school is by far the most important thing that we do and it cannot be left to chance, or the winds and tides of social media.

I worked for a cricket season in Australia, coaching a school first team in Melbourne. Before the first match a former Australian captain came to talk to the players and I was looking forward to it, assuming that he would have some wise and gentle words of wisdom. He didn’t, and the fact that I can remember it now is telling. He told them that in order to achieve their ambitions and dreams they should not be afraid to crush the weak and push aside those in their way. It was their own life and they were not responsible for the failures of the weak. He urged them to look after themselves and to have no care for those around them. I looked around in horror at the teachers, parents and pupils, assuming that they would be equally horrified, but to my surprise they were all nodding in agreement. I wanted to scream, but I was just an Englishman on a gap year and I needed the job, so to my shame I kept quiet! But I have never forgotten his words. Teachers and parents bear a great responsibility…young people are listening!


The pupils and staff of the College have adopted the following 5 principles that we think best sum up the ethos and values for which Columbans should strive:

  • Kindness
      • We build others up with the words that we use and we don’t spread gossip
      • We look for opportunities to do acts of kindness for others
      • We always try to see the best in other people
  • Compassion
    • We seek to understand the lives of those around us and to ‘walk in their shoes’
    • We celebrate each other’s achievements and share their disappointments
    • We are slow to judge and quick to forgive
  • Inclusion
    • People are different from each other in many ways, but of equal value
    • We show respect to all members of the community and celebrate our common humanity
    • All should be made to feel welcome at St. Columba’s College
  • Responsibility
    • We take responsibility for our own work and our own behaviour
    • We are responsible for the well-being of our school community
    • We are responsible for the future of the world that we all live in and the sustainability of its resources
  • Determination
    • We work hard and take full advantage of our opportunities
    • We try to develop resilience and not give up at the first failure
    • We always strive to be the best version of ourselves

Matthew 7:12 – ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.’




My focus has been largely occupied this term by how to keep the school open, how to keep it free of infection and how to stop everyone from going mad in the process. However, the other issue that has been constantly bubbling away in the background has been the College’s response to the issues of racism that were raised in May and June. We held a review, which was published, and we have committed to making sure that we learn from past mistakes. So, what has that entailed this term and are we making progress?

To begin with, I met with a group of prefects, staff and parents to look at some of the recommendations of the review. We discussed what the priorities were and how some things could be implemented. We discussed workshops and speakers and films and there was a determination to make sure that we did not just put the review in the top drawer, from where it could occasionally be pulled out and waved around for PR purposes. It was a good start and we will be meeting again next term to assess what we have done and see what more we can do.

It has, of course, not been easy to carry out a programme of talks and workshops at a time when we have been unable to meet in large numbers and there have been very few visitors to the College at all. Nevertheless, these days it is possible to do many things online and we have managed to do a few. The staff started the term with a two hour talk and question session with Dr. Ebun Joseph, who provoked plenty of discussion and addressed many relevant topics. We also had a talk from Dr. Livingstone Thompson, who had been involved in formulating the recommendations of the review in the summer. Some of the staff then led some discussion groups with the 6th form, which looked directly at how we had done things as a school and what we could do to improve things. It is encouraging to see how staff and pupils are growing in confidence when addressing issues concerning racism. The more we talk, the more we share ideas, the more articulate we will become in expressing what we think is important. This means that rather than shy away from difficult issues, we will be more comfortable at dealing with them. That has to be good.

Over the course of the term there have been a number of ‘fireside chats’ on current affairs, where race has been a recurrent theme. Dr. Roberta Hunte from Portland State University talked about the racial climate in the USA leading up to the elections, two speakers addressed the lead up to and the aftermath of the USA elections and the part that race played in that, and Lori Gatsi-Barnett, who was born in Zimbabwe, moved to the USA and has now settled in Belfast, spoke of her experiences of racism in those different environments and also about how she sees thing going right now in Ireland.

The fireside chat programme is only for older pupils and it is also voluntary, so it does not hit everyone, so, in this last week I asked Lori Gatsi-Barnett to do two live interviews with me, which were shown in all the classrooms in the schools, one for juniors and one for seniors. I thought this was excellent because we dealt with the kind of everyday questions that pupils here could relate to: what is systemic racism? What is unconscious bias? What is the origin of the ‘n’ word and why is it so offensive? What does the term ‘micro-aggression’ mean and what are good examples that we might come across? We also looked at ‘taking the knee’ and discussed the purpose behind that and whether it is effective. The feedback I have had from these two sessions has been very positive, from both staff and pupils.

One thing that struck me in the summer was the need for us as a school to be more explicit about the values that we think are important in the school. We might assume that everyone knows what the College believes in, but if it is not spelled out then we cannot refer pupils to it and hold them to a certain standard. As a result, the staff and the pupils have gone through the process of selecting the values that they think best represent the kind of school that we want to be. We have come up with a choice of five, which will be revealed next term. These values will be visible around the College and will hopefully become part of the fabric and conversation of the school. In fact, you might get bored of hearing about them!

So, we have made a start and for the rest of the year we will be building on that, not least with our week’s celebration of cultural diversity next term. We have about 38 nationalities in the College and every one of them is to be cherished and admired.

I am aware that I run the risk of counting chickens too soon, but I have to say how proud I am of how the whole College community has managed this term. Before the term began I had envisaged that at any one time there would be teachers out of school having to isolate, with lessons having to be covered by their colleagues; and pupils either at home, having tested positive or as close contacts. I had envisaged that teachers would be teaching classes that were not full, while keeping a constant eye on who was absent and how to deliver material to them and keep those absentees up to speed with their work. The fact that that has not happened is a testimony to the plans that we have put in place and the enormous hard work of staff over the holidays, the good-natured cooperation of the pupils (largely!) and the evidence, that is incontrovertible, that schools, full of lively young people, are not hotbeds of transmission.

I am someone who tends to see the glass as half full, but even I have had a fairly empty glass these past few months. Nevertheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as news of a variety of effective vaccines emerges, and I am optimistic that during next term we will start to see some things return to normal. Yes, I am sure we will all have to continue to take precautions for some time, but I am hopeful that we will be able to do much more than has been the case heretofore. And, as the prospect grows, it has set my mind to thinking about the things that really are most important, both personally and in College. What have I missed most and what am I most looking forward to?

Personally, the last few months have made me yearn for many things that I have always taken for granted. It is not the “spectacular” that I am looking forward to but the everyday: giving friends a hug; ordering a pint of Guinness at Taylor’s; being able to go over the water to see my family on the odd occasion (I just missed my mother’s 90th birthday); watching sport on TV with an actual crowd instead of fake noise! I wonder if it will make us all more grateful for what we have in the future, grateful for the myriad of things that give us joy and yet which we have missed over the course of this year.

At school there are many things that I miss and the prospect of their return fills me with an absurd sense of anticipation: the whole school swelling the chapel with boisterous singing…this year’s new pupils have never heard the sound of a packed chapel singing fit to burst; watching the pupils play matches; listening to our fantastic new musicians performing in the BSR…and, most strangely of all, seeing the pupils’ faces without a mask on. There are some pupils whose faces I have barely seen this year because they are always covered up. Maybe we should have a bonfire to burn our masks, while we dance around and recite incantations. OK, that is not so sensible, but the chief memory of 2020 will always be the sight of people in masks and, while they have been necessary, they are no less abhorrent for that.

I wonder what you are most looking forward to.

As I said, I am very proud of how we have coped with this year and very grateful to so many people for their hard work. I am aware that I may be premature in my musings in some ways, though it is the prospect of a return to normality that keeps us all going in these dark times and I am surely not the only one who is looking ahead to 2021 with a sense of hope.

Today, November 11th, is Remembrance Day. Traditionally, the entire school congregates in Chapel Square formally to acknowledge and remember the members of the College community who lost their lives in the World Wars of the 20th century.

This morning, a smaller than usual group of pupils and staff gathered (distanced, and wearing face coverings) for the regular commemoration of those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, including the 96 former pupils and staff who died in the First and Second World Wars. The Warden has recorded a short video message to mark the event.

Pictured, the Senior Prefect lays the wreath. Following this, there was the two-minute silence, and then Konstantin Kühne played ‘The Last Post’ and the ‘Reveille’. The Chaplain concluded with a prayer.

We are alive and well in spite of the times, determined to carry on and enjoy ourselves. Please do share this video with any friends who may be looking at schools for their children at the moment.

I am welcoming you to St Columba’s College in unprecedented times. We return to an altered reality, where rules and social interaction are different. As Coronavirus infiltrates our lives, this is a time for us to stay close together as a school, as colleagues and as friends. As a group, we need to be united and be attentive to each other, and especially to the vulnerable amongst us and to our extended families and the wider community.

The coronavirus will continue to impact on our lives, but we should keep in mind that the problems and issues we grappled with before lockdown have not gone away, in fact, most have been exacerbated. Every day more people slip into poverty, our planet continues to get sicker and our society is becoming more divided.

Here at St Columba’s, I believe we can make a difference, and we should all welcome the recent external review of racism as the first step towards positive change. I hope you will all join me in making a commitment to embrace the changes proposed in this review, but also to go further and to stand up against all forms of discrimination and prejudice. Let us do this with open hearts and a willingness to see what we can do individually, and as a community, to make Columba’s a place we are proud to call our school, and a microcosm of the world we want to live in.

This year, more than any other, it’s imperative at St Columba’s that we are kind to each other, that we are inclusive, that we value and enjoy each other’s company and make the most of the year ahead.

St Columba’s in 2020 can be a school at the forefront of change in Ireland, and I am very proud to be invited to lead you on this exciting journey.

Éile Ní Chíanáin, Senior Prefect 2020 / 2021