The St Columb’s union is currently celebrating its eighty-seventh anniversary, having been founded officially on 5 November 1929, the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the college itself.
The idea of such an association can be traced back to much earlier: in 1906 a meeting of the “Old Boys of St Columb’s” was held in Dublin, arranged probably by Professor Patrick Semple of the National University of Ireland. This had evoked at the time a letter of congratulations from Dr John K O’Doherty, the bishop of Derry who wrote: “I am delighted to learn that the past students of St Columb’s have had the good taste to form themselves into a distinct body whereby the old esprit de corps will be preserved.” Despite the bishop’s blessing, however, no broader or lasting association seems to have emerged, and it was only in the late 1920’s, with the approaching fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the college, that the idea was pursued with sufficient determination to ensure its realisation.
A meeting to make a firm decision on the matter was held in St Columb’s Hall, Derry, in September 1929, attended by past students from Derry and the surrounding areas. Though Dr O’Kane, bishop of Derry, attended, he made it clear that the formation of a union was a matter for the past students themselves and so he withdrew from the meeting to allow them to discuss the matter and make their decision freely. When a vote was taken, it was unanimously in favour of the formation of a union, and a provisional committee was formed under the chairmanship of Senator John McLaughlin of Buncrana to draw up concrete proposals and draft interim rules. These proposals and rules were then put to a general meeting held in St Columb’s College on Tuesday 5 November. On their acceptance the St Columb’s union came into existence and the first union committee was elected. It seemed appropriate that the dinner held that evening to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the college, one of the most applauded toasts should have been that of the new union.
Senator John McLaughlin was the first president of the union, with as vice-presidents, Dr Farren, president of the college; Dr McShane PP; Very Rev L Hegarty PP; Professor Semple, National University of Ireland; Senator Joseph O’Doherty, and J Ingram. The first secretaries, who were to serve for a number of years, were Rev T Maguire and Leo Hutton, and the first treasurers, Rev T Agnew and Hugh McCormick. The other committee members were: Dr J McCormick, Dr Friel, John Reilly, TMcE Coulter, James McGrath, HC O’Doherty, JG O’Kane, John Tracy, George Leeke MP, Paul McMenamin, Rev Dean McLaughlin and Rev C Byrne.
In his speech on the occasion, Dr Neil Farren, the college president, spoke with pride about “the successful careers of our past boys”, both lay and clerical. “Thus,” he said,” in the Dublin college of the National University, St Columb’s men are found on the professional staff in the faculty of classics, mathematics, law and science, while in Maynooth we are represented in the chair of history… We have given to the world men, both clerical and lay, some in high positions, others in the average grade, but all doing their work the better for their early association with St Columb’s.” Referring to lay past students, he continued: “They are to be found in honoured positions in the professions, particularly in the medical profession, in the army, in education, in trade and commerce, in all departments of the civil service, in the diplomatic service and even among statesmen and politicians.” Alluding to the situation obtaining in Northern Ireland, where many positions were not open to past students of the college despite their educational qualifications, he said: “It is true we are sending out boys each year equipped for any position but while we have the men trained we have not the positions to offer them. In this part of the country… the very fact that a man is branded with the name of St Columb’s is enough to discount his marks, not merely by 50 per cent, but cut them down practically to nil.” His hope was that the union would be an influence in countering such aspects of discrimination, and indeed he and others would return to this theme in subsequent years, availing of the publicity given to union meetings to comment on matters relating to education and to the general political situation in Northern Ireland.
In forming the union, there had been a certain apprehension that it would not get the level of support from past students of the college necessary to make it a viable and sufficiently vigorous organisation. In its early years, therefore, the focus was very much on the union itself, until it should find its feet and establish itself as part of the local scene. There was, therefore, a considerable degree of satisfaction expressed in the early annual reports of the secretaries that the union had indeed established itself and that its various functions were well attended.
The first union dinner was held on 6 January 1930, with an attendance of 130, said to be more than half of the membership at the time. In their report at the end of the first year, the secretaries numbered the membership of the union at 355, making the comment: “It has been an undoubted success, and we think we are justified in prophesying for it a long life of ever – increasing usefulness, and the complete realisation of the ideas of its founders.”
The pattern of annual event established in the formative years of the union has remained basically unchanged ever since. By 1933 this pattern was described as its “normal existence”.
The AGM was normally held in late November or early December. The secretaries reported on the activities of the previous year and a new president and committee were elected. The second president of the union was Professor Patrick Semple of the National University, who had been a key figure in the Dublin association of 1906, and in subsequent years prominent laymen from the diocese or at national level were persuaded to accept the honour. Though a large section of the membership of the union was drawn from the clergy of the diocese, it was not until 1941 that a priest was proposed and elected as president. The first clerical president was Dr John McShane PP, Omagh, who was a past-president of St Columb’s College. From then on it seems to have been the custom to elect a president from the clergy every three or four years. The appointment of a president was for one year only, though due to special circumstances two presidents served a second term: PP McMenamin in 1938-39 and in 1939-1940, and Dr Brendan Boyle in 1971-72 and 1972-72. The AGM was followed in the earlier years by what was called, in less health-conscious days, a “smoking concert”, the entertainment being organised and provided by the members themselves.
The annual dinner was held in earlier years in January and in more recent years in October. It was, and is, the main event in the union’s yearly schedule, with toasts to the pope (in its earlier period), the bishop, the college and the union with replies from their representatives. The successes of the college, academic and otherwise, were rehearsed and, certainly in the earlier years, there was a considerable sense of pride that it could hold its own with, and even surpass, equivalent schools in the state. Dr O’Kane, the bishop of Derry, for example, referred in 1935 to how the college in its early days, in competition with schools fostered by the state, and manned by graduates of the universities, had carried off medals and exhibitions, and that now S Columb’s had a pre-eminent position in Northern Ireland. The college president, Dr Farren, reinforced the message on the same occasion, saying that the results that year had been “eminently successful” and had left the school not merely the leading Catholic school but the first school absolutely in Northern Ireland: out of forty exhibitions and prizes awarded in the whole of Northern Ireland, ten had gone to students from St Columb’s. It is clear that the existence of an active past pupils’ association added also to the prestige of the college, since its activities, especially in the earlier years, received considerable coverage in the local press. A statement by Mr Thomas O’Kane, manager of the City Hotel, made after the AGM in 1932, might be said to capture the mood of that period:” We have a right to be proud of the college; the diocese is proud of it, and Ireland should be proud of it, because it ranks second to none.”
In later years, the status of the college no longer needed to be proclaimed, and, while the college president continued to stress the successes of the year, the bishop tended to use his speech at the annual dinner to address areas of Catholic concern in the wider context of the perceived political, social, educational and religious disadvantages experienced by Catholics in the Northern state. Dr Farren, now bishop of Derry, said, for example, in 1941: “The Catholics of Derry, long oppressed and suppressed, are again beginning to make their presence felt and to let the world know that they have a right to live in their own city, the inheritors of the great tradition of St Columba….” The annual dinner of the PPU gave the bishops an opportunity and a forum for important statements and they often used it as such.
In its earlier days, the union had as guests at the dinner representatives from the ‘old boys’ associations’ of St Malachy’s College, Belfast, and St Eunan’s College, Letterkenny. Later, in more ecumenical times, guests were also welcomed from the associations of Coleraine Inst and Foyle College. This was reciprocated, and representatives of the union, usually including the president, are invited to the annual dinners of these institutions. One of the most popular functions of the union was the annual dance, held at first in the Guildhall in November, and later in some of the local hotels in the spring of the year. It was regularly described by the secretaries in their reports as one of the main Catholic social events and had on occasions an attendance of over 300.
The union tried to provide an annual lecture, educational or social theme, delivered by someone prominent at national level. Among the speakers who made the journey to Derry were Rev JF Canavan SJ, who spoke on “Matt Talbot, a Symbol of Ireland”; Dr Michael Browne, professor in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, who proved so popular that he was persuaded to return the following year, having as his theme on the first occasion ‘The Layman in the Life of the Church’ , and on the second occasion ‘The Right to Educate’; and Dr Lyons, Bishop of Kilmore, who had as his theme the life and works of Blessed Oliver Plunkett. It was not always possible, however, to organise the lecture; attempts to do so failed, for example, in 1934; and at least on one occasion it presented something of a difficulty for the organisers: Fr Canavan’s lecture was scheduled for26 February 1933 but blizzards prevented his arrival at a packed St Columb’s Hall, and at short notice, the bishop, Dr O’Kane, had to stand in and give an account of his ad limina visit to Rome. Fr Canavan’s lecture was given a month later.
There was a considerable emphasis in the Church in general in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s on Catholic Action, a movement for the greater involvement of Catholic lay people in social matters and in the promotion of Catholic social teaching. It was, therefore, the hope of the bishops that the union would help form a self-confident, articulate and well informed laity in the diocese, and the annual lecture had its part to play in this. In 1941, at the dinner, Dr Farren stressed the role of the layman in the Church. Taking up this point, the president of the union, Dr Boylan, referred to the union’s contribution in that regard, saying that the union had not been inactive in so far as Catholic Action was concerned; it had brought to Derry men distinguished in Catholic social problems to lecture and some of these lectures had been published in pamphlet form. The union, he continued, had brought together the Catholic layman and the priest, giving them an opportunity of meeting and making a profession of their faith and nationality. The annual lecture continued into the 1940s but, perhaps because of the difficulties in finding a suitable speaker, it seems to have disappeared at some stage from the yearly schedule. The task of forming a Catholic laity, well informed in religious and social matters, was again attempted inthe1950s through the setting up of a study circle in the union. This was begun in 1951 and continued for the next five or six years, meeting on Tuesday’s in St Columb’s Hall. The average attendances at these meetings was twenty and in the year of its inauguration among those who gave talks to the circle were Fr James Coulter of St Columb’s College and Brian Trainor of Queen’s University.
An enduring, and popular, aspect of the union’s “normal existence” has been the annual golf outing. The first was held at Lisfannon, Buncrana, in June 1932; it had been organised by Fr P O’Brien and Dr Friel, and attracted a large number of entrants. Its success on that occasion ensured that it was added to the list of annual events. Dr Friel was, it must be said, rewarded for his efforts, for he won the event himself two years later! Referring to the event at the dinner that year, the president of the union, Dr Deeney, called it “a vitally interesting feature” of the union’s year, and added: “Only those who are golf enthusiasts can rightly assess the pleasure to be derived from such an event.” And indeed the event has given much pleasure to golfers over the last eighty odd years. Lisfannon seems to have been the regular venue in the early years; in later years the event was held on other courses such as Prehen and Greencastle on a rota basis; more recently it seems to have found a permanent home at Greencastle. Prizes in the event are sponsored by the president of the union, by the union itself, by the college and by individual members. From its earliest days, the union maintained a direct connection with the current pupils through the sponsorship of academic and sporting prizes. The academic prize was to be awarded at the discretion of the college authorities; it was first awarded in 1930 and has been awarded annually ever since. A similar amount of money was given to provide prizes for the college sports. Indeed it had been hoped that past students would participate in the sporting competitions, but, to the disappointment of the early committees, this did not in fact materialise. However, in 1941, a junior branch of the union was formed to relate more closely to the current pupils, and this was achieved through such activities as football matches, concerts and quizzes.
After the difficulties of the war period, there was a renewal of interest in the union in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Membership, for example, is said to have trebled in 1950. In part this may have been due to the formation of a college union dramatic society which staged some very successful productions and so gave the union a higher profile. A leading figure and the director of the society in its early days was Mr JEP (Jack) Gallagher, a teacher in St Columb’s. Under his direction the society won premier awards at Ballyshannon and Cavan drama festivals in 1958 with their production of Arthur Millar’s play All My Sons. In the following year, this time under the direction of Mr Diarmaid McDermott, the blue riband was again achieved at the Ballyshannon festival with a production of Charlie’s Aunt. The society continued to flourish in subsequent years, with some very memorable productions.
The college motto “ Seek first the kingdom of God” bore its own witness to the religious ideas which had always been fundamental to the school. The union, from its inception, had also a special concern for this Catholic ethos. When in 1933, the college president, Dr Farren, launched an appeal for funds for the building of a new college chapel, he addressed the appeal to the laity of the diocese and especially those who had been past students of the college. He did not want the union to be directly involved in the fund raising but clearly hoped that union endorsement of the appeal would considerably help its effectiveness. At the annual dinner that year, he referred to the benefits a new chapel would have for the union as well as for the students: the union, he felt, “had something special to do with the chapel of St Columb’s”; the chapel would be a place they would go back to, to have an enclosed retreat, an anniversary mass for deceased past students or other functions of a religious kind. In reply to this, the president of the union, Dr Deeney, gave strong union backing to the appeal and felt that he could assure Dr Farren of a very generous response to it as a result of the union’s efforts. When the chapel was finally opened in 1941, it did indeed serve for retreats of the diocesan clergy and the annual mass for deceased members of the union was celebrated there.
When the new college was built on the Buncrana Road site in the early 1970’s, the union took a special interest in the oratory of the college. Four fine stained glass windows were provided by the union, following an appeal for funds among its members. Again, it was the union which, in 1999, financed and arranged for the installation of four more, quite different, but equally fine, stained glass windows, further enhancing the oratory. This oratory is now the venue for the annual mass for deceased members. Very recently the union has also provided a mosaic of the college crest for the foyer of the college.
A significant innovation of the 1990’s was the award, to be made annually if possible, of the title Alumnus Illustrissimus to a past pupil of the college who has made an outstanding contribution in some field at local, national and international level. The area of contribution could be from a wide spectrum: arts, church, education, industry, media, political life, public service, science, society and sport. The award was first made in 1994 and many of these areas have been represented in those honoured. It is normally made, with an accompanying citation, at the annual dinner and the recipient is presented with a bronze sculpture designed by Mr Eamon O’Doherty and depicting St Columba leaving Derry for the island of Iona. Recipients of the honour to date have been:
1994: Edward Daly; 1995: John Hume; 1996: Seamus Heaney; 1997: Brian Friel; 1998: Sean Mullan; 1999: Brendan Devlin; 2000: James Doherty; 2001: Raymond Flannery; 2002: Martin O’Neill; 2003: Phil Coulter.
Over the seventy five years of the union’s existence, many people have made significant contributions of time and effort to it. One such was undoubtedly Dr Neil Farren, president of the college during the first ten years of the union’s existence and then its patron, as bishop of the diocese, from 1939 until his retirement in1974. He had a special affinity with St Columb’s and gave it’s union strong support, seeing it as a significant Catholic presence in a Northern Ireland state where Catholic interests had to be vigorously defended. On his appointment as bishop of Derry, the union presented him with a set of vestments made from one of the last remnants of Irish Cloth of Gold, the chasuble of which bore the college motto and crest. As bishop he wore these on special occasions and when he died in 1980, it was in these vestments that he was lain out in St Eugene’s Cathedral. On the occasion of his death, the annual report of the union paid tribute to him, saying that the members of the union were “deeply grieved” at his death and describing him as an “indefatigable supporter and patron of the union and its activities.
The St Columb’s union has had its strengths and weaknesses. One of the latter was its failure to establish a broad base of membership among its past students. The idea was expressed by PP McMenamin its president in 1939: “We want every past pupil to be in the union, no matter what his position, high or low.” The reality, however, has always been different. As early as 1936, in an appeal for a wider membership, Fr Walter Hegarty pleaded also for greater contact between older past students and the younger generation, in order to attract more of those who had recently left the college. In the same year, the secretaries reiterated the point, saying that year after year it was the same member who came to the functions, and that the number of young members, for whom special provision had been made, was disappointing. Despite the formation of a junior branch and also a branch in Belfast, the problem of recruitment of new members was to remain a frequently expressed concern, and though there were periodic successes in recruitment, as in the 1950’s, the problem has never been satisfactorily resolved.
Among its strengths, one would include the commitment, in each decade, of a number of dedicated members, who gave generously of their time and energy to ensure that the annual functions were as successful as possible. In this regard, tribute should be paid to the secretaries and treasurers who served for many years, and to organisers of the annual golfing competition. The general success of the union over the years owes much to them.
The union has been, as it was set up to be, an important link past and present students of the college, and has contributed much to the college it the seventy-five years of its existence. The sense of pride in St Columb’s and its achievements evident in the early years of the union has continued to provide a motivation for its work in the present. In 1933, the bishop of the diocese, Dr O’Kane, referred to “the phenomenal growth” of the union in the previous years and said that its success now seemed assured. The “phenomenal growth” may not have been sustained, but the overall success of the union and its valuable contribution to St Columb’s College would not be in question.