Denis Connerton might have more spare time than he had otherwise imagined on his hands this week as he prepares his Longford charges for this Sunday’s All-Ireland Championship qualifier clash against Donegal.
That’s because the affable Lanesboro man is now a retiree owing to his decision last Friday to call time on a teaching career spanning almost four decades. Almost 25 years has been spent as principal of Fermoyle National School.
He readily recalls leaving St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra in 1978.
“I graduated with a BA in Education degree and more or less straight away started at St Michael’s (NS) in Longford,” confided Denis.
The exact date was July 1978, a month which the father of two was no stranger to working through, until curriculum changes dictated otherwise.
“You did everything. We worked in July, there was no school closed at the end of June which you see now,” he said.
The change is one the outgoing Fermoyle principal believes was the right one.
“It’s not as fragmented as it was years ago so on that basis it’s for the better,” he added.
Having spent the best part of four decades immersed in a profession that has seen its fair share of ups and downs, it’s eye-opening to hear of some of the industry’s more practical advancements.
“There have been many changes. I mean when I started out we had no telephone in the school and that was 1991.
“As well as that, we had no staff toilets. It’s little things like that in a country school that now you can so easily take for granted.”
But some of the modifications have brought with it challenges, a number of which Denis does not entirely appreciate.
“The advances in technology have been huge and there have been many changes in the curriculum too.
“What I do find is that the curriculum is very loaded with many subjects on it.
“When I started teaching the main emphasis then was on the three Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic.
“Now there is an expectation to teach more and more things such as drama.”
His reference to the performing arts may not be at the top of his subject choice matter, but there’s certainly no denying his commitment and passion for the business.
“You need to be very dedicated to teaching,” came the unequivocal reply.
“Teaching is not something you should go into unless you feel you can offer the very best to the students that are in your care.”
Part of that advice comes from what he terms as the special partnership between teacher and pupils.
“One thing I learnt very early on is that teaching is a special partnership where the teacher understands and respects the pupils in his or her care.”
Denis has also witnessed the contrasting demands that exist when stepping up to the role of principal.
“When I was in Lanesboro (Boys' School), I was deputy principal and that helped me greatly. But the biggest challenge I found was the emphasis on paperwork.
“What I have found is that trying to be a teaching principal is just not doable.
“It’s not possible. What you have to do is make your mind up and say ‘are you going to be a teacher or a principal.
“The levels of administration are increasing all the time.
“It’s taking teachers away from the classroom but there has to be a better way of doing it, there has to be.”
However as he prepares for his departure, it is obvious that he is extremely grateful to have worked in Fermoyle NS.
“I feel very privileged to have worked for 30 years in my home parish.
“I am very proud of that fact and equally I am very proud of the place from which I come.
“I am privileged to have worked with so many fantastic children and with such a fantastic staff.
“It has been a wonderful place in which to work, it really has.”
Having formally stepped away from his day to day duties, the now former Fermoyle NS principal is understandably relishing the prospect of spending more time at home with his wife Caitriona and two children, Aine and Liam.
Though Caitriona is a deputy national school principal neither of the couple’s offspring have chosen to follow the Connerton family tradition.
“Aine is a doctor and Liam did a computer science degree in UCD.
“He saw quick money in it and is still looking for it, although the county football is keeping him busy.”
The mention of sport brings our conversation to the looming obstacle of a certain Donegal in Ballybofey on Saturday.
Quite apart from encountering a side still licking their wounds from a nine point trouncing to Tyrone three weeks ago, it’s the gloomy prospect of having to make the 320k round trip which the Longford bainisteoir is more perturbed about.
“I am getting sick and tired of sitting on buses at this stage,” said a rueful Denis.
“Would you believe this is my seventh championship match in my two year term and six of those have been away from home.
“I find that truly incredible and I am definitely buying no lottery tickets at the minute.”
Luck or otherwise, there’s no denying the task confronting Longford as they take on a Donegal side renowned for their free flowing, attacking play.
And while Denis faces assembling a team minus the talents of Séan McCormack and possibly both Darren Gallagher and Ronan McEntire, it’s a clash the canny Longfordian is savouring.
“We are huge underdogs, we know that,” he conceded.
"When you think of the likes of Karl Lacey, Michael Murphy, players like that.
“It would have been a shame we didn’t get them down here and have a right good battle.
“But we have to focus on ourselves and make sure we perform.
“Yes, you need everything to fall your way, for Donegal to have a little dip in how they perform and for us to perform as best we possibly can.
“If that happens than anything is possible.”
Photos: Declan Gilmore