Looking forward while celebrating the past at St Mel’s College

Declan Rowley at his desk in the Principal's office at St Mel's College. His association with the school stretches back over almost 40 years. Photo: Michelle Ghee. www.gphotos.ie
For a past pupil, the walk down the leafy avenue to St Mel’s College conjures up a wide range of schoolday memories. And despite having left the school more than a decade ago, knocking on the door of the Principal’s office can still stir a sense of trepidation quite unlike any other.

For a past pupil, the walk down the leafy avenue to St Mel’s College conjures up a wide range of schoolday memories. And despite having left the school more than a decade ago, knocking on the door of the Principal’s office can still stir a sense of trepidation quite unlike any other.

On the other side, though, a familiar face is sitting at the desk.

“It’s certainly something I never envisaged,” admits Declan Rowley, a past pupil himself, about his appointment as Principal in 2013.

“I came in as a first year in 1976. Two of my brothers were here before me, and another brother came after me,” he continues. “When you come into the school as a 13-year-old it’s an incredible size compared to a national school, and it was daunting for me coming in from the parish of Killoe.

“I certainly never thought I’d be succeeding people like Fr Faughnan, who was the President during my time as a student.”

While he may never have imagined himself in his current role, becoming a teacher at St Mel’s College was certainly something Declan always aspired to.

“It was always a part of my blood,” he says. “I went to college to study physical education and geography, and I was teaching for four years elsewhere, but it was always an ambition of mine to get back into St Mel’s, and in 1991 I came back as the first dedicated PE teacher in the school. I suppose the fact I was teaching here so long, [becoming Principal] was a fairly seamless sort of move.”

St Mel’s College has a longstanding reputation for academic achievement, and since taking up the mantle, Declan has wasted no time in ensuring that reputation remains intact.

“From a classical point of view, subjects such as Latin and Greek were taught here originally,” he says. “The students who have come here would always have entered professional occupations, so St Mel’s would have been very much associated with academic performance. That tradition stays and builds.

“To some extent, tradition is a weight but it’s also a motivating factor as well, and I think people would feel that when they come in here they’ll strive to do their best, and it does attract good scholars.

“We have a huge uptake in the sciences at Leaving Cert level: chemistry, physics, and applied maths, and I oversaw the introduction of agricultural science to the school curriculum last year,” he explains.

“In this year’s Leaving Cert class, there was 15 lads who got over 500 points. It would be hard to find another all-boys school producing 15 lads with that sort of Leaving Cert.”

His first year as Principal has seen a sharp rise in the number of enrolments.

“We had 100 First Years enter the school last year, which was a rise of almost 50 per cent on the year before,” he reveals. “We’re hoping that this will be our core number; that we’ll have 100 per year.”

As well as the school’s academic record, the Principal also attributes this resurgance in numbers to a number of other factors.

“We’re providing quite an expansive curriculum with great choice and we have a Transition Year programme in place for the past six or seven years,” he says.

“We also have strong pastoral care within the school as well, and the team is on hand to help students with any problem they may have.”

This emphasis on pastoral care appears to be paying dividends. A Whole School Evaluation Survey of St Mel’s College conducted by the Department of Education last year returned a range of positive statistics, including its finding that 98 per cent of pupils were confident they could get help from an adult if they experienced bullying, while 93 per cent of parents said they were happy with the school.

“I believe we provide holistic education,” Declan adds.

Of course, sport and other extra-curricular activies are also major incentives for potential pupils.

“Gaelic football was the main sport for many years, but around the early 1990s we looked at it and felt it was a bit elitist if we only had Gaelic in the school when we had a lot of kids who didn’t play it or didn’t make the teams. At the moment we also have soccer, basketball, athletics, rugby, and hurling, too, if we have enough lads to do it. There’s also a lot going on in the area of arts. We have a Christmas concert, we have drama, and we have introduced music and art on the curriculum.”

With St Mel’s College celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the subject switches to the school’s history and plans to mark the occasion.

“The school was built in 1865 by Bishop John Kilduff. The Catholic Church had gone through a hard time - it wasn’t that long since Catholic emancipation - and it was finally allowed to educate the local population,” Declan says. “The idea at the time was to educate local boys and get them ready for the seminary in Maynooth and for the priesthood, and in September 1865 the school opened with about 70 students - around 40 boarders and 30 day pupils.

“It was built for £15,000 and most of that money came from the surrounding parishes, and the parish priests and curates at the time would have donated some of their personal income as well. And then there would have been contributions from landholders, et cetera, around the area.

“The first President of the school was Fr James Reynolds, who was from Ballinalee.”

Knowing the strong tradition St Mel’s has as a Gaelic football school, Declan then shares a surprising fact: “For the first 50 years, cricket was the major sport here, and it was only in 1927 when Gaelic football started to take hold.”

He continues: “Free education was introduced in 1967 by Donogh O’Malley, and schools started growing as everyone started to go to secondary school. Before that, it was fee-paying, and either money or a scholarship was needed.

“In the 1960s, the number of students in St Mel’s would have been around 200, and at its peak in the 1990s, it had around 750, with about 150 boarders. Now it’s back to around 450.”

“At one time the staff would have all been priests.The late Mel Murtagh would have been one of the first lay teachers in the modern era, and it’s evolved to a point where 29 out of 30 on the staff are lay teachers. Our only priest is Fr Joe McGrath, who is also the school chaplain.

“Around 2000, when St Mel’s got its first lay Principal, Denis Glennon, a board of management was put in place to oversee the school, whereas before that the President of the school was also the manager. The board comprises of four nominees from the Bishop, two nominees from the staff, and two from the parents.”

Regarding plans for the school’s upcoming anniversary celebrations, Declan goes on to say that, “We felt we needed to do something fairly big to launch it, to get it back into people’s minds. We were able to come in on the back of the cathedral’s re-opening at Christmas time; they’re two adjacent buildings - two inconic buildings - that are very closely related from an ethos point of view.”

During the restoration of St Mel’s Cathedral, church services were moved to two locations within the college - the chapel and the sports hall, which was transformed into St Mel’s Cathedral Centre - and Declan views this as another advantage as the anniversary approaches.

“There was a time when people went out the gate here and didn’t come back, but it has re-connected the school with the community,” he points out.

A committee has been put in place to co-ordinate the events planned for the anniversary celebrations, including the successful New Year’s Eve Ball held last December.

“Enda Flynn heads the committee as Chairperson, and then we have Joe Flaherty, John Forde, Declan Kenny, James Morgan, and myself.

“We decided to have a New Year’s Eve Ball and it was a magnificent success - it was a magic night. There was over 300 people and they all really enjoyed it. We entered through the old building and it brought back memories for people who hadn’t been there for years and years.

“A lot of that was created by Martina Glennon of Optimum Events and her great vision. She just walked into the old building, saw what was possible, and created that. That’s what created the magic on the night, really.”

The Principal also sheds light on what other occasions are planned during the school’s 150th year.

“At the moment Denis Glennon, Fr Tom Murray, and Sive McGuinness are looking at publishing a hardback pictorial history of the school, and we’d like to have that ready by September to coincide with the actual opening of the school in 1865,” he reveals.

“We’re also hoping to create an alumni association for past pupils. There was a sort of informal past pupils union but it was never really active, but now with social media we’re hoping to expand on it.”

Declan hopes the formation of this alumni association can coincide with a number of scool reunions planned for this year.

“The class of 1965 is planning a reunion at the moment, the 1974 class had one back in December, and then the 1995 class are organising their 20-year reunion. That’s bringing people back in and hopefully we can add them to the alumni association as well.”

The proposed association will not only bring old friends together, it will also serve an important function for the present-day St Mel’s College.

“The ultimate idea is that the alumni association can be used as a fundraising mechanism for the school,” Declan explains. “The funds would be filtered towards renovation of the old main building and creating better facilities for our students.

“All that the funding from the Department of Education does is run the school on a day-to-day basis. We don’t get funding there if we’re going to do anything from an infrastructural point of view. It has to be outside that; and there isn’t a lot available,” Declan concedes. “So we have to go out to our past pupils and the parents association to try and raise some money and do some bits and pieces around the school.”

As the conversation draws to a close, another familiar part of schooldays past rings out: the school bell. Soon the halls are alive with the hustle and bustle of pupils hurrying to their next class.

At the Principal’s office there’s another knock on the door - a teacher looking for a quick word - and with that, Declan gets straight back to business.