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Letter from Gulladuff

A fellow Columban (a too grand appellation perhaps, once applied to the school magazine but never catching on for the ragged-arsed collegians themselves) has corrected me, and correctly so, over my feeble grip on the geography of Co Derry in my recent post (Sweet Sounds Together) on Seamus Heaney. I misspelled east Derry’s Kilrea as Killea (which is in fact the name of a Derry/Donegal border crossing quite near the city) and located Drumsurn in the south of the county when it’s north even of Dungiven for God’s sake.

As I explained by way of a plea of mitigation, we city slickers the St Columb’s dayboys had only the shakiest grasp of what lay behind Creggan in one direction or Altnagelvin hospital in the other. Boarders, and even those who came in on the bus, were strange country folk with sing-song accents who called you “sir”. The greatest concentration of them appeared to be from places like Maghera, Swatragh, Bellaghy and Ballinascreen, which are certainly in south Derry, so we thought they all were, even if they were from Tamnaherin and talked like Scotchmen.

They were also prodigious Gaelic footballers, Lagans, McGurks, Mullans, Gormleys, Diamonds, McAfees, even Stevensons (how’d they get in?). In the city, and on the other side of it, in Inishowen, which had once also been a great source of boarders for St Columb’s, there was only soccer, Derry City, Buncrana Hearts, and of course, in dreams of paradise, faraway Celtic. Heaney too it seems was a decent Gaelic player, but the school’s greatest achievement came well after his time in 1965, when we won the Hogan Cup (all-Ireland schools championship). Death of a Naturalist was published in the following year and it was maybe 1967 or 1968 when the senior classes were gathered in the concert hall to hear a past pupil who had had a book of poetry published in London read to us. All I remember is our amazement that the words "their blunt heads farting" (from the title poem) could actually be read out aloud from a stage in St Columb's College without the sky caving in.

The book of interviews Stepping Stones (2008) was put together through a process of negotiation between Seamus Heaney and the late Dennis O’Driscoll in which the latter sent many questions and the former indicated those he would like to reply to. There’s not a lot about St Columb’s. Perhaps this short passage indicates why:

The sword of sorrow swung widely on the day I went as a boarder to St Columb’s College. That was a definitive moment. Nothing altogether prepared any one of us for what was happening. My father and mother were out of it too, I know: going to Derry, going into the college, into the president’s corridor, the president’s room, the strangeness and diffidence they would have felt there in the clerical presence, the relative grandeur of the milieu, leather desk, carpeted hush, book-lined walls and so on ... Imagine this: the pathetic phrase I used to hear in those days before I left was, ‘They get a good dinner.’ That was the extent of the understanding country people had about St Columb’s College as a boarding school. And the extent of the expectation! The real meaning of what was happening came for all concerned when my father and my mother simply had to say goodbye and walk away from the front door of Junior House, down the central walk to the main gate of the college, and I stood watching them, brimming with grief. Unblaming, unavailing grief. A space that was separate and, for sure, not a little sorrowing.