In the cruel winnowing ways of time the last two years have been unsparing in regard to a generation of teachers brought together in the early 1960s to teach at a new school in east Belfast which had opened a little earlier in 1957.
The school was called Orangefield and it played a key role in the dissemination of skills, opportunity and challenge to almost five decades of Belfast school children – first as an all-Boys school, which was then joined with an all-Girls school, before finally merging into a high school.
The school eventually closed in June 2014 and was unceremoniously demolished in February 2017 leaving in its wake no physical record other than the memories of staff and pupils alike through its sixty-year story of Belfast’s educational, sporting, social and cultural life.
The original school, Orangefield Boys Secondary School under the inspirational leadership of Cambridge-educated John Malone, was by any yardstick, an exceptional place: ‘Be Just and Fear Not’ the school motto. As Robert Crone has pointed out through his fascinating research into the school’s history the range and quality of school societies, clubs, outreach facilities were matched by Malone’s ambition to provide academic pathways for pupils who had failed the all-important (indeed almost life-defining) Eleven-Plus examination, known colloquially as the ‘Qually’.
As a result, Malone gathered around him a cohort of young and dynamic teachers alongside a somewhat older group, some of whom had fought in World War Two. The school, without broadcasting it, or perhaps even being conscious of it at the time, followed a liberal, progressive agenda.
This is not the place to explore what that agenda set out to achieve nor the pedagogical, class and related challenges it faced in a provincial society strongly marked by class and religious divisions. But undoubtedly the influence of Malone held a cluster of predominantly younger teachers together for a brief period of time, particularly through the 1960s and early 70s before they moved on to other educational opportunities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
The present writer was part of that Sixties experiment and is deeply grateful for his experiences at the school. Now, all these years later, it is chastening to note the loss, in such a relatively brief span of time, of several of those original inspirational figures who went on to make reputations as broadcasters, educationalists, writers and academics.
Their achievements are manifold and diverse and deserve much greater acknowledgement than here, but it would be a pity if the passing of Henry Sinnerton (1941-2018), Sam MacCready (1936-2019), Douglas Carson (1938-2020) and, most recently, Jonathan Bardon (1941-2020) was not marked in some way as a gesture of respect and gratitude.
The individual loss of each of these four men to their close family and friends is all that matters. But there might also be a sense of the passing of a generation’s vision which these teachers and their colleagues embodied across the educational spectrum. I’m thinking about a liberal, non-sectarian ‘protestant’ view of social opportunity, cultural open-ness and civic engagement which was heavily influenced by the British post-war belief in social egalitarianism and education for all.
And while this understanding lasted into the mid to late 1970s, by the time of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power – festooned with an anti-intellectualism still very much entrenched, indeed applauded, alas, in the Tory Party – the prospect of it surviving the collapse of industrial Britain and, in its wake, the fragile state economy of Northern Ireland – grew increasingly remote.
The influential role of teachers such as Henry Sinnerton in the promotion of social justice, the educational initiatives which Douglas Carson created throughout his career in BBC programming – along with another ex-Orangefield teacher, Davy Hammond – match the magisterial writing of Jonathan Bardon’s reclamation of ‘Ulster’ history and Sam MacCready, alongside his life partner, Joan, and their tireless promotion of theatre from Northern Ireland.
They were visionaries in their own often self-ironising way and represent a substantial if largely unexamined aspect of Northern resistance to the sectarianism and political bigotry which threatened at times in the recent past to pitch the society into a never-ending blood bath.
Jonathan Bardon’s soft-spoken south county Dublin accent never left him. As we sat listening to him open the door into early twentieth-century Irish history, first at Orangefield and then a little later at the College of Business Studies in Brunswick Street ,as one of the very first bombs went off, it really was a miracle he decided to stay and make Belfast (and Northern Irish history) his home from home.
Sam MacCready’s energy knew no bounds. His earliest encouragements to write remain special for the uncertain fifteen-year-old who awkwardly showed the first drafts of ‘poems’ to him in-between class break at Orangefield while Henry Sinnerton’s flair, style and commitment was an ideal so many of those teenagers aspired to without letting on. Douglas Carson, in his unrepentantly ironic delivery of common sense, masked an emotional attachment and understanding which I can still hear in his richly bass and questioning voice.
What legacy these four men share and hand on, and the many other women and men of their generation, is best left for a younger slant of mind to comment upon. For those my age, heading with disbelief towards the seventy mark, I think it’s fair to say they modernised our local world and its traditions by keeping it in touch with the best of what was happening elsewhere. In making our own places, our contested histories, our languages, our varied peoples, truly important and available, we remain forever in their debt.
Gerald Dawe is a Belfast-born poet. He was professor of English and fellow of Trinity College Dublin until his retirement in 2017. He has published twenty collections of poetry and literary criticism, including most recently, The Last Peacock and The Sound of the Shuttle: Essays on Cultural Belonging & Protestantism in Northern Ireland.