Remembering Dr. Éamon Phoenix at St Malachy’s

This week saw the untimely and tragic passing of Doctor Éamon Phoenix, the noted historian, academic and consultant.

Memories are strange. Most of the time we remember the past in terms of broad strokes. But occasionally, our minds feel it appropriate to more permanently record selected events; snapshots which we are able to recall with distinct clarity, as if our subconsciousness instinctively knows of moments which need to be preserved for posterity. Of course, we are not computers, and time alters these memories and mixes a little imagination with them, which can sometimes lead to inaccurate recollections. Unfavourable memories may be blotted out; favourable ones, enhanced  and augmented. The work of a historian centres around accurately determining what happened in the past despite the frailties of human memory.

One such memory of mine relates to Doctor Phoenix. When I heard of his passing, I found myself thinking back, not for the first time, to the first week or so of school at St Malachy’s in September 1990. Back then – I imagine that not much has changed – first year classes were all on the first floor of D block, a rather gloomy 1950s/60s concrete and steel building to the rear of the College Hall. My form teacher was Mrs Sheila Parkhill (a fine enthusiast and teacher of French, and sometime Alliance activist – also sadly recently passed well before time). With the exception of science classes, first year classes were all held in the “home” classroom; pupils would stay put throughout the day while the teachers would rotate through the classroom for each period, allowing time to acclimatize to life at the school. From second year onwards, pupils were expected to go to each teacher’s own classroom. 

D Block’s terrazzo floors in the corridors, and utilitarian steel framed staircases, gave it a rather cold, clinical feel, in contrast to the older Victorian red-bricked buildings where the college began. The wooden parquetry in the classrooms would, each summer, be sanded and covered with a thick layer of varnish ready for the new term. It was in this slightly severe environment that, in that first week, one by one, each of the teachers introduced themselves and began their initial lessons. One day, a bookish looking fellow with an abbreviated mop of wavy black hair, thick glasses and a somewhat hurried countenance bounded through the classroom door and made for the blackboard. Under his left arm he cradled a battered leather holdall/briefcase, from whose overstuffed confines an outwardly disorganized collection of crumpled papers protruded. 

Producing a stick of chalk from a box he fished out of his briefcase, he turned his back to the class and began writing on the board. “My name is Doctor Phoenix” he announced, accompanied by the staccato strokes of the white chalk as he wrote his name before underlining it with a dramatic flourish.

Phoenix stood apart from the start. I had never met someone with a doctorate before; I thought it was a title used to describe medical professionals. Aside from the priests who taught and officiated at the school, few of the teachers had doctorates (one noticeable exception I recall was Dr John Morrin, the English-accented senior teacher who later became the College’s first non-cleric President). Phoenix’s accent was a little unusual too; definitely local, but softer; not something I had heard before. I imagined that this was perhaps how academics talked. I knew of nobody in my family who had been to university before. Right away, Doctor Phoenix seemed exceptional.

Phoenix (who was more generally known as “The Doc” or “Doc Phoenix”) had a different teaching style to most of the other teaching staff in my time there. His approach was, I believe, informed by his own instincts for what worked, rather than any particular official guidelines. The first half of the class would be taken up with a review of the homework essays from the previous lesson. The Doc selected pupils at random to read out their work. At the end, he would constructively critique the report, pointing out any errors and observing what additional points could be further emphasised. He did this without humiliating the pupil who had been speaking.

The second part of the class would take the form of a lecture on the topic at hand. I remember lessons on the world wars and the Russian revolution. But when it came to Irish history, the Doc would shift into a different gear. It was immediately clear to anyone present that he could not disguise his passion for this topic even if he wanted to. With infectious enthusiasm, over my first two (or three ?) years of history classes, he guided us at different points through the various Rebellions, the Home Rule crisis and partition, talking with uncanny authority about figures such as Francis Joseph Biggar, Gavan Duffy, Éoin MacNeill, Carson, Craig, Parnell, Redmond, Griffith, De Valera and Collins. He not only studied these men, he knew them. You could hear a pin drop as he would slowly pace the area in front of the blackboard, reeling off dates, places and names without recourse to notes, hand gestures accompanying the diction without distracting from it. At the end of the lesson, the essay topic on the subject just discussed would be set as the homework for the next time. 

Throughout my education at school and at university I was lucky to have many great teachers and lecturers. But there are a select few who could hold the room the way Phoenix did. His ability to blend history, storytelling, and mastery of the topic, drawing the audience in, was unique.

Judging by his actions, Phoenix was a firm believer in the democratization of history. Rather than confining it to the exclusive halls of academia and the pages of dusty textbooks, he was an evangelist; he saw it as a living thing to be seen, touched, experienced, contextualized and shared. Some of his lessons wove the school itself into the histories of great Irish statesmen such as Éoin MacNeill, who was a pupil at St Malachy’s, along with Irish literary figures such as Michael MacLaverty. I remember one class where Phoenix took us to the upper dormitory area in the oldest college building, a Victorian red-bricked structure which housed the General Office on the ground floor (which I believe has recently been refurbished). At that time the area was abandoned, and appeared to be frozen in time from its last use in the 1970s. We stood at the threshold (we could not enter the area for fears around the building’s structural soundness) while Phoenix talked about MacNeill and some of the other past pupils who had stayed and studied there.

I also recall an early field trip to Friar’s Bush Graveyard, the restoration of which was a project that Phoenix had been closely involved in – he wrote a textbook on it, published by the Ulster Historical Foundation. Phoenix told the story of a patch of ground, nestled up against the brutalist structure of the Ulster Museum, whose history was intimately connected to the people and the city surrounding it. He wanted the wider public to know their history and dedicated himself to bringing it to them. I think he would have considered Friar’s Bush one major aspect of his comprehensive and enduring legacy. 

It’s likely that Phoenix could, if he wanted, have lived the life of a jet-setting networked wealthy academic, travelling the world and delivering authoritative classes on Irish history and culture to packed lecture halls throughout Europe and the US, where I have no doubt that he would have been in demand. But I don’t think that was him. Instead he gave his time more modestly, writing in regional newspapers and appearing on radio and television. I’ve often heard stories about how local historical associations and societies would call him up and ask them to talk about one topic or other; he would invariably say yes, show up and deliver the same kind of enthralling lecture that I recalled at St Malachy’s. No small grouping was beneath him or considered unworthy of his time. Notably, I never once recall Phoenix being egotistical. I never heard him say “my work revealed this”, “my research showed that” or “my leadership restored Friar’s Bush”; he never talked about himself or his accomplishments. Instead, he allowed the history and the story to do the talking. The unique nature of the man spoke through his mastery of detail and the enthusiasm with which he shared it.

A friend commented recently that it is hard to imagine Phoenix as a schoolteacher, and I guess that is quite understandable given his wider public image as mentioned above. Of course, it wasn’t all sweetness and light in the classroom; teenage boys can get boisterous and St Malachy’s was no exception. Phoenix was no authoritarian schoolmaster, but he was adept at keeping the class under control. I never saw him having to administer harsher punishments such as detention (unlike a certain Latin and Classics teacher, who handed out impositions and detentions with ill-governed abandon from his classroom above Phoenix’s B Block base). If you were talking or being disruptive, you would be dispatched to in “Siberia”, his tongue-in-cheek designation for the unpopulated region of desks at the rear of the classroom. Even when dealing with the mundane details of controlling a class he found a way to associate it with the history curriculum. 

Phoenix didn’t have a good memory for names, so if someone was causing trouble they would be addressed “you, son!” and be asked to give their name. The unruly victim would then be dispatched to Siberia and admonished with a withering quip, often based on the person’s surname with some kind of historical backreference. My own surname, which is both a noun and a verb, unfortunately lends itself particularly to this kind of ridicule, but I recall other amusing moments when a pupil named Lundy was on the receiving end. Once, a student named Turpin was told to behave, lest he end up facing the same fate as his ancestor Dick. Phoenix would deliver these sharp remarks with a slightly raised, more stern voice than usual, and an barely-concealed wry smile, permitting himself a brief moment of indulgence in his own joke before the class would continue. But he was never unkind or hurtful, and I don’t recall any occasions where this chastisement was insufficient.

If I recall correctly, Phoenix’s time at St Malachy’s ended with the end of term in either 1992 or 93, and the talk was that he headed back to Stranmillis College to rejoin the academic staff there. I don’t know exactly why he moved on, but I thought at the time that having to deal with cheeky schoolboys was beginning to wear thin. Looking back, I imagine his immense talents were probably underutilized in a school setting. 

That wasn’t the last time I saw him at the school, however. A short while later, he reappeared briefly during the refurbishment of the college A block, another of the red brick Victorian structures in the front quadrangle, the first building you come to as you proceed up the avenue. Workmen had uncovered some kind of old well in the ground floor, and an excited Phoenix was invited to take a look. I faintly recall some kind of event where he gave a talk on the history of the building and the nature of what had been uncovered there. 

I never met Doc Phoenix outside of school, but he was hard to miss, regularly giving talks, writing articles, appearing on radio and television. It is no surprise at all that the Irish government invited him to sit on their panel to look at how the decade of commemorations could be sensitively handled. “Did you hear Eamon Phoenix on the radio ? I could listen to that man all day”, people would often say. I’d reply, with a little pride, “I know; he taught me history in school”. He sounded exactly the same on the air and on public platforms as he did at school years ago. Physically, he didn’t seem to age much; the grey hair set in, as it will for many of us at some point, but he still seemed like he was in good health and full of energy. I would have assumed he was ten years younger than he was when he passed. It’s as if he drew energy and vitality from Irish history itself.

Yesterday a friend showed me an email he’d received from Phoenix a few weeks ago. He’d written to him to advise on a talk on a historical event. The Doc replied offering fulsome support and encouragement for the enterprise, offering to help in any way he could. That must have been just before he fell ill. Right up to the end, Phoenix was doing what he always did – fulfilling the destiny of consummate historian, academic and teacher dedicated to sharing knowledge of Irish history. His contribution to our shared understanding of our history and his unimpeachable dedication to spreading it is irreplaceable. 

My thoughts are with Éamon Phoenix’s family and friends at this time.

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