'A celebration of difference united behind a humbling credo'

Tue, Dec 8, 2009, 00:00

Blackrock College has just launched a new book to celebrate its 150th anniversary. There is a public fascination with the south Co Dublin school, but Blackrock shrugs off criticism, quietly thriving on its own unshakable sense of self, writes LOUISE HOLDEN

IT WAS Easter 1916. A group of young men were garrisoned in a Dublin fortress as fire reddened the night sky and smoke shrouded the capital. They weren’t the occupants of the GPO, but a group of Blackrock College students quarantined in school by a bout of scarlet fever. Excited by the political events unfolding around them that night, they decided to establish their own republic of Blackrock.

Blackrock College remains a republic to this day.

It’s an education fiefdom that operates its own rules and damns the begrudgers. There is a public fascination with the school and all it represents, but Blackrock shrugs off criticism and curiosity, quietly thriving on its own unshakable sense of self.

Fearless and Boldis a new book published to mark the school’s 150th year. In it, current principal Alan McGinty chides the ongoing efforts of outsiders to bring the “Rock Boy” down.

“Is there such a thing as a typical Blackrock boy? Many have tried to categorise our graduates either in lampoon or good humour, affection or vitriol. A wasteful occupation indeed. I believe that Blackrock is a celebration of difference united behind a humbling credo.”

Blackrock makes the kind of claims that would befit a small nation. It has its own anthem. It has its own diaspora. It practically has its own judiciary, when you consider the number of former pupils who populate the law courts.

International tenor Paul Byrom sings in Blackrock church on Christmas Eve. Irish rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll comes to sports day. Eamon DeValera attended the centenary celebrations and John Charles McQuaid said mass. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin did the honours for the 150th celebrations, which have been lavish.

Books have been written about Blackrock. Endless column inches are devoted to it. Any story involving the school or its students takes on a particular significance in Dublin. Why? Because in the past 20 years Blackrock College has become synonymous with a new type of Irish culture – a wealthy, exclusive, privileged class; a celebrity class, in a small Irish context.

Look at the recent roll of honour – Brian O’Driscoll, Ryan Tubridy, Ardal O’Hanlon. Then there is Ross O’Carroll Kelly, the character created by journalist Paul Howard, who is widely believed to serve as the school’s most famous fictional old boy. Of course readers of the lengthy saga will know that Ross actually attended Castlerock College. But you know . . .

Writer Kevin Power kicked off his career with a successful fictionalised story about the school entitled A Bad Day at Blackrock. Why choose this school over any other?

“Blackrock is a symbol of a wider social phenomenon in Ireland,” says Power, who attended a State school. “All the south Dublin private schools partake of a certain ethos. They make much of values such as tradition, strength and history. It’s not as much about education as it is about perpetuating a way of life, a ruling class. It really intensified during the era of the Celtic Tiger.”

However, Blackrock has been around for 150 years, and as the new €65 coffee-table book reveals, there was life before the boom. The impact of Blackrock on Irish life has been immense. Blackrock boys are found at the top of every Irish peak – from sports to politics to medicine to the judiciary.

Eamon De Valera, Flann O’Brien, Ryan Tubridy, Paul Costolloe, David McWilliams, Robert Ballagh, Ruairi Quinn, Bob Geldof, Lochlann Quinn, Des Bishop, Rory O’Hanlon, Dermot Gleeson, Justice Paul Gilligan, Justice Michael Moriarty, Justice Ronan Keane; the list is exhausting.

The country’s leading heart surgeon, Maurice Neligan, who performed Ireland’s first heart transplant, is a former pupil. Walter Conan, the man who patented the control depth charge which, the book tells us, “influenced the outcome of the first World War” was schooled there.

When RTÉ first went on air, the station was opened by past pupil Eamon De Valera, blessed by past pupil John Charles McQuaid and headed by past pupil Kevin McCourt. The first broadcast was by former Blackrock boy Jimmy O’Dea.

The school has international reach, thanks to both its missionary and sporting traditions. More than 1,000 past pupils have gone on to missionary work in the developing world.

On the sporting front, Blackrock has attained global recognition for the rugby players it produces. Blackrock rugby players include Fergus Slattery, Shane Byrne, Victor Costello, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Leo Cullen and Bob Casey.

Blackrock has held the Leinster Schools’ Senior Cup 66 times and the Junior Cup 45 times. In fact, Blackrock has won a cup competition at least three times a decade since the competition began in 1887. Rugby has been a feature of the school since 1875, the year that the IRFU was established.

Unsurprisingly, the school has impressive facilities. The stunning 63-acre campus is home to 11 rugby pitches, an indoor swimming pool, an athletics track, a cricket lawn and a gym. Students enjoy nine science laboratories, a woodwork studio, a multimedia room and a home economics kitchen. An extensive modernisation project is underway.

Blackrock has tradition in spades. Families have patronised the school since the first day it opened its doors. One family, the Sweeneys of Dunloe, has put five generations – a total of 19 boys – through Blackrock since 1897.

However, times are changing. The establishment of the Des Places Educational Association (DEA) as the new trustee body indicates the beginning of the end of the presence of the Holy Ghost Order in the school.

The private school sector in general is experiencing a drain of funds as wealthy families hit hard times and pressure mounts on the state to withdraw public funds.

Blackrock College has had some unflattering media coverage over the last decade and those with no connection to the school are more likely to cite the bad days in Blackrock than the good. Perhaps the high profile 150th celebration is a rare example of Blackrock reaching out to finesse its public image. The introduction to Fearless and Bold is telling.

“We should aim to reignite the passion for Blackrock College within the hearts of past pupils,” it reads. “By emphasising the unyielding camaraderie and gregariousness among pupils and the respect between pupils and staff, everyone’s role in Blackrock will be reinforced and cast in a new light, a more warmly nostalgic one.”

The book harks back to a simpler time, before the Celtic Tiger yoked private schooling to an attitude that the country has lived to regret.

It does contain an acknowledgement, however, of the strange new Ireland through which this august institution must negotiate a path.

“As I write, in February 2009, we live in troubled times,” writes the school’s first lay principal, the indomitable Alan McGinty. “Ireland is paying the price for an obsessive greed, for a materialism that has destabilised society.”

McGinty goes on to define the role that Blackrock boys might play in Ireland’s next chapter, quoting Bishop Lamont from a speech he gave in 1960.

“The world, if it is to be saved from chaos, needs men, men of stature, civilised men to stand up against thoughtless opinion of the common herd.”


Fearless And Bold(€65) is available from Blackrock College. Tel: Helen Donnelly on 01-2669820 or e-mail: rock150@blackrockcollege.com

You'll Never Knock the 'Rock; Old boys, parents and the principal have their say

"There’s no doubt about it, the place has a mystique, an irresistible pull. In my time, while Ireland generally was a basket case, Blackrock was unabashedly elitist, but, I like to think, in a positive way.”

Ardal O’Hanlon

“Blackrock is the leading rugby school in the country. It is recognised as such not just here in Ireland but internationally.”

Luke Fitzgerald

“It’s a school with an old-fashioned atmosphere despite the modern twist. It always had a Dead Poet’s Societyfeel to it.”

Ryan Tubridy

“Late 1960s at Blackrock College: the journalist (Bill Graham), the rock-star big-mouth humanitarian (Bob Geldof) and the DJ (Dave Fanning). Was there something in the water in Williamstown? No. Everything was in the music.”

Dave Fanning

“There were friends all around me throughout my medical life who shared the formation that was Blackrock. The pride in our traditions and accomplishments binds us all and accompanied us through our professional lives. How can we doctors thank you enough, gentle mother?”

Maurice Neligan

“Raising money for Goal, selling Christmas trees for the St Vincent de Paul ... all led to a realisation of the privileged position that we, as ’Rock men, have in the world. This realisation leads to the inevitable conclusion that our talent, expertise and enthusiasm should be harnessed for the benefit of all.”

Darragh Connell

“You meet ’Rock men in every part of the globe, and virtually without exception the common denominator is an appreciation and understanding of the needs of developing nations and a desire to do something about them. Above all else this selflessness, this option for God rather than Mammon, gives me confidence for our future.”

Alan McGinty

“I once joked before a parents’ association meeting that I was ‘born again’ – quickly explaining that although reared a Terenure boy, I found myself embracing the blue and white of Blackrock.”

Bob Semple, parent

“A Catholic school is not an isolated bubble. It finds its roots in the wider Catholic community of parishes and dioceses. [Blackrock] has given us a solid foundation for the lives that led us along unexpected and sometimes painful paths.”

Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick