The energy children emit, their irrepressible energy playing and learning, that is what I will miss the most.”
These are the touching words from retiring Principal Damian Kelly that mark the end of an era for St Mary’s Cabragh, one of the largest rural primary schools in Tyrone.
Mr Kelly has walked the corridors since the school first opened its doors in 1968, first as a P5 pupil, and then as a newly qualified teacher in 1980, inspiring and enlivening the classrooms for successive generations of Killeeshil school children.
Now, almost fifty years and thousands of pupils later, and with 36 years clocked up as a teacher and Principal, he has announced his retirement.
In that time, the dusty blackboards have been replaced by interactive white boards, the art work of three generations of children have decorated the walls, and the school has gained outstanding inspection reports as well as sweeping the board in musical, sporting and cultural competitions.
He has weathered educational storms such as the introduction of the transfer test by local grammar schools, a move which he fundamentally disagrees with, but at the same time he respects the wishes of parents. He has also witnessed a social revolution with education opening the doors to professional life and leadership roles for many Catholics from working-class and farming backgrounds.
“Education lifted us out of the mud”, he said, still eager to share the thrill and pleasure of his profession. “And I commend the Killeeshil parish leaders in the late 1960s for having the courage to merge the three small schools in the parish into this large well-resourced one, which made us a focal point right at the heart of the community.
“I’ve been very proud to have been a pupil when St Mary’s first opened, and then a teacher and principal. We have experienced some tragedies over the years, and I’ve had some of the most harrowing experiences of my life when pupils have lost their lives, but my happiest memories are celebrating the school’s numerous achievements in a wide variety of fields.
“I enjoy walking in every morning and feeling the buzz about the place with children practising their musical instruments, working on computers, chatting, singing or skipping in the playground. In some ways, it’s like getting on a relentless machine that never stops.
“You hug the children, you praise them, you encourage them, you whisper and you shout, and it never stops. Every week, there’s a new event, a celebration or a performance to look forward to.”
His genuine fervour for teaching shows no sign of abating as he outlined his vision of what makes a good school, praising his own staff in particular.
“A school should be like a big happy home, where children learn good habits and character-building lessons such as the fact that everything doesn’t always go your way ever day.
“Technology has transformed the field of teaching but staff are still the most important resource. The best teachers and teaching assistants have professional pride in their work, and are organised, creative and resilient, but they must have something else, an intuitive understanding of how to connect with their pupils.”
He said the debate about academic selection will not go away, but he hoped that the tyranny of teaching performance targets and national testing of children would not stifle creativity in the classroom.
He explained that fundamental to the school’s success was the support of the wider Killeeshil community, the hard work of parish priests Father James Crowley and Father Pat Hannigan, the school board of governors, and his staff.
“The exceptional support I and the school have received over the decades has been extremely heart-warming, and it will be a huge wrench to leave.”
How does he plan to cope with retirement? By devoting more time to his dogs and his work as an international gun-dog event judge.
“They’re another form of energy”, he said, smiling.