Seán Duignan, the Irish journalist, newsreader, and political aide and writer, recalls that his time at the Jes, the longest established school in Galway, was generally happy. It was an all-male school then, and had a rowing team that did the school proud.
But once a year a ‘miserable few, were condemned to dress up as girls for a succession of mortifying stage productions’. Apparently Seán had lovely legs. Boys from the Bish, whenever they saw the red caps, would gleefully shout that they were ‘only a bunch of Jes sissies’.
It is very often the out-of-classroom activities that make a good school. Educationalists can agonise over the best theories for teaching young people today, governments can tweak national exams, classroom sizes, and standards; universities can ratchet up the anti, but reading the new book on the Jes,* I was struck by the amazing value that properly taught drama can have on developing minds. It doesn’t cost very much, but it demands a lot from teachers. And good teachers are worth their weight in gold.
The ‘mortifying stage productions’ that Seán dreaded became a whole new experience after the school went co-educational in 1974. By then the school was blessed with having the inspirational teacher and musician Carl Hession, and several members of staff who threw themselves into the annual 5th year musical.
Rehearsals began in October for the new year production which would eventually include as many as 120 students in the senior school. Arts classes, musicians, singers, choirs and dancers, were all involved. Coming up to opening night, rehearsals were held during the day to the fury of teachers. But everybody focused on the production in the end, especially the performers, who at the critical moment took the ownership of the show upon themselves, and worked, sweated, and performed way beyond their own expectations. “Every year we waited for that moment when the cast accepted responsibility for the show, and realised that it was theirs to own, and they were not doing it for us (teachers ),” writes Mary Troy Fennell, a veteran producer of the Jes shows. “This only happened in the final weeks. I was often in despair. But it always did, and the transformation was always amazing. Enthusiasm and morale soared.”
It was their show
Giving the students ownership of their show has to be an important moment in any young person’s life; and for the students to take on the challenge a very real move in their development. Ms Troy Fennell tells of one incident when the whole cast went on strike, just weeks before the show was due to open. The male lead had been found guilty of a major misconduct and, as a result, head teacher Fr Comerford told the boy he would not be allowed to perform.
This was a blow. The whole cast said they would not go ahead unless the boy was reinstated. A huge row erupted. The cast of over 100 young people were on stage and Ms Troy Fennell and Fr Comerford were on the floor below. Fr Comerford explained his reason for the punishment, and refused to budge on his decision. Ms Troy Fennell said that the decision was final. But she explained that it was their show, not the teachers’. If they wanted to cancel, they were the ones who would miss out.
Both she and Fr Comerford left the room. About 15 minutes later the students called them back saying they would go ahead with the show. A new lead was quickly installed, and the show did go ahead as planned, and was a great success.
As the opening night approached the whole senior school goes into overdrive. Dee O’Brien and the art department get their students to do the set design and painting, the domestic science department work on the costumes, and the front of house would be taken in hand by the much respected Bro Crowe. Joan Ruddy in the office would oversee the design and printing of the programme.
Teaching boys a dancing routine was always tough going. They would try so hard that they’d build up a sweat. Someone always said that it was harder than rugby practice.
“Every year the first night was one of the highlights for Ms Troy Fennell. She saw the students in a totally different way, trying to do what they had never done before, and looking so vulnerable. It was equally moving watching the girls who, although they were better dancers and not as shy, were vulnerable and sensitive to any criticism. As the years went on the girls devised the choreography. They took over teaching the boys to dance, often giving away to great hilarity.
“Over the years I realised that everything could be taught through drama,” writes Ms Troy Fennell, “and I mean everything: The discovery of talents they never knew they had, self-confidence, respect for others, coping with success or failure. A real spirit of camaraderie was built up, and also the importance of co-operation and perseverance.”
One night a set was in danger of falling out into the audience, when one of the boys who had not distinguished himself up to then, grimly held off the threatened disaster for 20 minutes. He saved the day, and got a huge round of applause.
“Enterprise and innovation, two of the great buzz words of today, were learned through being sent off to hunt for various costumes and props. For Guys and Dolls all the boys had to have square-cut jackets, 1920s style. I knew it was a tall order but it had to be right. Some were sent away to search again. One way or another, they found what they needed.’
“I was privileged to see the students at their most wonderful selves, knowing that they were good, had worked hard for their success, and it was worth it. The excitement each night before the curtain rose was palpable. One girl said to me: “ I’ve been waiting for five years for this moment.””
Liberality gone mad?
A Protestant at the Jes!
NOTES: The Jes - 150 years of the Jesuits In Galway, launched on Tuesday by Sean O’Rourke of RTE, is a magnificent collection of stories, memories and photographs of a busy local school, now on sale €30.
Mary Troy also co-directed with Liam Greene, Peter Coughlan, Murt Curry, Tom Giblin, David Tuohy, and Brendan Comerford. Original scripts were written by Frank Canavan and Carl Hession. Fr Terry Howard trained the choirs. It was team work to achieve the final result.