by Gareth Cross

After over 40 years on the staff at St Columb's College, and another seven as a pupil, one of the school's best-known faces is hanging up his boots this Christmas.

Dermot Carlin has been a familiar face to generations of 'College' pupils, known as the man who kept things running behind the scenes for the past four decades.

One of the last links to the schools old campus on Bishop Street, Dermot decided to retire in November.

During his time at the school he carried out many roles, being head of exams, finance and also managing the building supervision.

He also carried out many additional voluntary roles including organising the College Archive and serving as Secretary, Treasurer and Vice-President of the Past Pupils' Union.

Dermot also served as the Business Manager of St Columb's school shows, starting with a memorable 'Pirates of Penzance' in 1979.

Dermot first joined the school at the Bishop Street campus in September 1970 as an 11-year-old pupil and after leaving, he returned months later as a member of staff, starting work on November 141977.

When he started at St Columb's the school still had boarding pupils who lived on-site.

"In those days the school still had boarders, around 250, and there was still over 20 priests on the staff," Dermot said.

"We moved to the Buncrana Road campus in 73 and the boarders were gradually phased out. The new campus was much bigger than Bishop Street, where it was quite cramped with 1250 pupils, mostly in huts.

"When we originally moved to Buncrana Road, there was very little around the area compared to today. At times it felt like going to school in the middle of nowhere.

"I came from the Waterside to Bishop Street and then we got the bus here."


Dermot recalled going to school in the as The Troubles raged all around.

"We were right at the coalface in Bishop Street, but when we moved the only real incidents would be soldiers checking the buses.

"Monsignor Coulter was adamant that school would continue as normal no matter what was happening, he wouldn't even evacuate for bomb scares.

"At one time there was CS gas hanging in the air over Bishop Street and we moved classes to the top of the school, but then the wind blew it the other way and we had to move down to the other end."

He ended up back at the college after spotting a job ad in the Derry Journal.

"I had my interview with Leo Casey who was the Bursar of St Columb's in those days, Monsignor Coulter (then President) was sitting in the corner of the room reading," Dermot recalled.

"The interview was just a few months after I left as a pupil and quite informal. They asked then me when I could start.

"As I was getting up to leave Monsignor Coulter took notice of me for a moment and asked me 'can you spell?' It was different era."

Dermot said it wasn't strange returning to his school so soon after leaving.

"It was a different relationship to being a student but some of my new colleagues had been teaching me just months before," he said.

"For the most part they were very welcoming to me and some of them went on to become very good friends.

"My original duties included handing out the dinner tokens - we had nothing electronic in those days and everything had to be done manually.

"We also had a type of photocopier that you operated by hand and eventually we got a xerox machine which printed the pages wet and they had to be hung up to dry."

Computer gift

The college was always at the forefront of the latest technology.

"The first computer we ever got was a gift from The Honourable Irish Society in the 1970's, one of the first Apple models," Dermot said.

"Everyone wanted to use it because it was the only one in the school.

"Things were a bit more laid back before we had the technology. Now with the capabilities we have a lot more is expected.

"Many of our pupils are now required to have an iPad for lessons which would have been unheard of just a few years ago."

Dermot served under seven presidents or principals of the college and has his own memories of each.

"Monsignor Coulter was President when I was a pupil and still here when I joined as staff. He died while still serving in his post.

"All the presidents have had their own different manner and way of doing things.

"After Monsignor Coulter we had Ignatius McQuillan, and attitudes became somewhat more liberal during his time in charge. When we moved campus we had our first ever sixth form centre which the pupils ran themselves for a time.

"Father John Walsh really knew how to get the best out of pupils who were having a hard time. He was good with people, particularly the boys and had good judgement.

"Eamon Martin was our last president who was a serving priest, it was always clear that Eamon was extremely bright. He was very capable and it's no surprise he's gone on to have success as Archbishop of Armagh."

"Sean McGinty served as our first lay principal. He had previous experience from running the old Bishop Street campus and actually taught me Latin as a pupil.

"Now we have Finbarr Madden, the first non College pupil to be Principal. He's extremely capable.

"Throughout the College's history, we have a number of young people chosen to be Principal/President, Eamon Martin being one. The school has always had that attitude that if you were good enough, you were old enough."

Church influence

He admitted that the religious influence had waned somewhat at the St Columb's over the years.

"When I started as a pupil we had over 20 priests on staff and now we have none.

"We also had Mass everyday in the school in our oratory and now that is no longer the case.

"One of the original aims of the school was to act as a both a seminary and to provide education.

"It just came down to practicalities, the number of priests were declining and were needed elsewhere, the church is still influential in the running of the school."

Dermot looked back on some of his most fond memories from his time at St Columb's.

"It is hard to pick out moments from over 40 years but the school's Centenary Mass in 1979 stands out.

"We had a mass followed by a dinner at our Buncrana Road campus and then a party which went long into the night [laughs].

"There were hundreds of people, pupils and past pupils together for the event, it filled up three different halls.

"I also remember leaving Bishop Street for the last time and it was a very sad occasion, it felt like we left some of our spirit behind."

Looking back over his tenure at the school, Dermot said he felt St Columb's had something special to produce so many talented and distinguished alumni.

"It is a school that has achieved, that brought the best out of people and gave them opportunities that they might otherwise not have had," he said.

"It's broader than education, there's a holistic approach and an ethos around the school.

"The school was created to give a chance to people and help them achieve their best."

More than a job

He said that he felt that after 40 years the time was right to move on.

"There's been more to it than just a job, I've been involved in so many different elements over the years," Dermot said.

"It all went by very quickly, you look at it and ask where did those 40 years go.

"There are many things I will miss but I knew it was the right time to move on, you have to give younger people a chance.

"I'm involved in a number of different groups and am hoping to travel, I will still maintain my strong links to St Columb's through the Past Pupils Union," he concluded.

Current St Columb's College Principal Finbarr Madden paid tribute to Dermot on his retire.

"What can I say about Dermot Carlin? The post announcing his retirement on social media attracted huge attention," he said.

"All spoke of Dermot's civility, his humour, his erudition - and above all his identification with the College. I think that if you cut Dermot Carlin open you would see the words 'St Columb's College written therein."

"It is hard to imagine that any individual could have shown more commitment and dedication to the work of this school. I thank him for all that he has given us."

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