When John Dunne passed away almost three months ago on May 2, with him went one of the last remaining links to the original staff of St Joseph’s Boys School in Creggan.
In recent years John was an utterly familiar sight on the edge of the city’s Bogside as he made his way into town. But, that short daily journey must have taken as least twice as long as it would have taken anyone else simply because almost everyone he passed knew him, stopped him and engaged in conversation with him.
On the 50th anniversary of the school’s opening in 2013 I was asked to help compile a book to mark the occasion. When I sat down to write a list of those who would have to be interviewed, John Dunne was the first name on the top of the pile.
When I started to transcribe John’s interview it began like this: “In this era of media created ‘stars’, famous for nothing more than seeking fame-or infamy, in many cases-the tag of legend is one that is all too easily doled out.
“Most people in their formative years can point to a mentor who influenced them greatly and provided knowledge and encouragement when these vital commodities were often all too scarce. More often than not, these people are unassuming and go about their lives in the same manner.
“These people are society’s real legends and in the history of St Joseph’s, few if any, earned that accolade more than John Dunne.”
That chapter of the book on St Joseph’s was entitled ‘One of nature’s gentlemen’, and there’s absolutely no reason to change that title for the purposes of this appreciation of John Dunne’s life because in my opinion its accuracy cannot be upgraded in any way.
‘Big John’ as he was affectionately known to all former pupils of the school, made a positive mark on thousands of young lives in his four decades at St Joseph’s. It would be hard to find anyone that would disagree that the word big when applied to John Dunne not only represented his physical stature but also his intelligence and patience.
By 1949, the Dunne family had lived at Brandywell Road, Burnfoot and then back to Derry and more specifically the newly developing Creggan estate.
John Dunne began his career at St Columb’s College in 1951 in the company of contemporaries such as Nobel laureates John Hume, Seamus Heaney.
In 2012 he told me: “I enjoyed the time at St Columb’s without really realising or wondering what life was about. There were people then who went back up to the College at six o’clock and studied until nine o’clock.
“But, I and another man, Bill Smyth, who also ended up teaching at St Joseph’s, instead of going to the school, followed a great interest we had discovered-greyhounds. That was our main pursuit. Strangely, we both also ended up training as teachers at St Joseph’s College in Belfast which was linked to Queen’s University but separate in that it awarded its own accreditation.”
It was at training college that John Dunne encountered a dilemma. Already well-known for his ability as a footballer, his lifelong passion, he had to make the choice of whether he would pursue as a career as PE teacher.
“I had distinct limitations, because when I was very young, I nearly died twice. When I was six months old and again when I was five, I caught pneumonia. I remember the second time and having to lie from about December to April before I came around.
“I was in a sort of comatose state for a long time, but my mother God rest her, battled away and I survived. But, it left me severely limited in terms of stamina. In terms of pace, I was very quick off the mark, but I couldn’t sustain it. And, the further up you went in football, the more of a problem it became. I loved reserve football, but the full senior game was just too fast for me,” he said.
In September 1963 John began his teaching career at the newly opened St Joseph’s Secondary School in Creggan for the princely sum of £36 per month. It was here that he spent the entire span of his professional life.
The new school with its emphasis educating those who had not successfully navigated the old 11 plus exam, it was a ready-made home for John Dunne and many of his contemporaries alike. Like many of his era, John benefitted from easier access to grammar school system because of post-war changes to British education policy. But, also like many of his generation, John spoke candidly about his reservations on it. His words also revealed why he preferred the non-selective route through school.
“The thing about going to St Columb’s is that we weren’t completely accepted. We were different somehow. The boarders who stayed there were the ‘real’ St Columb’s boys as far as the clergy were concerned.
“There are things now that are still etched in my memory. Where I lived, there was a protest after a child lost a leg having been hit by a bus. The people were worried about the safety of their children so they weren’t prepared to let the bus keep travelling that route.
“Anyhow, the protest could be seen from the College. A priest, who shall remain nameless said, ‘well, what would you expect from people like that?’
“We took great umbrage at that. I had been through a kind of elitist system at St Columb’s, where you had to prove yourself in the first place by getting so many marks in an 11 plus exam, in English and Maths-and they weren’t easy. They were quite difficult examinations. I went to the Christian Brothers at they drilled us; kept us on in the afternoon for an hour, got us up on Saturday mornings and drilled us and drilled us.
“When I went to teach in a secondary school it was very different. You had children there that for one reason or another had fallen through the system. They hadn’t perhaps done themselves justice in the system that surrounded them. In my time at St Joseph’s there were children who should not have been there because they could not get anything out of the system at all, no matter how much we tried or how much sympathy we had for their position. But we did try.
“I had been through a system where I met good teachers, people who had made a good impact on my life. So, what I did when I saw what they were doing was imitate them. I wove all the goodness in other people into a fabric that I could use myself, and I found that it worked,” said John.
At the end of John Dunne’s first decade as a teacher, the Troubles erupted on the streets of his native city. St Joseph’s geographical location meant that major disturbances often encroached upon the school itself. It befell people like John Dunne to provide a calm backdrop to the mayhem outside the gates of St Joseph’s.
In 2012 he said: “It was a very, very strange environment to be working in, because all hell could have broken loose in the immediate vicinity of the school at any time. There were teachers out on the streets, acting as buffers, trying tom keep a lid on things.
“In practical terms, I found it very hard because in summer time it was very hot and you had to open the windows to let a bit of air in. But, there were helicopters flying about and the noise was unbearable and the youngsters couldn’t hear you. A lot of young people became involved and some of them lost their lives as a consequence.”
Apart from a very quick but understated wit, John Dunne was blessed with a fantastic voice, full of dramatic intonation, that would have been the envy of many stage actors.
As a teacher of the English language John had the ability the bring the most boring text to life and kept his students enthralled. He could have been reading the contents of the back of a cereal box aloud, but when he spoke people listened.
The ability to relate a story, complete with an array of accents when required, was one that he credited his grandfather John Downey with.
“He was a great storyteller. I remember as a young boy he used to take me early in the morning for his pension. We used to go to Mass about seven or eight o’clock and then go to the train station on the Strand Road and out to Bridgend for his pension and then visit people in the area.
“But when we were walking, he always told me stories about haunted houses, about what kind of flowers were at the side of the road.
“There seemed to be no end to his knowledge and then he could deviate and tell me another yarn. I just thrived on his stories.
“I think also it was the way I was taught at the Christian Brothers. They were very precise about language. It’s become too loose now. People are very loose, especially when using mobile phones.
“I’ve even read about the use of the apostrophe being lost. I was taught these things were important when you wrote something. I stuck to it and I tried to instil it into youngsters without being overly heavy about it.”
John Dunne’s dulcet tones were employed again when Derry City FC re-entered senior football in 1985 and for many years after he commentated on many of the games played by his beloved Candystripes.
This interview with John Dunne was conducted in 2012 at Pilot’s Row community centre. At this stage he had been retired from teaching for almost two decades. But, the huge capacity that he had to retain swathes of information was still very much evident.
As if to prove that very thing, in the later stages of this conversation a young boy, no more than ten or eleven years old walked past and said cheerily, ‘hello John!’
Without blinking an eye, John Dunne recounted the boy’s family history and how many of his relatives attended St Joseph’s. That was proof that you could take the man away from St Joe’s, but not St Joe’s away from the man.
The interview with John Dunne ended with him speaking about the five decades since the school opened.
He said: “It’s been some fifty years, especially for somebody like me who has finished up living in the Bogside. When I got here, I was a little bit apprehensive about being someone who worked in St Joseph’s and being accepted into the local community. But, it’s no bother. I am on first name terms with people.
“I was walking over to Mailey’s pub one night in the summer about 7.30. It was a beautiful night. There was a group of young men sitting in a garden. I was walking in the middle of the road and one of them came out and addressed me by my name.
“He said, ‘John, there are not many teachers that could do what you are doing and walked through this area untouched.
“That’s good to know I said.”
CAPTION: The late John Dunne.
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