Inspirational educator bows out in style after 60 joyful years
Published 17/06/2015 | 02:30
For those students returning to the Intermediate School in Killorglin after the summer break, the familiar sight of Mr Joseph A O'Dwyer patrolling the corridors will be no more.
For 60 years this educational visionary crafted and moulded an innovative educational institution at the foothills of the McGillicuddy Reeks.
Academic excellence went hand-in-hand with personal development. Despite its rural location, in the heart of Kerry, the Intermediate School has been at the epicentre of education in Ireland for years.
Joseph was principal at the first Catholic co-educational secondary school in the country from 1955 to 1999 - and until recent weeks also served as its manager and patron.
"My father, Jack, came to Killorglin in 1916 and was principal until 1951 when he died," explains Joseph. He adds: "Then my mother, Johanna, managed the school until 1955 when I became headmaster and manager at the age of just 21. Looking back I was too young but soon the school experienced unprecedented growth."
In its early years the co-educational structure of the Intermediate School (or 'the Carnegie' as it was known) caused consternation.
Joseph explains: "My father was determined the school should continue to be co-educational although it was frowned on by the church hierarchy until the end of the 1950s."
That autonomy enabled the school to offer a diversified scope of education to local children. Classics and traditional texts happily co-existed. Latin with a strong Kerry accent never sounded so intriguing.
Indeed, the school offered Latin to students up to three years ago - with Joseph, a Latin and English graduate from UCD, teaching the subject.
And when an obstacle presented itself, Joseph found a way around it. When he couldn't find someone to teach German he travelled to Germany and spent two months there studying the language so he could offer the subject on his return.
He resisted colonisation by the comprehensive school model in the 1970s, effectively not allowing the State to close the doors. He said: "I will keep the school open as long as the parents dictate by the feet of their children that they want us," - and they did.
Discipline was key. As a past pupil I can testify that the words 'go to Mr Dwyer's office' would send shivers up the spine. He introduced a curfew where pupils had to be indoors by 7pm each weekday evening and boys would get into all sorts of trouble for not having their top button securely fastened.
"Perhaps some of the rules were crazy but results certainly improved. When I retired as headmaster I advised my successor Kieran Griffin to please not continue my rules, to put his own imprint on the school. He's much more humane than me," jokes Joseph.
In 1996 the school, now with 650 students, won the Hogan Cup, the highest honour in Irish school's Gaelic football, and built the first all-weather hockey pitch in Kerry.
Academically, it constantly outperforms many fee-paying schools in more affluent areas of the country. Last year alone 23pc of Leaving Certificate students achieved over 500 points.
Mr O'Dwyer's late wife Bairbre, a granddaughter of Irish revolutionary Eoin MacNeill and sister to former Tánaiste Michael McDowell, brought a new energy to school-life.
She was the driving force behind the design of the new state-of-the art school building which opened in 1988, including a main reception atrium which converts into a theatre. President McAleese visited and described the school as the 'funkiest' she'd ever visited.
Bairbre organised cross-border student exchanges with Ballycastle High school in Antrim, introduced home economics to prepare young people for life after school, focused on artistic expression and led school tours to Paris where country children would travel by metro and visit the Louvre Gallery or see ballet at the world-famous Garnier Opera house - opportunities which would have been impossible without the can-do attitude of the O'Dwyers. Sadly, Bairbre passed away in 1994.
"They were a team - my father's accomplishments were my mother's accomplishments too," explains Joe O'Dwyer, Joseph's youngest son, who now takes over as manager and patron of the school.
Next year the O'Dwyers will have been at the fore of educational excellence at the Intermediate School for a century.
Joe adds: "My father shaped the lives of many generations of people here. He has a fundamental belief that each student should strive for their best and created the environment where this could happen."
After six decades of fearless endeavour, Joseph O'Dwyer is well placed to assess where our education system is headed. As we chat he tells me: "There have been many advancements but, for example, I have never agreed with the idea of giving more points for results in mathematics, what is that saying to art, to history and to other such subjects?"
Even after all these years his desire for justice and equality in education is as strong as ever - and his powerful legacy to the town of Killorglin, and to the entire mid-Kerry region, is simply immeasurable.
White board jungle
Animal rights activists would be hopping mad if it happened now. Well-known former school principal Larry Fleming recalls a local frog-swallowing competition which took place when he was at primary school in the midlands.
In an evocative piece in the latest issue of the principals' magazine Leadership, Mr Fleming tells of the unusual amphibian-chomping event that took place in Co Offaly in the 1960s.
"One of the most vivid memories of my primary school days was the build-up to the live frog-swallowing festival, which once took place in our locality to raise funds for a local organisation.
"As senior pupils in the school, we were paid the princely sum of one shilling per frog to scour the local meadows and boglands for specimens suitable for the menu.
"Needless to say, this event attracted national and international attention with the world's media descending on the village for the day."
One can only imagine the scene if a similar event occurred now.
Live frog-swallowing would go viral on YouTube, and the participants could become reality show stars.