40th Anniversary of the Twinning of Portora Royal School and Clongowes Wood College 1980-2020
An Old Clongownian remembers
My family used to go to Donegal for holidays in the years after WWII and we had to pass through Enniskillen on the last stage of the journey from Belfast. As you leave the town driving west, you see the impressive building of Portora Royal School rising on the hill to your right as it stands looking down on the town and the River Erne. Fr (now Blessed) John Sullivan had been a student there from 1873 to 1879 and he was Spiritual Father in Clongowes when our father was here before World War One. Little did I think all those years ago that I would live to see that connection bearing fruit at a very troubled time in the history of modern Ireland during what is called ‘The Troubles’, which lasted for nearly 30 years from 1969 to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The 1970s was a particularly difficult and contentious period and it was at the start of the next decade that the connection through Fr Sullivan came to bear fruit.
I arrived in Clongowes as Higher Line Prefect in 1976 along with our new Headmaster, the late Fr Philip Fogarty (OC’57). It was on his initiative that, at the start of the new decade, in 1980, Portora and Clongowes sealed this (Sullivan) link by our mutual twinning. There was a further connection of a more literary kind in the persons of two of the most famous Irish authors of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett (OP’23) and James Joyce (OC 1889.) As is noted in Ms Jane Goodall’s wonderful tribute to him at his memorial Mass in January 2020, Philip took the first steps towards making this small, but very significant gesture towards peace on our island by extending the hand of friendship to our Northern colleagues. So it was that, in May 1980, Philip led a group comprising myself and some Clongowes students to Enniskillen to attend Portora’s Prizegiving Day. Thus began (with the then Headmaster, Dr Acheson) a twinning partnership that has had such a profound influence, not just on our two schools, but – in its own small way – as a contribution to bringing peace to Ireland in a time of great strife.
Faithful to our commitment
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a student world, the twinning proper got underway on the field of play. In October of that year, the first rugby match was played in Clongowes with Ireland’s best known referee at the time, David Burnett, in charge. The resulting narrow victory was of no real importance and our visitors were able to sample boarding-school life ‘south of the border’ and to sow the beginnings of better mutual understanding on our island. The second match (cricket) took place in Enniskillen the following spring. Once again, the result mattered little as each player signed commemorative cricket bats to mark the occasion. This time, what was of far greater importance than any result was the timing of our visit, which took place during the IRA hunger strikes in the Maze prison. The first prisoner to die, on May 5th, was Bobby Sands, who a month earlier, had been elected as a Sinn Féin MP to Westminster. It was a period of great tension and antagonism, anxiety and fear, both North and South, with black flags flying on telegraph poles all along the border roads. Faithful to our commitment we arrived for the match on May 16th, a mere 11 days after Sands’ death and somewhat to the surprise of our hosts, but all the more welcome for that – and very much appreciated.
In subsequent years we had regular experience of army checkpoints as we criss-crossed the border, and that was an education in itself. The twinning expanded further into cultural areas, such as debating, theatre and – especially – the annual Beckett-Joyce Award for a piece of writing (prose, poetry, play). The event is organized by the Past Pupils Unions of both schools and is held every second year in Portora and Clongowes. On one occasion we were honoured to have Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, as the adjudicator. At the moment there is a hiatus in this literary rivalry but we hope that it will return to the calendar in the not-too-distant future. Other annual events of importance include our attendance at the Portora Remembrance Service in the School on or near Remembrance Day, November 11th and the visit of Portora students to Clongowes in or around Church Unity Week in January. In addition, the Presidents of each Past Pupils’ Union attend the Annual Dinners of the other School.
Blessed John Sullivan
I mentioned Blessed John Sullivan in the opening paragraph and it is thanks to his memory that our twinning has developed into an ever-deepening friendship between our schools. So it was that, a year after the Beatification of Fr Sullivan, we were delighted to receive an invitation from the Church of Ireland Dean of Enniskillen, Rev Kenneth Hall, to St MacCartan’s Cathedral for a special Choral Evensong Service in thanksgiving for the life and work of John Sullivan of Portora and Clongowes. Both Archbishops of Dublin attended as did staff and students from both schools. Church of Ireland Primate, Archbishop Michael Jackson (himself an OP), gave a wonderful homily, in which he paid a moving tribute to the support received for the students and staff of his former, sorely-tried school from their young friends from Kildare – simply by Clongowes’ continuing commitment to keep the twinning alive, not just in words – but especially in deeds (to quote what St Ignatius Loyola said about true Love).
Let us continue to thank God for the gift of our twinning friendship, thanks to the person of Blessed John, as we pray that he may soon be raised to the ranks of the Saints. And let us ask him to intercede for us and for future generations of young Irish citizens that our country may receive that gift which, of itself, this world cannot give – the gift of a Peace which can only be given by Our God – Our God Who is Love.
 Michael Sheil, OC’56, now rather better known as the Rector, Fr Michael Sheil SJ. Michael’s 7 years as a student in Clongowes were followed by 35 years of his 65 (to date) as a Jesuit working in the college in various roles.
 Michael’s father, Charles, attended Clongowes, 1910-14.
 Published as part of the tribute to the late Philip Fogarty earlier in this issue of The Clongownian