When the doors close for the last time in St. Peter’s High School in Creggan later this year, principal Martin Bowen will be the last person to leave the building.
On September 1, 1971 St. Peter’s welcomed its first intake of students into the school and on the very same day, Martin started his teaching career a few miles away in St. Joseph’s Boys’ School in Rosemount.
“I’ll be sad to see the back of the place - I have enjoyed every moment of my 23 years as principal of this school; it’s been a great journey,” said Martin emotionally.
Martin was born in the old City and County Infirmary Hospital in August 1950 and for the first few years of his life, he lived in Linsfort Drive in Creggan.
“I lived with my mother but my father had to go to Birmingham because there was no work in Derry at the time.
“When I was young I went to the ‘Wee Nuns’ (St. Eugene’s P.S.) primary school on Francis Street. My granny lived on the corner, at the top of Great James Street and I went to her house every day after school.
“When I went to school all of the children with the same name were sat at the same table together. At my table was me, Martin McGuinness and Martin Devlin, who is now my G.P.,” he laughed.
Martin’s mother, May, whose maiden name was Brady, was better known as ‘wee May’ in Derry and could often be found collecting money for various charities outside Woolworths in Waterloo Place.
“Everyone knew my mother, she could give you a look if you didn’t put money into her collection tin,” he joked.
Martin’s father, John, was a stoker and from Ballyarnett and Martin’s first memory of his father is driving a horse and cart laden with milk around Derry.
“I have a vivid memory of my father sitting on top of a horse and cart and he was delivering milk for the Old City Dairy to places all over Derry; that memory has stuck with me for years,” he said.
After two or three years at St. Eugene’s, Martin completed his primary education at Rosemount Boys’ School.
“I met one of the most influential people of my entire life when I went to Rosemount Boys’ School, Mr. Neil McLaughlin, who went on to be the principal of St. Anne’s P.S. I would still meet Neil the odd time. He taught me for three years and he was the man that instilled in me the importance of how you teach as opposed to what you teach; that lesson has stayed with me all through my time as a teacher.”
Martin then moved on to St. Columb’s College where it was discovered he had a talent for swimming. During his time at St. Columb’s he developed a life-long friendship with Derry Olympian Liam Ball and the pair would often win all of the races at the local swimming galas.
“When I was at St. Columb’s College we always had a Wednesday afternoon off and you made up the week by coming in on a Saturday morning.
“On a Wednesday afternoon we had to pick a sport. They always had trials for the First Years for all of the different sports and I tried Gaelic football for a while but I hurt someone during a match and wasn’t allowed to play again.
“But then I tried out at swimming and I discovered that whilst I didn’t have much style, I was very quick.
“I made it into the junior team and then when the coaches discovered I was good at the back stroke they put me into the senior team; I was only 12 years-old,” he said proudly.
He continued: “But then in second year I got the shock of my life because that’s when Liam Ball started to swim and watching Liam swim was like watching a fish move through water; he was just a natural.
“Myself and Liam were always side by side at the big galas. The good thing about was that Liam swam the breast stroke and butterfly whilst I swam the back stroke and the front crawl so we hardly ever had to compete against one another. But when we did, I always finished second; he was like a dolphin cutting through the waves when he swam.”
Fr. Michael Keavney and his brother J.J. Keavney were teachers at St. Columb’s during Martin’s time at the school. Martin said both men influenced him greatly and he still draws inspiration from them to this day.
“Fr. Michael Keavney got me interested in lifesaving. In 1965 we went to the lifesaving finals in Dublin and won the Denis Guiney trophy (All-Ireland championships).
“I remember the College Gaelic football team had won two competitions that same year and they were allowed a few days off. We were so disappointed when the head of the school at the time, John Farren, didn’t give us a few days off; mind you, there were only four or five of us in the team,” he laughed.
Swimming had a significant impact upon Martin because as a result of his success in the pool he decided he wanted to be a Physical Education (P.E.) teacher.
“None of the colleges or universities here offered P.E. so I had to apply to Loughborough University and De La Salle Christian Brothers in Manchester.
“When I left Derry in September of 1968 I had never been out of Ireland in my life. I suddenly found myself in Manchester as a student and I had my first teaching practice in a girls’ grammar school in Lancashire a month later; it was very daunting.”
Martin leaving Derry for Manchester coincided with the beginning of the Troubles in the North of Ireland. Martin recalled many times watching news programmes about what was going on in Derry when he was in Manchester and he always knew he would return home.
“I remember I always wanted to go home but I stuck the course out and I have to say it was a very traumatic time because it was long hours as a trainee teacher and I was listening and seeing the news about what was going on back home.
“I enjoyed my time in Manchester. It was there that I discovered the folk scene and Christy Moore would have been a regular at our Students’ Union; he even stayed in our digs a few times.
“Christy used to drive us to all of the concerts in his wee green Morris Minor but he never had any money for petrol which meant we had to pay for it,” he laughed.
Martin returned home three years later and somehow managed to secure a job teaching at St. Joseph’s Boys’ School in Rosemount by just picking up the telephone.
“The principal of St. Joseph’s at this time was a very famous teacher called Willie John Maultsaid and his deputy was Ted Armstrong. When I phoned looking for an application form for a job, Willie John answered the phone. He asked me what subjects I taught and a few other questions. There was a brief pause and he told me that I could start on September 1, 1971.
“My mother had a saying and it was, ‘it was the making of me’. St. Joseph’s was the making of me; I loved the time I spent there.
“It was also at around this time that I helped Terry Downey to set up the Templemore Volleyball Club. It was really competitive and I represented Northern Ireland a few times. I also helped to coach the Northern Ireland Ladies Volleyball team and at one stage the whole team was made up from girls from Thornhill College and St Cecilia’s College; they were such a strong team.”
Martin, who is also a founding member of Creggan Enterprises, spent 11 years teaching at St. Joseph’s where he rose to the position of Head of Languages. In 1982 he left St. Joseph’s to take up the position of Youth and Community Tutor at St. Mary’s in Limavady.
After two years at St. Mary’s, Martin was seconded to work between Stranmillis College in Belfast and Magee University. His job was to research education policy and guidelines. Later on in his career he sat on the C.C.E.A. (Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment) council for five years.
The secondment ended in 1989 and Martin applied for the job of principal in St. Peter’s High School. He went for the interview in June 1989 and started in September.
“I’ve been been here for 23 years; it’s a long time when you think about it like that.
“I had a great mentor here for years, he was called Eddie Dobbins and we worked really well together.
“This school has always had the highest percentage of free school meals in the North but still, during my time here, we managed to grow the number of pupils to almost 600 and we had 40 teachers. Now that the school is closing in June we only have 60 pupils left and about 10 teachers.
“All of the pupils have secured places at other schools for next year and with the help of St. Mary’s College over the summer, they will be looked after.
“As a result of the numbers going down and down, the writing was on the wall for the school for quite some time but we always had a fantastic core of very dedicated teachers here.
“This school has produced some great young fellas over the years. I’ll be the last person to shut the doors in June and I will definitely miss the place. It’ll be very sad when the key is turned in the door one last time.”
He added: “I am retiring but there may be people looking for me to take on an advisory role elsewhere. But with the spare time I’ll have I will be working on collecting books that are first editions; it’s my passion. I still play the guitar and I am really looking forward to taking in the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann during the summer; it’ll be great fun.”
Martin is married to Bridie and they have four children; Cahir, Caoimhe, Eamon and Dermot.