The Sunday Interview - Finbar Madden

St Columb's College principal Finbar Madden. (DER3713PG136)
St Columb's College principal Finbar Madden. (DER3713PG136)

Five black blazers sprint for cover from the mid-afternoon rain in the grounds of St. Columb’s College.

The school lies dormant over the summer months but every September it becomes re-energised and refreshed for the academic year ahead.

The bell rings and young boys and young men of all shapes and sizes make their way to their next lesson.

Almost 20 years have passed since Finbar Madden started teaching History at St. Columb’s College. Last year, he replaced Sean McGinty as the principal of the school.

“I miss teaching but I don’t miss marking,” laughed Finbar.

“I would like to be able to keep up teaching even one class every week but it’s just not practical. The boys need a teacher’s full attention and when you’re principal you can’t guarantee that so you’d end up doing them a disservice.”

Finbar was born in Belfast in November 1968 and is the youngest of three children. His father, Finbar senior, was a civil servant and his mother, Margaret, a primary school teacher.

“I grew up in Belfast in the 1970s and 80s. I had a fairly sheltered childhood. When I say sheltered, what I mean is that there were things happening around me when I was young that I had no clue about.

“One example would be when a bomb was thrown through the front window of a next-door neighbour’s house. It was late 1972 when it happened and we lived in a terraced house at the time. The woman who lived next door tried to escape through her front door but the bomb went off and she was killed.

“Now, I was less than four years-old at the time but I remember being carried up the street to my uncle’s house and the army were everywhere.

“We moved house shortly after that incident. Two or three years later, a man who lived opposite us in our new street was shot in his bed, a guy up the street was killed while planting a bomb and another man who lived around the corner was killed by the Shankill Butchers. There was a lot of stuff going on at that time but it wasn’t really directly impinging on me.”

He added: “What happened in Belfast during those years did impact on my father. He and his brothers owned a painting contract business at the bottom of the Falls Road. When things really started to kick off in Belfast the business was burnt to the ground. He left the business and went to work for the civil service. But the Troubles affected some people much, much more seriously than us.”

Finbar’s mother taught at St. Bernard’s P.S. in Glengormley and for practical reasons Finbar, his older brother Paul and sister Mary were all taught by their mother at the school.

“I think she was harder on me than she needed to be because I was her son,” joked Finbar.

Finbar’s formative years were spent in his bedroom just off the Antrim Road in Belfast, reading as many books he could get his hands on.

Belfast was a much different place back then to what it is now. Finbar would accompany his mother every Friday when she made the weekly trip home to the Glens of Antrim to visit her own mother,

“Mum was from that part of the world and I loved going down there every week - it was a great place to visit.

“I also enjoyed walking when I was younger. Our house was close to Cave Hill so there was always places to go walking. But because of what was going in Belfast at the time, I would have had a lot of spare time on my hands.”

Finbar left St. Bernard’s in 1980 and went on to study at St. Malachy’s College in Belfast. After taking Religion, History and English for A-level, he secured a place at Queen’s University, Belfast, where he studied History.

“History has always been a big passion of mine - especially Irish History. I was delighted when I got the job to teach History at St. Columb’s. The job was to teach History and English - they never asked me to teach English and I kept quiet about it,” he said laughing.

“I thoroughly enjoyed studying at Queen’s. The quality of education at Queen’s was top-class. Some of the lecturers were schooled in places like Oxford and Cambridge. I remember one class I was in where there were only three other students. I was getting almost one-to-one tuition where as today the students are in classrooms with 20 and 30 other people - it was a great experience.”

After completing his History degree, Finbar was accepted to study for his teaching qualification at both St. Mary’s and at Queen’s. As he wanted to teach at secondary school level, Finbar opted for Queen’s.

“When I finished at Queen’s I applied for a teaching job in Leicester, which I went for and didn’t get, and one in a place called Tonbridge in Kent, which I got but promptly turned down as I realised I didn’t want to be that far away from home.

“I went back home and then a teaching job here was advertised in March 1994 and I got it. Myself and Rosemary McDaid - who is now the vice-principal at Lumen Christi College - were appointed as History teachers at the same time.

“I’d never been to Derry before in my life until the day of the interview but I must have done something right because Fr. Walsh [then principal of St. Columb’s] rang me that night to offer me the job - I was absolutely delighted.”

Finbar married Martina in December 1995 and they went on to have three children Peter (16), Catherine (13) and Laura (10). They have lived in Eglinton for the last 20 years.

“I can’t believe how quick the last 19 years have gone in. It seems like yesterday when I started working here. Although there have been massive changes to teaching over the last 20 years the fundamentals have remained the same. One thing that never changes is the dynamic between teacher and pupil. “The other thing that has not changed is the brilliant staff at St. Columb’s College.

“We are also very lucky in the sense that we still attract good and decent boys to this school. I think I am very lucky in that I teach in a place that works with such great young people.”

Finbar started off teaching history and then in 1998 he and colleague Liam Boyle successfully added Politics to the list of A-level subjects. Finbar was also involved with the EMU Project, the management of the library and studies and he was also made Head of Key Stage Four before he was made Head of the History Department. In recent years, Finbar was made vice-principal of the school before taking over from Sean McGinty as principal last year.

“I know it’s a bit of a cliché but from my experience as principal of the school, no two days are ever the same. I never have any idea what I will have to face on a day-to-day basis.

“We have a big operation here. We have over 1500 pupils at the school and a staff of between 100 and 140. It’s as big as some businesses in that sense and while everyday throws up its challenges I am working with really, really good people and amazing kids.

“I want to run a school that allows teachers to teach and kids to learn. A big thing for me is allowing every child at this school to realise their full potential. We have boys at this school who get top class marks and are able to go and study at any of the big universities but I also want to concentrate on the boys who are talented at other things and help them achieve the best they can.”

The recent death of former St. Columb’s College pupil and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney was covered globally. Finbar attended the poet’s funeral along with some pupils. And on the way back from a retreat to Dromantine this week, Finbar and some pupils stopped to pay their respects at Heaney’s grave in Bellaghy in south Derry.

“I was lucky enough to take some of our boys to Seamus Heaney’s funeral.

“We actually stopped at Heaney’s grave on the way back from Drumantine yesterday [Wednesday]. There was about a dozen other people there and that’s when it hit me that although we knew how amazingly talented he was, we didn’t fully appreciate his stature. It’s amazing to think a former St. Columb’s College boy was that great. We have a few letters and poems he sent to St. Columb’s over the years and when you read over them you soon realise just how important a part in his life this school actually was.

“I was chatting to the Year 13 parents last Thursday night and I showed them a picture of Heaney as a sixth year pupil at the school - he was receiving a prize.

“I said to the parents it reminded me of the Robin William’s film ‘Dead Poets Society’. It reminded me of the scene where Robin Williams shows the students the old photographs and tells them to seize the day. I told the parents, ‘Who knows where your son could be in years to come. He might not be another Seamus Heaney but he could go on to something equally as remarkable.’”

As one would imagine, the life of a principal of a school with over 1500 pupils is a busy one, often filled with meeting after meeting. When he does manage to find time to himself, Finbar enjoys spending it with his family, reading up on his Irish History and cheering on his beloved Scuderia Ferrari Formula One team.

“I could sit and talk about Formula One all day but alas there’s work to be done,” he said smiling.

“I’ve been a Liverpool fan for the last 30 years but I am really looking forward to next season’s Formula One season to see how Kimi Raikkonen will get on with Fernando Alonso.

“My wife is originally from Portadown. When we were buying a house in Derry we decided we wanted to live a little bit outside of the town so we settled on Eglinton.

“We are still there to this day.”