In this article, Risteard MacGabhann pays tribute to the late Peter Mullan, a former teacher who taught in a number of schools in the North West including St Columb’s College, Thornhill College, and St Colman’s, Strabane, who died recently.
Peter was a child of the post-war period of austerity. He was the son of a farm worker, who survived through this period on a succession of short-term work contracts living in tied cottages.
Despite his undoubted skill as a farm worker – he is the man featured in the man and plough mural in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, for example – when the contract came to an end, his accommodation was withdrawn also. Peter reckoned that he had lived in ten different houses during his first nine years.
Afterwards, his father’s circumstances got better. He left farm work with all its uncertainties and eventually ended up as foreman in a factory in Newtownards.
Peter was a bright child and, despite the obvious educational disadvantage of a different school virtually every year of his primary schooling, he gained a place in St. Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar School, Belfast and subsequently a scholarship to Queen’s University, where he studied for an honours degree in English in the company of such Derry luminaries as Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney.
In fact, he bonded very strongly with these and other Derry students at Queen’s at the time and was a regular visitor here during his student days, so that when he graduated, he eventually came to work and settle down here.
In Derry, he threw himself with gusto into many community projects and campaigns. He was a campaign worker, for example, for many of Claude Wilton’s political challenges, as well as those of the Derry Labour Party and subsequently the SDLP. A powerful swimmer, he greatly enjoyed his association with the local sub-aqua club, and during the longer nights, was a very valued member of both Irish and English language amateur drama societies both as actor and producer.
A widely and deeply read man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of many subjects, he was a formidable opponent in discussions and an ever-welcome member of many quiz teams, both of which pastimes he relished.
But, it is as a fine, inspiring and supportive teacher in St. Colman’s Strabane, St. Columb’s and Thornhill, Derry, that Peter will be best remembered.
Since his death, it is remarkable how many of his former students, including Fr. John Cargan, the celebrant at his Requiem Mass, who contacted his family and friends to speak about the inspirational quality of his teaching.
He was a warm-hearted, humane man with an infectious sense of humour, who will be greatly missed by the many, who had the pleasure of knowing him during his lifetime. Leaba i measc na bhfíréan go raibh aige.
“A’s má éagann leannán, mairfidh fós a ghaol,
‘S ní bhéarfaidh an bás leis bua ná craobh.”