COLM Lynch was the visionary principal of Scoil Mhuire Gan Smal in Glasheen when I darkened its doors.
An impossibly tall, thin man he seemed to use his long legs to stride at great pace up and down the corridors and the stairs of our primary school. He had the kind of lofty stature that makes kids think twice about stepping out of line. At one point, we began using a book calledand somebody noticed his name on the cover. He had written it. Himself.
For a boy like me, with a nascent interest in words and books, this was the most amazing thing. Somebody in our school had written a book. With his name on it and everything. A book that was bought by people to use in classrooms. Maybe even to read.
If that wasn’t enough to impress me, Mr Lynch, as we called him, was also in charge of hurling in the school. In early September in fifth class, all interested boys were invited to start training for the team. Our first session took place immediately after school in the nearby rugby training grounds of Presentation Boys’ Secondary School.
Gaggles of us half-walked, half-ran the short distance. We’d been going to school matches for years. Here now was our chance to take the first step down the road to wearing the light blue jersey (which looked a little too like the Dublin shirt for our liking) that had been worn with distinction by our older brothers and bigger boys on our street.
We gathered by the dressing-rooms that we weren’t allowed to use and we waited. Then, a familiar sight hove into view. The brand-new Fiat Mirafiori of Mister Lynch. We recognised it from afar because he was one of the only people in our world then who had a new car. We swarmed around him as he got out and then he made us line-up while he opened the boot. That was when we gasped.
It was full to the brim with hurleys. Ash wands of all shapes and sizes. Some were beaten-up and might have been put to better use as kindling. Others were in perfect nick. A few were the dreaded Wavin white plastic jobs.
We stood by the back of the car until he found one that fit each of us, the optimum measurement being the top of the handle reaching the hip bone when it was stood on the ground. Those of us who had hurled before knew what a proper hurley was supposed to look like, the grain curving around the bas. We showcased that knowledge as we examined them like wine snobs eyeing a label.
Many of those who knew no better expressed a preference for the white of the Wavin because they were shinier and looked like the type of weapon a bad guy might be wielding on, the low-rent English sci-fi television show that was a staple of our Sunday night viewing. They all found out the hard way how much the fiberglass stung your hands every time you hit the ball.
Those, like me, who had hurled before made a big deal of road-testing our choices with pretend shots, affected pre-pubescent golfers warming up on the tee box. The less-experienced started using theirs as light-sabers and as swords.
Eventually, when every boy was suitably armed, Mr. Lynch began the process of trying to teach us the rudiments of hurling. A tough job, it required infinite patience especially on a rugby field where the sliotar was often entrapped by thick grass that badly needed another trim.
Particularly onerous conditions for trying to pass on the joys of the ground game. That first year, we went nowhere but 12 months on, after so much well-meaning instruction and occasional wincing from our coach, a journey that began so inauspiciously that afternoon came to a wonderful end.
On a windy autumn day, on a field behind St Joseph’s School along the Mardyke, we defeated St Vincent’s and won a Sciath na Scoil title before a baying crowd of our schoolmates and theirs. Near enough 40 years later, that afternoon came to mind so vividly when I heard of Mr Lynch’s death.
Here was a principal and a teacher who epitomized the best in both professions, cajoling, coaxing and coaching so many generations of unruly kids from Togher and Glasheen towards the best versions of themselves.
In recent years, we had email correspondence, and, thankfully, I made it my business in those exchanges to let him know what a profound impact he had on my life at such a tender age. Beyond the hurling coaching, he encouraged my love of writing, getting me to enter essay competitions, one about the life of Charles J Kickham, another about what I’d do if I was Lord Mayor of Cork.
There’s no doubt that the confidence I gained from tasting success in those outings definitely affected my subsequent love of the written word. Indeed, when I teach Western Civilization here, every time I come to Ancient Egypt, I recall him bringing a quartet (John Bosco, Leonard Lyons, Emmet Barry and myself) to the City Hall to see our project on that very topic on display up against all the other schools from around Cork.
We didn’t know it at the time when we finished third that day but these were moments that deeply affected us, showing us a world beyond our noses and encouraging us to dream bigger.
Of course, those academic cameos paled next to our hurling glory, and there was a wonderful addendum to that triumph at St Joe’s. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Lynch appeared in Mr. Nelligan’s class one morning to announce there would be a formal medal ceremony in the school gym. It would be held at night, our parents were invited and the guest of honour, the man to present our baubles, would be Jimmy Barry-Murphy.
This was more thrilling than winning any game or championship.was coming to our school. To our gym. To see us.
I don’t remember much about the evening. Just that Jimmy smiled a lot and shook a lot of hands. He must have spoken some words of wisdom. I didn’t hear any of them. I was too busy battling my nerves ahead of finally meeting my hero.
Eventually, Mr Lynch, the MC for the evening, started his way through the team, Mark McCarthy in goal, onwards…When he came to me, I took a deep breath, and shuffled towards the top of the room. He handed me the medal and smiled. Actually, I’m not sure if he smiled because I kept my head down the whole time.
His grip felt strong as he shook my hand and handed me my trophy. Then I made my way back to my seat. Relieved. Lighter. Walking on air. Wearing a stupid grin that stayed in place for hours afterwards.
Mr Lynch gave us all that special night and so much more.
Ar Dheis De go raibh a hanam.