MEMORIES flooded back when I heard of the death of Sr Bríd Forde, who passed away in January in her 85th year.
She died after a long struggle, from the cruellest of diseases, dementia. Her noble, teeming brain turned to dust.
She was a teaching colleague and school principal of mine in St Vincent’s Secondary School in Cork city.
She was also a very dear friend, a mentor and a confidante.
Born in Co. Clare in the heart of the Burren, she came to St Vincent’s as a gifted teacher of French and Mathematics.
She brought something of the Burren with her, she was gentle as the little purple gentians and steadfast as the great grey landscape of timeless limestone.
Bríd was a remarkable woman in so many ways. She never saw the school as a stand-alone piece of infrastructure, more like a lighthouse that cast its beams into the homes, into the families. And so she visited the homes, heard the family stories, in good times and bad.
She knew every child by name. If there was a sickness in the home we heard about it in the staff room before class in the mornings so you didn’t “lose the rag” if the homework wasn’t done.
She saw everything without looking, heard everything without listening and she could appear out of nowhere, especially if I had nipped out for a little chinwag. Nothing was ever said but everything was clearly understood. And the First Years called her ‘The Nun’.
Bríd was a progressive thinker. She was a pioneer in the introduction of the social and health programme to her school when so many others resisted it tooth and nail,
She was a quintessential Sister of Charity, very good to her staff and always interested in their families. In reality, the spirit of Pastoral Care permeated everything that was done in St Vincent’s under her leadership.
There were no sin-bins in St Vincent’s. It was a happy school and I believe the girls got that “Vision of beauty, love and truth” that the poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote so movingly about.
St Vincent’s was well embedded in the community when Sr Bríd came in August, 1964. As well as the academic programme it had an orchestra and a choir that won a host of first prizes in international and other Choral Festivals.
It even had a nightclub, the fondly remembered Sunday night dances in the Oratory where romance blossomed, despite the best efforts of a nun going around the room with a ruler, measuring the space between the dancing couples.
The school campus was a huddle of old ramshackle buildings. Unfortunately, because of its official status as a Secondary Top, it was precluded from teaching the curriculum as far as the Leaving Cert. It finished at Inter Cert (Junior Cert).
The publication of the document Investment in Education in 1965, the most influential document in Modern Ireland, changed all that.
When Donogh O’Malley stood up in the Dail on September 10, 1966, to announce that he would be introducing a free post-primary Education Scheme the following year, the landscape of Irish education was transformed forever.
It was then Bríd showed her true mettle. She grasped the opportunity with both hands. She applied for designation to full Secondary School Status and set about the process of making it happen.
This was not a simple process but she set to the task with vision and stamina.
Then, to complete the transfiguration, she set about providing a new school building. In the space of a few years, we had a splendid new modern school with a well-stocked library, a music room, an art room, two science labs, two home economics rooms, career guidance and pastoral care room, and a full staff of graduate teachers.
In any event, the school flourished, with bright, brainy girls blessed with parents who had ambitions for their futures.
Meanwhile, her work in Cork done, in 1989, Sr Bríd was transferred to Dublin to take on another challenge.
But her rich and enriching legacy or, as Pearse would have it, “the fruits of her mighty sowing”, continues to animate and inspire all of us who were touched by her.
Mairin Quill, who lives in Cork city, is a former TD for Cork North Central and senator, and also a former schoolteacher.