'Being principal of St Patrick's CS bigger than any medals won'

After over four decades as a teacher in St Patrick's Classical School in Navan, including 14 years as principal, Colm O’Rourke retired from school life in December before the Christmas holidays commenced, as he took on the role of management of the Meath senior football team.

O’Rourke’s time in the school also saw St Pat’s become a powerhouse of the schools football world, winning three Hogan Cups and 10 Leinster titles under his stewardship.

Reflecting on his time as in the school where he began teaching in 1981, having already spent two years in the Christian Brothers in Arklow, the two-time All Ireland winner told an assembly that he never imagined staying involved in teaching for so long, but his love for the school which he attended in his youth kept him involved.

"I was a young boy when I started in St Pat's in 1969 and the last thing I wanted was to be a teacher," he said. "When I started I thought this teaching role might do me for a while and it suited fine while I was playing football but at some stage I might move on and get a proper job. That seems like about six weeks ago. Looking back now it appears like fate intervened and something about St Pat's drew me in and I never wanted to leave."

He went on to say that his time in St Pat's was a fantastic privilege.

“It’s been a special part of my life,” he said. “I always regarded it as a very big honour, the biggest of my life to become the principal of the school, bigger than all the medals won and achievements in other areas, to be part of St Pat's was much bigger than any of those things, that’s the significance of it in my life.”

Despite his familial connections to the educational establishment, O’ Rourke says the time is right to break away cleanly from the school and used the story of former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly as a cautionary tale for those who chose to stay around after their time.

“I’m not going to be too far away - I have a son, a daughter-in-law and a nephew teaching here, so St Pat's will always be a big part of my life. Some people say, 'sure you’ll be back in around the place regularly', but you have to be careful of that. Liverpool supporters will remember Bill Shankly, who managed Liverpool in the '60s and '70s who took over Liverpool when they were a second division side and brought them to the top of Europe and decided to resign, and then decided it wasn’t such a good idea, but the board had already accepted his resignation and said thanks very much and appointed Bob Paisley instead.

"But he lived near the training ground and he used to go down to Melwood to watch the training and the old players kept calling him boss. It got awkward because Bob Paisley was the boss. He was getting in the way at training and eventually, the Liverpool Board wrote to Shankly and said asked him not to go come to training, and it broke him. He had no interests and was moping around and he died a young man, after becoming very bitter. He said that Manchester United and Everton had much more respect for him than his own club - it’s a lesson for everyone that when you’re gone, you’re gone. That’s the reason I’ll be very careful to not come in and step on anybody’s toes.”

O’Rourke says his genuine passion for the job was one of the main reasons behind his longevity in his role.

“I never looked on St Pat’s as a job, that’s the key to life. It wasn’t something where I turned up, did the hours, got paid, and went home and did it day after day as a routine, it was something that I enjoyed. There was shared a culture of excellence, a love of everything about the school, about tolerance, respect, and behind it all, the most important thing about it was the school if the students were happy, the school worked well. If they were then everything else looked after itself. For the most part that seems to be experience of most.

"They achieved in academic subjects, in sport and they achieved in their lives. They were the important principles.”

He also paid tribute to the staff that he worked alongside during his time in the job.

"The shared culture and ethos was something that the staff shared as well. We all worked together. I always said to the staff I was the first among equals. There’s an old Latin phrase, primus inter pares. It’s from the Roman Senate that meant everyone was equal but while there was one was chosen to lead, it didn’t mean they were more important than anyone else. I saw that with the staff. They were great workers, they had similar commitment to the students for school life. When I look at those who were involved in extra-curricular activities in sport and other things, there are few if any schools in the country that match the commitment of the teachers when it comes to extra-curricular activities in the school. Every day that I walked in here I have experienced nothing but kindness and courtesy. The teachers were my friends as well as my colleagues and I always fostered an atmosphere of tolerance and respect, with plenty of fun thrown in."

Irish Independent GAA writer, Colm Keys, acted as MC at the event, and head prefect, Tadhg Martin paid tribute on behalf of the school students, especially for the sense of humour that principal O'Rourke brought to everyday life in the school.

He said "managing a school of 900 plus students is always hard enough. But to do it so consistently for such a long time and to always have time to crack a joke or have a laugh is made it more impressive.

"There are some moments he has given us that will live long in our memory. For example his announcements over the intercom. As we all know Mr O'Rourke loved to brighten students' days with a joke to the whole school and recently nobody was safe from being on the tail end of a joke, unless you were from Simonstown or Skyrne!"