|Written by Victor O’Sullivan|
|Thursday, 24 May 2012 12:04|
|IRELAND’S first comprehensive school has been quietly churning out performers and musicians who have helped to shape Ireland’s contemporary musical heritage for almost half a century.
A founding father of Celtic Rock, Johnny Fean was one of the first pupils to attend St Patrick’s Comprehensive in Shannon Town back in the sixties.
Johnny, the lead guitarist with the legendary Horslips noted, “The comprehensive school did play a big part in developing the confidence of its pupils in those early days. It was the first of its kind in Ireland, with boys and girls attending, it opened up whole different outlook for a teenager like me”.
He embraced the new world that Shannon and its experimental co-educational school provided. “Mixing with different nationalities in the new Shannon town back then, was like nothing that had ever been known before in Ireland and, when I look back now, I consider myself very lucky to have been part of it. In a way, it was saying goodbye to the old Victorian way of schooling and opening up a brand new chapter with a new outlook.”
Around the same time as creative director Bill Backer was conceptualising Coca-Cola’s I’d like to teach the world to sing just down the road at a café in Shannon Airport, Johnny was fine tuning his Celtic Rock guitar-sound with Horslips.
“Over the years there have been some remarkably talented people that have emerged from Shannon, with the likes of Patrick Cassidy, Ray Fean and more recently Gari Deegan achieving great recognition on RTÉ’s The Voice,” Johnny added.
He attributes part of his drive to those confident early days in Ireland’s new town. “What I learned on guitar in Shannon in the 1960s; from that music gave me the confidence to take it where ever I pleased and I saw no obstacles in my way…the musical landscape seemed endless to me.”
Eamonn Lenihan, presenter with RTÉ’s Lyric FM recalled his own time in Shannon. “There were the factory managers and their families from North America and mainland Europe and refugees from Northern Ireland, Chile and Vietnam and so forth, people who brought a very different dynamic to Shannon, compared with other towns.”
He recalled an interview he held with the ground-breaking guitarist. “As musician John Fean agreed during a radio interview – it was no coincidence that a Celtic blues guitarist like himself came from Shannon and not Dublin or Donegal.”
It’s a view shared by St Patrick’s current principal, Morgan Heaphy. “Music and the performing arts are a very important part of today’s life at our school. This is recognised in the wider community and, as a result, we seem to attract students who are interested in music and drama rather than sport for example.”
In fact, it’s hard to distinguish the comprehensive school from the wider Shannon Town community. Former students established the acclaimed Shannon Gospel Choir and also the Muse theatrical workshop company, where the town’s two post-primary schools challenged each other to the death in a remarkably successful production of Romeo and Juliet.
St Patrick’s Comprehensive has also hosted the musical society’s annual production over many decades and the principal noted the significance in the choice of the venue, “the long association with the Shannon Musical Society also has an influence on how others view the school”.
It’s no coincidence that the school piloted projects such as transition year from its curriculum centre. Mr Heaphy also said the school nurtures a sense of the individual, which can challenge pupils to explore new ways of thinking.
“I think the fact that we don’t have a school uniform or rules in relation to hair length and colour means that students have the opportunity to express their individuality and creativity on a daily basis. Students are encouraged regularly to step outside their comfort zones.”
Former student Dominic McInerney is the lead guitarist with pioneering metal band, Censura. The band charted in 2011 with their debut EP The Island and are currently preparing for a European tour.
“I think what set St Patrick’s Comprehensive School apart from others in the time I was there was the freedom to be different. No uniform meant you could express yourself without saying a word. If you were the new guy and if you didn’t have a group to hang out with, all you had to do was look around for the crowd of Metallica shirts hanging out beside the radiators next to the sweet shop,” he noted.
Dominic remembers extra-curricular activities such as setting up the stage for the annual musicals, which resulted in a hall pass. “It was definitely a peek into the life I wanted, although I would have done anything to get out of memorising the Irish language or pulling my hair out in maths.”
He added, “I think ‘the Comp’ had some very encouraging teachers that supported my non-academic and creative mind…intentional or not, the school did help me to become the person I am today.”