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Principal plays vital role against partition

(Eamonn Phoenix, Irish News)

As St Kevin's Primary School prepares to move to a new complex on Belfast's Falls Road, Eamonn Phoenix recalls the role the school's most famous principal played for Michael Collins in the northern nationalist resistance to partition.

Over the past month the impending closure of the St Kevin's Primary School complex on Belfast's Falls Road has been marked by a series of events. These culminated in an exhibition and lecture on the life and times of the late John Duffin, the school's most famous principal.

Mr Duffin (1891-1977) was a member of one of west Belfast's best-known families in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising.

A native of Glenravel, Co Antrim, he was brought up in Clonard Gardens and trained at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, the main training ground for Catholic male teachers before partition in 1922.

John's younger brothers, Pat – also a teacher – and Dan were murdered in the family home in April 1921 by an RIC 'reprisal squad' in retaliation for the IRA killing of two soldiers in the city centre earlier that day.

Mr Duffin, then a teacher in St Paul's National School on the Falls Road, was to play a vital but secret role in northern nationalist resistance to partition and in the operation of Michael Collins's aggressive northern policy in 1922.

In the wake of the treaty, Collins and his pro-treaty provisional government refused to recognise the new unionist administration in Belfast and secretly encouraged northern nationalists to adopt a strict 'non-recognition' policy towards the Belfast parliament.

The cornerstone of this strategy was the rejection of partition by Catholic schools in the north. Michael Collins hoped to use the 'revolt' of half-a-million nationalists against the new northern state as a 'bargaining-chip' with the unionist PM Sir James Craig, forcing him to accept the 'essential unity of Ireland'.

The new policy had the support of the northern Catholic bishops, fearful of 'Orange interference' in Catholic education.

As a result, in February 1922, on the eve of the transfer of education powers to the Belfast government, Michael Collins promised to pay the salaries of northern Catholic teachers who refused to recognise the Northern Ireland ministry of education.

In the event, around 800 teachers in 300 northern schools declared their allegiance to the Dail.

Michael Collins sent an official north to make contact with Mr Duffin who agreed to organise the campaign by the 'rebel teachers' against the unionist state.

The 29-year-old teacher travelled secretly around the six counties, persuading teachers and school managers to take part.

He later recalled that his fluency in Irish was a considerable advantage in his activities.

The salary forms, supplied by Dublin, were collected by Duffin who passed them on to Collins through the services of a restaurant attendant on the Dublin train!

The money was provided by Collins under the cover of the Dail's secret service fund which did not have to be publicly accounted for.

This bizarre situation continued for 10 months from February until October 1922 while the protesting schools barred their gates to the inspectors of the northern government and taught the syllabus of the Irish Free State.

Lord Londonderry, the liberal-minded Northern minister of education, soon detected Collins's involvement despite Dublin's official denials.

However, attempts to find a compromise were frustrated by sectarian violence in Belfast in 1922 and the resulting breakdown of relations between Collins and Craig.

However, following Collins's death in an ambush in the Irish civil war that August, the new Irish government, led by WT Cosgrave decided on a 'peace policy' towards the north, swiftly reversing Collins's pro-northern nationalist stance and payment of the 'rebel teachers'.

The strain of providing the money was proving too much for the Irish state while the failure of the policy to undermine partition was already demoralising the teachers.

Many parish priests, the RUC reported, wished to recognise political realities.

Their sudden abandonment by Dublin placed the 'rebel teachers' in an awkward position without either salary or security.

Neither the Catholic Church nor the nationalist politicians were prepared to negotiate with the unionist state and it fell to Mr Duffin to begin the difficult task of opening negotiations with Lord Londonderry and his officials.

It was, as he later recalled, a thankless and humiliating task.

He failed to get the unionist government to set aside the oath of allegiance for teachers – bitterly resented by nationalists – but Londonderry agreed to permit the teaching of Irish as a school subject for the first time and guaranteed that there would be no victimisation of those involved in the protest.

The episode cost the Dail £180,000 – a vast sum in those days – which was never recouped by Stormont.

The teachers, a number of whom were interned for their part in the campaign, accused the Free State government of 'treachery' and had to repay their pension premiums (deducted at source by the Republic) to the northern government.

Mr Duffin went on to become first principal of St Kevin's, a post he held for 23 years – from 1933-56.

He lived to record his memories of the struggle and his papers, including correspondence with both Irish governments, are now in the Public Record Office, Belfast.

John Duffin died in 1977, aged 86, but he remains an iconic figure to several generations of former St Kevin's scholars.

June 5, 2004

This article appeared first in the May 11, 2004 edition of the Irish News.

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