Monday, April 2, 2012

Gerry Haugh 1950-2011

In 2004 The Irish Times published an extract from a book of mine, and the passage they chose concerned my time at Belvedere. Not suprisingly, it also concerned the biggest influence I encountered there, Gerry Haugh.

When I told him about this, he harrumphed (if that's the word) a little and said "Remember, I've devoted my whole life to the place." As indeed he did.

In the end, he was happy with the piece and commented that the accompanying photograph of myself, sitting at the base of tree, "looked as if it was straight from Tolkien".

By then, of course, Gerry was much more than just part of Belvedere; he had become synonymous with it. He was intensely proud of the school and, when required, both defensive of it and critical of it.

I first met him when I was twelve and, I suppose, he was all of twenty-one. It was 1971 and Gerry had emerged from UCD, tall and thin. In his gown he looked like a somewhat ungainly black bird and he was charged with the uneviable task of teaching English to the lower reaches of First Grammar in a couple of pre-fabs in what was called, in those days, the Back Yard.

The late Jim Gough, who taught us history and was later Vice-Principal, gave Gerry a bit of advice about how to tackle IGB. "I told them to take out their rulers and measure the length of St Patrick's beard," he said, implying that there was not much to be done with us.

Gerry ignored this and proceeded to introduce us to The Hobbit and much more. He organised a short story competition which I managed to win with a painfully artless pastiche of PG Wodehouse; I still have the counterfoil of the book token I received, paid for out of Gerry's own meagre pocket; he was a mere HDipEd student at that stage.

The thing that I most keenly remember about him at this point was his energy and his encouragement. He sought out something in me - a way with words and a kind of thinking which was perhaps a little off-beat - and he made me feel valued.

After a number of fallow years, Gerry re-entered my life in Poetry as my history teacher. In terms of sticking to the course and advising us how to pass the Leaving Certificate, he was a glorious failure. In terms of getting us - most of us - to think for ourselves, ask questions, read widely and understand the subject, he was - in a mildly chaotic way - simply brilliant. He was also just a little subversive, in the best sense of the word.

It is hard to believe now, for anyone who knew Gerry in his last years, that he was once something of an outsider, a challenger of the status quo. By the mid-1970s he was not only displaying his contempt for rote learning and his passion for what I can only describe as holistic education, he also founded the Belvedere College Dramatic Society. This was heady, radical stuff in those days.

Whatever about his distinctive teaching methods, his insistence on producing plays - starting with Robert Bolt's The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew in 1974 - was perceived by many as a challenge to the dominance of the annual operetta which had been a school tradition since God was a boy. For many years, Gerry's plays were decidedly peripheral to the core of school activites but all the more exciting for that.

Gerry's early productions - The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Richard III, Tamburlaine the Great to name but a few - were crammed into the audio-visual room in which the audience was literally held (being separated from the only exit by the stage) for hours. His early productions were famous for their length; the late "Buddy" Campbell commented on Tamburlaine (the longest play in the English language, as it happens) that it was"a bit much when he headed off to conquer Africa at half-past-eleven".

There followed sojourns in the refectory, the old science lab and, despite ferocious acoustics, the gym. It was in the latter space that my daughter, Gerry's god daughter, aged six, was so enchanted by his production of Peter Pan that she gradually crawled right onto the stage. Gerry was equally enchanted by that; he liked to create magic.

In time, of course, Belvedere got its fine theatre ("my theatre" as he, quite correctly, called it) a mere thirty or so years after the original one was demolished. And Gerry was finally established as a kind of school treasure. It took time for Belvedere to realise that Mr Haugh was, indeed, a unique asset but, well before his 100th and sadly final production, the school had accorded him his rightful place as a devoted, eccentric, single-minded, warm-hearted, sometimes infuriating, delightful servant of both the institution and of the boys who were lucky enough to come into contact with him.

Vignettes. Gerry reading from our history textbook in a parody of Micheal MacLiammoir. Yelling "you're all being so bloody stupid!" during rehearsals. Watching his form playing pool in the Sigerson Arms in Ballinskelligs. Conducting the makeshift choir at Midnight Mass. Pouring late night whiskeys during my college days. Hiking through Wicklow with a dozen thirteen year olds before he developed an aversion to any form of exercise. Playing the piano in my parents' drawing room as we sang carols. His ability to put me down, firmly but gently. That very distinctive frown. The equally distinctive chuckle.

Gerry, of course, never married but it's wrong to say that he never had children. He had hundreds of them, including me. His love for his children was unspoken but palpable and like any good parent, he let us go but took a pride and a mildly proprietorial interest in our doings when we reached man's estate.

I think he dreaded retirement. He was wrong, in a sense, when he told me that he had devoted his whole life to the school. Belvedere, ultimately, is just a place. He devoted his life to the people he taught - oh, so much more than taught - at Belvedere. It was the people, collectively and individually, who really mattered.

He was the dearest friend I have ever known.


  1. Tom what a magnificent post. Gerry sounds like the sort of teacher ao desperately needed today. Someone with passion. I especially liked this line 'He made me feel valued' if only all teachers did that to their pupils.

  2. Thank you, Nicky. Someone once said he was one in a million. That would mean that there are 5.5 of him in Ireland. Not so, alas!

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