The gentle man who taught me the real meaning of life

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I DON'T know why I think you might be interested in the story of a teacher who came from a small rural community on the stormy south west coast of Ireland. It could be that you will get to the end of this story and feel it was a waste of time. I hope not. The story of Jerome Kelly is about bigger things than where he came from, who he taught, the lives he changed. Sure they were important. But they were by-products and not the central idea which governed the life now gone.

I was an awkward 13-year-old when I first met him. To the new pupils like myself he was Brother Jerome, the headmaster who strode down our gleaming corridors, his black robes billowing behind him like the wings of some great bird of prey. In those early days we feared him. The man had serious presence. When he approached, you stopped fidgeting and fool acting. You stood up straight and listened to what he had to say.

But after a few days we noticed that Jerome had yet to hit anyone. In the Ireland of those days teachers regularly beat the children in their care. They were the days of the leather and the cane, the chalk duster and the fist. The Christian brothers were the most notorious of the physical- force men - the military wing of the Catholic Church. The prevailing attitude was that a good beating never did anyone any harm. But Jerome, we learned, did not operate like that. He was a Presentation Brother, a group with a reputation for being slightly more gentle.

I never saw Jerome raise his hand to a boy. He didn't need to. Although he was a short man, Brother Jerome radiated authority. I ran into that authority frequently during my first few years in secondary school. I suppose the psychologists would say I was looking for attention - talking in class, trying to be funny, practical jokes.

On the first occasion I was dispatched to the headmaster's office, Jerome eyed me balefully. "Come back when school is over, boy," he growled. My comrade in crime was another talkative youth, Michael Kiernan, who would later win fame as a rugby international playing with Ireland and the British Lions.

Jerome's idea of punishment was to send the two of us out onto the city streets with black bin bags. When we returned several hours later, dragging the bin bags behind us, Jerome was waiting with a smile. "You have repaid your debt to society, gentlemen," he said. All of his punishments were like that. There was always a point. Cleaning up rubbish, staying back after school to study a book on civic responsibility, writing an essay on why we misbehaved.

I got into a lot of trouble after that. Nothing serious but a steady stream of incidents: smuggling a vicious terrier into class (the terrified animal bit left, right and centre); stuffing a dead bird into the case of a particularly boring teacher; and talking, always talking. I was an obnoxious little clown.

Instead of cracking down, Jerome took a different tack. He insisted that I join the school debating society. "Put your talking skills to some positive use, boy." The debating opened up a new world to me. I found I could stand in front of people and hold their attention. Jerome ferried us around the country to debating competitions in freezing convent halls. Ireland was opening up then and Jerome encouraged us to speak about the issues that mattered to us as teenagers.

I am sure that we horrified a few reverend mothers with our outspoken rants on the ills of Irish society. But Jerome backed us all the way. Midway through our third year, he introduced philosophy classes. These were to run in conjunction with the obligatory religious instruction. But in an overwhelmingly Catholic country the idea of introducing philosophy lessons, of opening our minds to Russell and Wittgenstein was revolutionary.

"Think boys, think. Use your minds," he would say.

The school was famous in Ireland. "Pres College" was traditionally a school for the sons of the city's merchant princes. In the days of the British empire, it produced civil servants for the colonies. It encouraged the games of cricket and rugby, especially rugby. In many senses "Pres" was a conscious imitation of the English public school.

By the time Jerome arrived as headmaster, the school had lost much of its academic lustre. The joke was that it had become a little like a basin of clotted cream - filled with the rich and thick. Jerome came to "Pres" by way of the West Indies, where he had been working as a missionary. In those newly independent territories, he had thrown himself with gusto into the task of educating a new generation of leaders. Many of the ministers and judges of post colonial Trinidad would count Jerome as their educational inspiration.

Perhaps it was because he came from a very poor area of the country himself, perhaps it was the experience of poverty in the West Indies. Whatever the exact reason Jerome arrived at "Pres" - that bastion of the privileged -with a burning mission for social change. He encouraged a scholarship system which broadened the base of the school-going population. Boys whose families could not keep up with the fees were quietly taken care of. We began to hear of concepts such as social justice, economic fairness.

But his greatest achievement was to set up a house-building programme for the city's elderly poor. In those days Cork suffered a big housing backlog. The tenements were filled with old people living in atrocious poverty. It was a world of dirt and smells and damp. The government paid lip service to the problem but little about it. The city's rich simply looked the other way. Jerome Kelly changed that.

He set up a group called Share, made up of schoolboys who every week went out to visit the tenements. Then Jerome got us out on the streets with collection boxes. Every Christmas week we would fast and collect. Over the years, the boys of "Pres" collected millions. Jerome then went to the local authorities and cajoled and persuaded them into putting up money for new houses. Today the city has numerous modern developments that sprang out of Jerome's energy and idealism.

I last saw him in August when he came to lunch at my cottage on a beautiful summer's day. He told me was fighting leukaemia but was confident of surviving. Most of his talk was about Share and how the housing projects were going from strength to strength. We had become firm friends after I left school, and he would often ring for a chat, wherever I was in the world.

He was a man who made you believe in yourself, even when the evidence suggested you shouldn't. The big idea at the heart of his life was that education was truly more than exam results: it was about the open eye, the open mind, the open heart. He got the academic results of course, but he made sure we saw the bigger picture.

I travelled from London last Monday when I heard he was seriously ill. I arrived at the hospital 30 minutes after he died. I had been late for him all my life. At school I endlessly straggled in late to be met by his admonishing gaze, and the words: "Make the effort boy, make the effort." I imagined I heard them again this week in a hospital corridor.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent