St Mary's School

St Mary's School

James in conversation with Joe Mahon told how his hugely successful run of tours to the U.S.A. with The Little Gaelic Singers was brought to an abrupt halt when he was summoned by Bishop Farren.

I was appointed - not that I wanted the job - to St. Mary’s when it opened as a new intermediate school. I was put in as Music Master - and I was getting £2 less than the caretaker. When I thought of the palmy days and the $50,000 per show for the Ed Sullivan Show……”

(A little earlier they had  been discussing Ed Sullivan’s assurance that James’s financial worries were over after The Little Gaelic Singers had appeared for the fourth time on his show. Apparently, the fee for each performance was $50,000; however, when James consulted his contract he discovered that all radio and television work was to count as rehearsals.) 

Very many times throughout his career he was invited into schools to assist with musical productions, give singing lessons or accompany pupils performing for exams. But this was a different proposition. The school, under the auspices of the Convent of Mercy, was due to open in 1959 and it heralded a new era for girls’ secondary education in Derry. Until now any pupils who, for whatever reason, were  not intending to go grammar school usually completed their education at their primary school.

James could have turned down the offer but Bishop Farren’s offers were rather like Don Corleone’s, and  he had seen what became of those, lay or clerical, who incurred his displeasure. A popular local entertainer, Harry Roddy, who appeared on stage in a comedy sketch wearing an ankle-length nightshirt never again got a booking in Derry. Bishop Farren’s rule was arbitrary and absolute. The story goes that any priest who provoked him would be cautioned, “I’ll send you to Scraghy - where the crows won’t sh--e on you.” (Scraghy is a remote and mountainous part of Tyrone, so any such appointment was regarded as the diocesan equivalent of being sent to Siberia.)

It is a measure of the man that nonetheless, he committed himself wholeheartedly to this change of career. While it is true that he possessed no formal secondary teacher’s qualification he was a gifted teacher with a real love of his subject. During those years he taught every class in the school. Frequently his music room was crowded to capacity with pupils who were judged  to be uncontrollable in more academic subjects but were responsive to music and singing.                                                                 

In the Derry Feis of 1960 there were 19 choirs entered by St. Mary’s and all of them taught by James - a record unlikely ever to be equalled. Many of the girls’ solo competitions were also won by St. Mary’s pupils. Annual shows were presented in the school, including Les Cloches de Corneville.

These achievements are all the more noteworthy when it is recalled that many of these girls were considered failures as a result of that cruel and divisive examination, the 11 plus.