Twenty-five years after his early death, acclaimed Newry teacher and colourful local character Dan Collins is still remembered fondly and vividly by generations of local people.
Born in Armagh City during the First World War, as a qualified teacher Dan Collins chose to live and work in South Armagh and later in Newry. Most of his career was spent teaching in Crossmaglen Primary School. It seems amazing that he later spent little more than two decades at St Joseph’s Secondary School on Newry’s Armagh Road. Practically everyone who attended that school now boasts of having had Dan Collins as teacher at one time or another. He was that sort. You wanted to believe he was your teacher, whether or not it was true!
Most people knew Dan as a cheery old bachelor. He looked forward to a long and happy retirement among the people who loved him. Sadly he took a stroke at age 64 and later enjoyed just six months of retirement before his sudden death.
Yet through his colourful and outgoing personality, he made a deep and lasting impression on all whose lives he touched, whether pupils, fellow teachers or parents. It is perhaps through his witticisms, his deft turn of speech, his lyrical, Victorian style and his odd habits and interests that Dan Collins is best remembered. A complete glossary is impossible. I hope the few expressions printed below adequately reflect the man he was. If you feel not – or you have alternatives to offer – please send them to us via Contact Us.
Dan was a man of many interests. An avid reader of catholic tastes, he amassed so many books, magazines and newspapers in his home in College Gardens that he was compelled to take his showers in the school, his bathroom being stuffed with books. Every step on his stairs was likewise engaged as was his bath. A frequent visitor to PRONI, Dan ensured that he secured a copy of the wills of local notables. More recent ones too were available to him at the Registry of Wills.
He had a keen interest in politics and especially in the Mother of Parliaments. Courtesy of his friend ‘Union’ Jack Magennis, Unionist M.P. for Armagh, Dan was a frequent visitor to the ‘Visitors Gallery’ at Westminster. Dan had friends of all shades. He was keenly interested in public meetings in his local town too, and could always be guaranteed to be found seated in the front row. Indeed he proved a useful barometer of ‘interest level’ to the current speaker, for Dan instantly fell asleep and began snoring if the speaker strayed off the point! A tee-totaller and Pioneer, he constantly crusaded against the demon drink, publishing, in his annual ‘Letter to the Editor’ of local newspapers, the Government Auditor’s report of the massive amounts of money expended on drink in our local clubs. Offered a free drink by a local who approached him in Ma Kearney’s, the pub/lodgings where Dan first stayed when he was appointed to Cross Primary, and where he was lunching, he courteously declined.
‘Good gracious, no, thank you just the same. I took my Confirmation pledge and I intend to keep it’.
‘Right,’ says yer man to the bar-tender. ‘Two pints of Guinness for my friend and me, and a saucer of Holy Water for the Pioneer!’
Regularly cycling from Newry to Crossmaglen in the 40s, he was known to enlist the aid occasionally of a Creamery lorry driver who would store the bike on his flat-back lorry while Dan purred contentedly in the cab beside the driver. Passing a layabout in the Square, Dan would caustically comment: ‘He’s holding up that wall in case it falls down!’ The clergy did not escape his caustic wit. Asked to comment on Fr Charles Davis’s leaving the ministry for reputed theological reasons, he commented that if one were to delve deeper, one would find that such departures were usually due ‘if not to Punch, then to Judy!’
He was scrupulously honest, a keen conservationist and saver of the public finances. Perhaps for this reason in his latter years at St Joseph’s, he was put in charge of the distribution and fair allocation of the ‘free school milk’ [well, free until Maggie got her hands on it!]. He interpreted his task too literally, collecting undrunk bottles for return the following day to the Creamery, despite their angry protestations that they were then unwanted by them! He would not allow fellow teachers to have a little for their own tea-break! Dan chalked on his blackboard the number of unconsumed ‘returns’ above the crates containing them. One night there was a break-in to the school. Next morning Dan noticed, below his chalked message of ’27 bottles returned’, an additional message reading, ‘7 bottles – 20 stole!!’
He was ever-ready with the appropriate turn of phrase. An acquaintance on the street one time, straying perhaps too far into Dan’s private life enquired whether it was true he was once married and would he not consider matrimony again, got the response,
‘Yes. And No. Having been ingloriously unhappy for three years, I was never tempted to repeat my mistake!’
Otherwise, in response to a friendly greeting about his health, Dan invariably replied along the lines of,
‘Fine, thank you. And all the better for your kind enquiry!’
Even when slating someone, he had his own inimitable form of expression. Returning from a meeting with the School’s Vice-Principal, with whom he had a disagreement of opinion at the time, he confided,
‘We had a full and frank exchange of discourtesies’.
In response to a whispered remark concerning the obesity of one present, Dan said.
‘Yes. That councillor has a considerable degree of abdominal dignity.’
Concerning a forthcoming ‘shotgun’ wedding, Dan remarked that the couple had simply failed to await ‘starter’s orders’.
Teaching the boys handwriting skills, in response to a query as to whether the script should be vertical or whatever, Dan instructed,
‘Boys, slant your writing towards the Bishop’s house!’
When the Big Clock went awry, and showed different times on its faces, Dan remarked, ‘Is this an example of a two-faced clock?’
Nor did he spare his past-pupils. Meeting one once in Cross Square obviously in a bad way to answer nature’s call for he was clutching his groin and wore a pained expression, Dan directed him to the nearest public toilets:
‘Turn left at the corner and you’ll see a granite building and a door bearing the sign, GENTLEMEN. Don’t let that message deter you. Go right in. That’s the place!’
A school’s Inspector, in his class at Crossmaglen wishing to convey his displeasure at the odour emanating from some pupil, caustically remarked,
‘Drains, Master Collins?’ with a nod in the appropriate direction.
‘These are country boys, Inspector. Perhaps a whiff of goat?’
Dan had little tolerance for the self-importance of one Inspector who constantly announced himself by his qualification.
‘Inspector Gallagher, M.A. Ph. D.’
‘Is that a Bachelor of Arts who has done two more compositions?’ Dan asked.
Teachers as a body of people have made the single greatest contribution to our area and its welfare. We cannot include them all among the Characters of Newry Journal. But we could not have a better representative than Dan Collins. We are grateful for the light and colour he brought to our lives. May he rest in peace.