Martin O’Brien speaks to BBC broadcaster Bryan Gallagher about his wide-ranging career
When Bryan Gallagher retired as headmaster of St Joseph’s College, Enniskillen in my native Fermanagh he could not have imagined that the BBC, in the form of the legendary DJ John Peel, having been tipped off about his talents, would come knocking on his door, thus heralding a new and exciting part-time career in broadcasting.
Bryan, one of seven children of a Leitrim RIC/RUC officer father and a West Cork teacher mother, could not have dreamed that he would become a much-loved voice on Peel’s Home Truths programme on BBC Radio 4.
Nor that his evocative radio short stories chronicling childhood life in rural Fermanagh by the shores of Lough Erne would become a best seller, Barefoot in Mullyneeny – A Boy’s Journey Towards Belonging (Harper Collins).
In the book, he recalls “a profound religious experience” at the age of nine when a 12-year-old friend told him and his mates it was a mortal sin (requiring absolution)to enter a Protestant church. “We all believed him.”
Sadly, Peel’s sudden and untimely death led to the eventual demise of Home Truths but other broadcasters were snapping at Bryan’s heels. He contributed for years to RTE’s Sunday Miscellany and became a regular contributor to BBC Radio Ulster.
The latest chapter of that new career behind the microphone is now playing out because Gallagher is currently in the middle of a weekly outing on Radio Ulster’s Thought for the Day or so-called “God slot” where contributors have a particularly demanding task.
It is to reflect on the transcendental for two or three minutes in a way that really connects with a wide spectrum of people who are at that moment grabbing a bite of breakfast or rushing out to work or getting the children ready for school. Or maybe doing all three activities and more simultaneously.
The fact that the BBC in Belfast keep asking Gallagher, now well into his seventies, to take his turn presenting it is testimony to his enduring ability to enthral audiences with his melodious voice, self-deprecating intelligent humour and his telling parables.
Bryan lives with his wife Maeve in Enniskillen and they have five children, including Bryan Óg who is a broadcaster with the Q Radio Network.
Gallagher was born in Lurgan and brought up in Derrylin, near the Cavan border where his father was by then the RUC sergeant.
He recalls being a voracious reader since early childhood of any book he could get his hands on, and a lifelong lover of poetry “everything from Yeats to Heaney to Robert Service, who had a little-known spiritual side”.
In one of the ‘thoughts’ in the current series, he quotes from Robert Service’s My Madonna, “a poem that I have always thought was a parable for our time”.
It reminds him of a saying his mother was fond of repeating: “There’s so much good in the worst of us and bad in the best of us that it ill behoves any of us to speak ill of the rest of us.”
Those who have known Bryan Gallagher were not surprised by his apparently effortless progress in broadcasting. He is seen as one of the brightest of his generation and a distinguished educationalist.
He recalls being something of “an outsider” while at primary school in Derrylin.
One of his father’s responsibilities was to combat cross-border smuggling of such goods as tobacco, alcohol and farm animals.
After Derrylin, he snapped up scholarships first to attend the Presentation Brothers in Enniskillen and then to secure a coveted place at Queen’s University, sailing through the exams at such speed that he had to spend an additional year with the Brothers as Queen’s did not admit students until they were 17.
At Queen’s, he majored equally in Mathematics and English and a subsidiary part of his BA was in Scholastic Philosophy where his teacher was the future Cardinal Cahal Daly.
Then he “drifted into teaching, the easy option”, by way of a postgraduate course at St Joseph’s, Trench House.
One senses he could easily have excelled in the world of music or stage having been greatly influenced by his “intensely musical” mother.
In Belfast he also studied for music examinations, qualifying as an Associate of the London College of Music and was taught to play a range of musical instruments including the violin and piano and played in the Ulster Hall under the famed composer and conductor, Havelock Nelson.
Bryan has always struck me as a man who would have risen to the top of whatever career he had chosen and at this point it is time that I declared an interest.
Back in the 1960s, Master Gallagher, as he was known, was principal of my primary school, St Mary’s Mullymesker in the parish of Arney a few miles outside of Enniskillen.
Apart from my late parents, no other person had as great an influence on my formation and I will always be in his debt for showing me the way in developing a relationship with God, knowing the difference between right and wrong, taking pride in my Irish identity, nurturing a sense of place and getting to know about the wider world.
Numerous other former pupils who also attended St Aidan’s High School, Derrylin, and St Joseph’s College, Enniskillen (where I was a student after Mullymesker and before Master Gallagher arrived there), would pay him a similar tribute.
He was appointed principal of St Aidan’s, a co-educational school, in 1972 and spent 12 years at the helm before assuming a particularly daunting challenge, the top job in St Joseph’s, a boys school, where he was to spend a further 12 years before retirement in 1996.
His mission at St Aidan’s and St Joseph’s was to “encourage and build up the esteem of pupils who wrongly considered themselves as failures because they had not passed the 11 plus”.
One close observer from Enniskillen says of Gallagher: “St Joseph’s had been declining for years and needed someone to take it in hand and Bryan did that with great courage. The fruits of his efforts are still seen today.”
Gallagher is a firm believer in co-education, stressing that “girls are a refining influence on boys” and that a single sex male environment can contribute to “a culture of coarseness”.
Mr Gallagher was relieved by the banning of corporal punishment in 1987. “I must confess to you that one of my big regrets is that I slapped children, and sometimes I feel I should have gone back and apologised.”
When it was put to him it was part of the culture of the time and had been widespread in Irish and UK schools, he was having none of it. “It was the culture but I should have known better. Corporal punishment was a confession of failure. It meant that you weren’t able by your personality or your interest or concern to keep discipline.”
Bryan Gallagher has seen a massive change in the fortunes and authority of the Church in his lifetime and it worries him to see few if any of his past pupils at Mass in Enniskillen on a Sunday and to see how quickly he can take up the Sunday collection when he takes his turn to do so.
He has no doubt that the Church did itself untold self-inflicted damage by not “coming clean and owning up to the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. It all had to be dragged out of them”.
In Gallagher’s eyes, Fr Brian D’Arcy CP “can do no wrong because of the way he sent my brother Jim happy and contented on his way when he was dying and because of his down to earth and meaningful preaching”.
He is extremely critical of Fr D’Arcy’s clerical critics.
But despite the blows the Church has taken in recent decades, Gallagher sees real hope in the arrival of Pope Francis. “Francis is the best Pope since John XXIII and he has all the qualities one is looking for in a Pope.”
And if he had a word in his ear? “Oh, it would be, ‘Your Holiness, you are doing everything right. I hope you clip the wings of some of the big players in the curia’.”