Laleye Dipo writes on the farewell party organised for a 96-year-old Irish clergyman, Jeremiah O’Connell, whose teaching career in Niger State spanned over 50 years
For 50 years Reverend Father Jeremiah O’Connell was the principal of Fatima Secondary School, St. Malachi’s Secondary School and later the Government Secondary School (GSS) Minna.
At first the schools were owned by the missionaries, justifying the appointment of Father O’Connell, as he was popularly called, as the head of the institutions. But even when the Niger State government, in 1976, took over all missionary schools and renamed them, Father O’Connell was still retained as the Principal of the new GSS Minna.
As a missionary, Father O’Connell did not compromise standards and discipline among staff and students. Despite the large number of staff and students in the school, he knew everyone by name and would recognise them even in the dark.
Father O’Connell took academic performance in GSS Minna to a very great height that it was difficult for any student that sat for public examinations in the school not to come out in flying colours. The academic standard attained by the school under his tutelage made the institution a first choice school for most parents in the state.
It was said that Father O’Connell would just not accept the list of Year One students sent to his school by the Ministry of Education. He was the first to start what is now nationally known as Post UTME. He would assemble all those sent to his school for Year One in a hall and present them with an examination which they have to pass to remain in the school. Those that failed these tests were returned to the ministry for reposting to other schools because they have not met the GSS Minna academic standards.
Interestingly the ministry never queried Father O’Connell for rejecting its lists. No other school principal in the state was known to have been given such a privilege.
As the School Head, the Irish clergyman would pick up the chalk and teach any class he found without a teacher during his daily inspection of the school. By so doing he was able to put all the teachers on their toes.
Godwin Achituabe, National President of Fatima Old Students Association, speaking on the proficiency of Father O’Connell declared, “he seemed to us to know every subject in the school curriculum. This was demonstrated by the fact that Father would enter any class without a teacher ask what subject period it was, pick up text book and teach the class in the absence of the subject teacher. For this reason teachers hardly left their classes unattended to. Father was indeed a Jack of all trades and master of all. Once admitted into Father’s school you are bound to graduate unless by natural causes the educational pursuit of the student was terminated.
Even in the days of payment of school fees, Father O’Connell would not only waive payment of fees for indigent students he would also create opportunities for such students to earn some pocket money to help themselves through vacation jobs.”
“Students of the GSS Minna when Father O’Connell held sway were beauties to behold, always immaculately dressed, you dare not put on one uniform on more than two occasions in a week. Representatives of the school for several years dominated the candidacy of Niger State at the national quiz and schools’ debates competitions justifying how sound the students were in moral, academic and extra curricula activities. They were also very outstanding in sporting activities, some even became national athletes.
“Father has produced more than 3000 university graduates, a large number of them now medical and academic doctors and professors,” an official of the Niger State Ministry of Education submitted.
Father O’Connell’s dedication to duty and contribution to the educational development of Niger State and Nigeria have not gone unnoticed because, as far back as 1974, he received the Principal of the Best Secondary School in the North Western state and the Best Principal in Niger State in 1999. In 1992 and 2008 he was honoured with the ‘Most Outstanding Performance and Productivity’ award by the Niger State government. Father O’Connell was given national recognition for his service to Nigeria and development of education in the country when former President Olusegun Obasanjo honoured him with the national honour of the Member of the Federal Republic (MFR).
First Class traditional ruler in the state and Emir of Minna Dr. Umar Farouq Bahago bestowed on Father O’Connell the traditional title of Jagaban Ilimi Minna (Shinning light of education in Minna).
He had arrived Nigeria in 1962 with Calabar being his first destination. This was just one year after his ordination into the Catholic Priesthood. After five years stay in Calabar and Ikot Ekpene, Father O’Connell was posted to Minna as a Supervisor of Schools owned by the Catholic Mission. For 55 years, the cleric was involved in the training of many Nigerian youths. As one of his old student said “he was education and education was part and parcel of him”.
At almost 89 years Father O’Connell did not plan to leave Nigeria until when a delegation from Ireland reportedly came to the country to force him to return to that country as a result of his old age. He was said to have reluctantly agreed and the process for his disengagement began with the Fatima Old Boys Association championing the cause.
The red carpet was rolled out and everybody that matters in the educational development of Niger State graced a farewell reception organised in his honour. Even those that could not attend sent strong delegations to show the high esteem to which they held the Irish clergyman. The 5000 capacity auditorium of the Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi International Conference Centre in the Niger State capital was packed full of old students, friends and associates of Father O’Connell. Some could not even get a seat in the hall and had to loiter outside the building. Present students of the college presented a drama in which they mimicked the life of Father O’Connell as a school principal and how he used to pick on stubborn students and teachers. Traders made brisk business selling portraits of the Irish clergyman and other educational materials.
Niger State’s Deputy Governor, Alhaji Mohammed Ahmed Ketso, who represented Governor Abubakar Sani Bello at the occasion advised up and coming Nigerians to “imbibe the selfless service, sacrifice, humility and dedication to duty of Reverend Father O’Connell.”
Ketso said “after 50 years of sacrifices and service he could not boast of a house and a car except the engineers, medical doctors, professors, and teachers that he has produced over the years.”
A leading Islamic Scholar, Sheikh Ahmed Lemu, in his testimony, described Father O’Connell as a religious leader who never allowed his Christian background to affect his relationship with members of other faiths.
Sheikh Lemu spearheaded the call on the Niger State government to rename the Reverend Father O’Connell Secondary School to Father O’Connell Grammar School, a suggestion that was promptly accepted and implemented by the Niger State government.
A former Registrar of the Federal University of Technology, Minna, Alhaji Yussuf Datti described the Irish clergyman as “the Iroko of education in Niger State.”
“We have come here in large numbers as distinguished guests, friends and colleagues, lovers of education or as ex-students to honour and bid farewell to our Iroko tree, who has given his all for the benefit of Nigerlites, Nigerians and humanity at large,” he said. “In all walks of life locally, nationally and internationally you will find the fruits of the tree nurtured by Father O’Connell. In all of this, I have personally taken to heart the motto of our school-Integrity. Why do we care so much about things that really don’t matter?
“This is Father O’Connell leaving for home just as he came: no personal house, no car, no property or huge bank accounts and none of all those things that lure persons to corruption.”
National President of the Fatima Old Students Association, Mr. Godwin Achituabe, in his tribute declared that “we shall miss a father indeed who, although without a biological child, was a father in the real sense of the word. We shall miss a lover of the underprivileged who never allowed pecuniary challenges to truncate the education of the indigent; we shall miss the founder of the Father O’Connell Educational Foundation, established to provide indigent students with scholarship to pursue their higher education.”
To show the sincerity of the Niger State Government to the Reverend O’Connell project, the administration of Governor Bello has completed arrangement for a three man delegation to accompany the Irish clergyman to his native land, Ireland.
The question on the lips of several lovers of education in the state is “can we have another Father O’Connell in Niger State and Nigeria?”