By Joanne Fleming
COLM McAlarney has only one fear about his well deserved retirement — he may suddenly feel his age.
Being surrounded by children keeps you young he insists, and the St. Michael's Primary School pupils who have been under his wing over the past 40 years are clearly a source of pride and delight.
Having spent the vast majority of his teaching career in the tiny townland of Finnis — and the last 20 years as its principal — the stunning scenery in foothills of Slieve Croob is just one of the things he will miss.
It is the special family atmosphere attached to rural schools, and all the benefits that brings which is to be celebrated, he explained.
"I will miss the daily contact with all those I have loved over all these years," he said. "They are not just colleagues, they are friends.
"I have truly loved every minute and one of things I will really miss is the children.
"They have kept me young. It is their innocence, what they get excited about, their wonder and awe of the world that keeps you refreshed and young."
Colm's career began at St. Mark's Secondary School in Warrenpoint in 1970 where he was a P.E. teacher. Already a legend in Gaelic football, he became a household name with the nickname 'Arkle' after the great racehorse of the era. Starting his playing career in the 1960s, he became an All-Ireland champion and was the only footballer to have won the Railway Cup medals over three decades.
In 1973 he arrived at St. Finnis, where there was no P.E., and helped set up the very first small primary schools league in Down that was known simply as the Mid Down Primary School league.
And getting children involved in sport is something he is clearly still passionate about. "We live in a sedentary lifestyle with ipads and computers around so children aren't getting exercise in a natural way they once were," he said.
Leaving behind 63 pupils on his retirement, Colm, who worked as a teaching principal, says numbers at St. Finnis have always fluctuated. It would be "unimaginable" he says, to get rid of schools such as his in threatened government rationalisation plans.
"There are so many huge advantages to being in a small rural primary school," he said. "I certainly believe that the children enter a warm, friendly atmosphere. Our past pupils continue to be involved with the school and our parents are very supportive.
"I have been blessed with the good decent people of Dromara who have that special quality of common sense that can be rare nowadays," he said. "They have it in abundance. They have remained over these 40 years essentially the same."
This principal has seen many different government initiatives come and go over the years and has some advice to pass on before he leaves it all behind.
"You need to consult more with teachers," is his message for officialdom.
"We have had the inexorable rise of the acronyms. Once something is transformed into an acronym be afraid, be very afraid.
"There have been In CAS and CBAs...This generation of children are going to be tested to death. Good classroom teachers formally and informally know their children inside out."
He counts as some of the blessings of recent years the introduction of more support staff such as classroom assistants, ancillary staff, secretaries and kitchen staff.
"To think when I started here there was no secretary. We could not do without them all now," he said.
As the father of two now looks forward to spending more time with grandchildren, Colm said he kept in mind those attached to the school who had passed away, especially 10 past pupils who had died —<\!p>most recently Kevin O'Hare in the quarry tragedy at Annalong.
"In my retirement I will think of the children who never had the chance to become parents," he said.
Colm has extended thanks to everyone involved in making his last days so special, with performances and tributes from the children, a special mass at St. Michael's Church and a reception organised by staff, the parents association, school governors, the parish and Dromara Gaelic Football Club.
"I was overwhelmed by the reception I received," he said. "And it was certainly strange to close the doors for the last time at Michael's. There was a bit of disbelief.
"There is a bell I hear everyday here at 12pm, the Angelus bell. On that last day it seemed to be tolling in a different fashion, it seemed to be tolling in a different fashion for me."