Mr Hugh Killen

HUGH Brendan Killen passed away peacefully at home on October 6, 2020, after nine years with Alzheimer’s disease.

While Hugh’s decline was so hard to bear, he never lost the light in his eyes, his recognition of his family and close friends or his love of music and poetry.

His funeral during lockdown was a much quieter affair than was fitting for him and as such his family missed out on the opportunity to celebrate his life and hear the many stories about him from over the years.

This obituary is a chance to share his life and acknowledge the support his family gratefully received from Hugh’s friends, former colleagues and pupils. 

Hugh Brendan was born at home on the Dundrum Road at Ardilea to Mary (née O’Hanlon), from Dunavil, Kilkeel, and Michael Killen, from Dundrum. He was a treasured first-born son, a position he went on to enjoy throughout his life.  Hugh was a dedicated son and his mother was a huge part of his life until her death, when he had reached the age of 67.

They spent time in the garden, listening to music and talking about books, poetry and the politics of the day. He is fondly remembered as a kind, supportive and encouraging big brother by his two sisters, Marie Ennis and Bernadette Menagh (Belfast).

His father was a gardener at Corbett’s Estate, near Ballykinlar, and Mountpanther and Hugh inherited a love of gardening and nature. He was to spend many hours picking fruit, cutting hedges and enjoying walks in the countryside.

Hugh was educated in the Sacred Heart Primary School in Dundrum and St Patrick’s Grammar School, Downpatrick. He carried friendships through his life from these early days. He then progressed to Queen’s University and St Joseph’s Teacher Training College. His college days overlapped with some influential Northern Irish men like Seamus Heaney and Seamus Mallon.

Hugh started his first job in St Malachy’s High School (1959-1971), Castlewellan, where he taught History and English. Meanwhile on the field he was involved in the management of successful hurling and football teams, but perhaps Hugh will be best remembered for the impact he had on basketball coaching.

As a young teacher he was asked to introduce a new sport to the school and he decided on basketball. There began his wonderful life passion and dedication to a sport which he had never played himself.  It was a highly successful time for basketball teams from St Malachy’s, winning, East Down, county, Ulster and Ireland titles, and winning five consecutive titles at under age level. 

During his early years as a teacher his paths crossed with Una Mc Cartan, from Ballylough Road, Castlewellan, at a dance in Barnmeen and they were later married in St Malachy’s Church, Castlewellan, in 1965. Over the next few years their family grew with Siobhan, Brendan and Cora being born while they were living in Maghera.

In 1971 Hugh took up a new teaching post in St Patrick’s Grammar School and the family moved to Downpatrick. Bronagh and Orla were born in the ensuing years. Hugh really enjoyed his teaching years, and was hugely engaged with colleagues young and old, and especially enjoyed when his daughter Cora joined him on the staff at the Red High. 

Colleagues of Hugh’s recall him arriving to the Red High at a time when the PE department was in its infancy. Prior to his arrival,  students from St Malachy’s High School in Castlewellan joined the sixth form in the Red High for A-level studies. Players whom Hugh had coached like Leo Mc Grady, John Doran, ‘Corky’ Cunningham and Sean Cummins became the backbone of very successful teams, winning Ulster Schools’ basketball finals.

Hugh’s unique teaching style endeared him to his pupils. Often when passing his classroom, Hugh would be found sitting relaxed on top of a desk engaging with all in his great passion for English literature.  If Hugh was not teaching, then he was busy coaching a very enthusiastic and committed groups of players,  directing drills up and down the court.

There were many trips during the Seventies when Hugh drove the minibus to fixtures around the province, often venturing into west Belfast at the height of the Troubles. In successful years, supporters’ buses would head to the Queen’s PE centre for finals, usually involving the late Anthony Evans (RIP) and his special squad.

Hugh retired in 1999 from his position as Head of Social Studies. The stories of many memorable matches and the talented players were often recounted fondly over the ensuing years with friends and family.

Past pupils from both schools comment on his story-telling style teaching of history which made the subject especially enjoyable and memorable, and he was particularly passionate about World War II and the Northern Ireland Troubles, both of which he lived through. His love of poetry, and especially the work of Seamus Heaney and Shakespeare, shone through in English lessons, and he was well known for his speech writing and delivery.

Not surprisingly, Hugh brought his knowledge and vast coaching skills to St Patrick’s Grammar School and enjoyed much success here too, developing many basketball players to All Ireland level.

His past players describe how he created magic on the court and guided them to develop strong self-belief which stayed with them for life.

Another sentiment aired by some of his former players was that Hugh was instrumental in keeping them playing a sport during their teenage years at a time when tensions were high in Northern Ireland, and as adults now they reflect on how lucky they were to have discovered basketball and in particular, Mr Killen.  He has been described as leaving a big footprint, at a pivotal time in their lives and they are especially grateful for the time and energy he gave to each of them.

He is also fondly remembered for a particular outing where he drove the whole team to watch visiting USA teams playing in Dublin, all in his own time, and ped each pupil home to their door in the school bus after the long journey back.

Hugh was also involved in coaching Phoenix, a Downpatrick soccer team for which his son Brendan played.

Whilst Hugh was already hugely engaged in his teaching role and coaching role as one of the lead mentors in Ulster basketball, in his personal life his wife Una and their children were becoming known around the county and beyond for their musical talent.

Hugh was neither a musician nor a singer but he had a huge appreciation of music, from classical to country, to traditional Irish music.  Furthermore he was committed to developing song choices  and managing the contacts, concerts and venues that the Killen Family Group would play at. Over 10 years the family performed across Ireland, on television and radio, across Irish centres and venues in the UK and recorded a single.

Closer to home Hugh was a parishioner of St Patrick’s Church, Downpatrick, and often read at Mass.  In addition, he supported his wife Una to lead a young adults folk choir at St Patrick’s Church, St Colmcille’s Church and in later years an adult choir at St Malachy’s Church, Ballykilbeg.  Both Hugh and Una also had strong connections through music with the Passionists at Tobar Mhuire, Crossgar.

As a couple, Hugh and Una were great dancers and filled any spare time with dances or concerts.  In later years Hugh greatly enjoyed precious time with his 11 grandchildren, be it for a quiet chat, in front of a basketball hoop or simply showing them around the garden. 

In retirement Hugh was delighted to continue his journey with basketball, coaching the local Vikings basketball team, and coaching at small rural primary schools within South Down. He also loved travel and enjoyed visiting European countries and family and friends around the world. 

Hugh was devoted fully to his roles as husband and father, providing constant support, interest, encouragement and wisdom. We know we have been so fortunate to have had Hugh as our dad. 

Hugh Killen was a calm, kind, decent, uncomplicated and generous person who gave freely of his time. He was a true good Samaritan and showed kindness to many people throughout his lifetime.

For many he will be remembered for his dedication to and encouragement of a group of young boys, growing up throughout the Troubles, whom he taught or coached basketball to the highest levels. What outlive him are the values he instilled, the memories of those times and the friendships that remain to this day.