Some time ago, indeed quite a long time ago, I received a note asking me if a knew of an Athy man who was President of one of the constituent colleges of Oxford University. The writer of the note was uncertain as to his name and indeed had no knowledge of the college of which he was or had been President . The jigsaw was so incomplete that my initial attempts to identify the person were unsuccessful, so much so that I began to doubt the accuracy of my information and so put the matter aside. A further note this time with some more information prompted a letter to St. John’s College, Oxford and the reply received confirmed the name of a retired President of the College who indeed did have links with our town. William Hayes was his name and it turned out that the future President of St. John’s College, Oxford was born in Kilorglin, Co Kerry in 1930. Bill the son of Robert Hayes of Bandon County Cork and Eileen Tobin of Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick came to live in Athy in 1934 when his father, a member of the Garda Siochana transferred from Kilorglin. Robert Hayes was a garda sergeant who with his family lived in Athy for just over 10 years before transferring to Rathfarnham on promotion to the rank of Inspector. It would appear, although the copy records I have are not clear on this point, that my own father transferred from Castlecomer to replace Sergeant Hayes in Athy.
The Hayes family, after spending a short time in rented accommodation in the centre of Athy, at an address not yet identified, moved into No. 6 St. Michael’s Terrace. Bill Hayes first went to school in St. Joseph’s in Rathstewart where he remembers the legendary County Kerry Sister of Mercy, Sr. Brendan who must have put several generations of Athy boys through her classes. After three years in the care of the Sisters of Mercy, Bill with his class mates transferred to the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane.
When Bill Hayes wrote to me in response to my letter seeking some background information the details he gave of his youth in Athy mirrored in so many ways my own experiences a decade or more later. Here is what he had to write “during the war years I picked cans of blackberries and sold them to a local fruiterer for jam making. I was involved in getting the family turf in from the local bog for the Winter”. I too remember the work involved in saving the turf and bringing it in from Killart bog while the blackberry picking in my time was solely for jam making at home. The commercial instinct of the youngsters in the 1950’s was met by collecting and selling jam jars and bottles to “Chopsie” Dillon of Barrow Quay. He was also in the market for rabbits but neither Teddy Kelly or myself could ever master the skill required to snare the rabbits which populated the Coneyboro area.
About 1940 a boy scout troop was established in Athy and Bill Hayes joined the 5th Kildares under Scout Master Paddy Mullery of William Street. Sydney Minch was also involved with the Scouts and he encouraged the youngsters to take up boxing with the club which he had set up some time previously. Bill Hayes recalls the annual boxing tournament between the Athy Club and Sydney Minch’s old college Clongowes Wood, as well as the shows put on in the Town Hall where as he describes it “some of the local worthies had their legs pulled”.
Soon after achieving first place in the examination for a County Council Scholarship Bill Hayes left Athy and went to live in Dublin where he attended Synge Street Christian Brothers School. The difference in the educational levels of Synge Street compared to Athy school was in his own words similar to a transfer from the second division to the premier division. Synge Street was a much larger school than Athy with pupils streamed and taught by the very best teachers within the Irish Christian Brothers congregations. We may not have been always aware in the 1940’s and later, that the creme de la creme of the Christian Brothers were reserved for the showcase Christian Brothers schools in Dublin and Cork, but even if we were, we had to be grateful for those Brothers who were made available to us here in Athy. I suppose, in a way, there is a lot of credit due to the pupils from provincial Christian Brothers schools such as Athy who did well, and in so many cases, even better than their more privileged colleagues in the premier schools in Dublin and Cork.
Bill Hayes who at an early age signalled his academic excellence with first place in the County Council’s scholarship examination came first in Synge Street in his Leaving Certificate examinations and won the school’s Roche medal. He went on to U.C.D and after seven years of academic study and research obtained his doctorate in physics and took up a position in St. John’s College, Oxford as an overseas scholar. Later having obtained a second doctorate in physics from Oxford he became a Fellow of St. John’s and with it came accommodation in the college where he was now a Tutorial Fellow.
St. John’s College was founded in 1555 as a Roman Catholic foundation and was one of a large number of residential colleges many of which had monastic and episcopal connections. During the reign of Elizabeth I, St. John’s became an Anglican establishment and as part of a loose federation of Oxford Colleges primarily provided training in the classics for Anglican Clergymen. The University Act of 1854 reformed the University by allowing non-Anglicans to take an Oxford degree and freed college Fellows from the obligation to become priests of the Anglican Church. On his appointment as a Fellow, Bill Hayes became the first Roman Catholic Fellow in Oxford in almost four hundred years.
In 1985 the former Christian Brother pupil was appointed head of the Clarendon Laboratory and Professor within St. Johns College. Two years later he was elected President of the College, and remained until his retirement in 2001. In 1990 he was elected Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford a position he held until his retirement at the age of seventy years, all the time retaining his position as Senior Research Fellow of Clarendon Laboratory. Now in retirement he still retains his research space in the Laboratory as an honorary Fellow and continues to publish an occasional research paper. An external examiner in physics for a number of years in the Colleges of the National University of Ireland he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Science by the N.U.I in 1988. Bill or to give him his full name William Hayes has an entry in Who’s Who which gives a comprehensive and impressive list of his academic achievements over the years.
He married in 1962 Joan Ferris, whose brother Barry was Professor of the Medical Faculty of U.C.C. Sadly his wife died tragically in 1996 while his three children, whom he tells me visited Athy in their teens, live in Birmingham and London. Bill Hayes in his first short letter to me wrote of his fond memories of Athy and subsequently recalled two of his teachers as Pat Spillane and Brother Regan. The latter I believe to be Brother Zachary O’Regan.
Bill Hayes’ achievements are quite remarkable and despite the fact that he was not born in Athy the ten formative years he spent in our town would more than justify our claim to a shared interest in the man who rose to such prominence in the academic life of the great university city of Oxford. It is quite remarkable that our small town provided the early education for two young boys, one of whom, Bill Watts would become Provost of Trinity College and the other, Bill Hayes, President of St. John’s College, Oxford and Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford.