Roamer: Legendary teacher, headmaster and rugby coach remembered with bursary

Ernie Davies
Ernie Davies

“Education is an admirable thing,” mused Oscar Wilde in 1890, appending a characteristic quip “but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

The late, great Ernie Davis, former head teacher of the Belfast Boys Model School, was educated in the same school as Wilde - Portora Royal in Enniskillen - but Ernie wouldn’t have agreed wholeheartedly with Oscar’s analysis.

It was the importance of being educated - and playing good rugby - that fuelled every day of E.W. Davis’s 43-year tenure at the Boys Model.

For some months the school has been running a bursary in memory of its former headmaster who passed away in December 2008.

Many of the warm obituaries that followed his death included the word ‘legend’.

“Ernie was special not only for his teaching and leadership,” said Sir Nigel Hamilton, chairman of the Model’s board of governors, at the launch of the £3,000 bursary, “but as the coach of the First XV in 1971, when the Model became the first and only non-selective school to win the Schools Cup, with George Nelson as captain.”

Outlining the bursary, which will be awarded annually to three of the school’s university entrants, Sir Nigel explained “a group of former pupils, including myself, and encouraged and inspired by George, have been determined to do something in his memory.”

Described in an obituary as a “rugby hero and all-round gentleman”, the Fermanagh-born bachelor died doing what he loved most, watching his beloved C.I.Y.M.S (Church of Ireland Young Men’s Society) playing rugby.

“He was among friends,” wrote the obituarist “he himself would have regarded that as a fitting way to go.

Belfast Model, now on the Ballysillan Road, first opened in Divis Street in 1857, part of a ‘model’ system that encouraged students “of character and ability” to become teachers.

It was hoped that other schools would follow the example set by those in the ‘model’ system, and soon after it opened as the 13th in the system, the Model was soon highly regarded for its excellent provision of education.

Mr Davis enthusiastically adhered to that proud legacy from the moment he started off as a teacher in 1945, when the Model catered for students of primary age.

During his 43 years there, he was promoted to vice principal and later to headmaster, a post that he held until his retirement in 1988.

Davis’s strong reputation within the school was not just on account of his popular teaching style and leadership, but also because of his impressive skills as a rugby coach.

And he wasn’t only a coach - in his day he was an excellent player too, sometimes donning boots with the likes of the great Jack Kyle!

Off-pitch, and when the weather was Irish, he was easily recognised by his trademark white rain coat.

When he turned 80, hundreds gathered for a celebration dinner in his honour, where his coat was auctioned for charity and recordings of his much-loved recitations quickly sold out!

Aside from teaching, whether in the class room or on the rugby field, he was deeply involved in a number of charities.

Though he didn’t show it, he was proud that his birthday party aided the needy.

Roamer has also been told that he’d a great sense of humour, with a love for amusing pranks which he played on his companions and colleagues.

Once, by purposely misinforming a passenger on a train, his beleaguered fellow-traveller got off at the wrong station!

Hopefully some of Ernie’s former friends and acquaintances will post some notes, quotes and anecdotes to the News Letter which will be shared here in the near future.

In keeping with Ernie’s devotion to teaching, the criteria for the bursary in his memory, set by the Model’s Principal and senior management, includes adhering to the school’s core-values of respect, integrity and commitment, attaining the highest grades at A-Level.

Chair of the board and one of the former pupils involved in launching the bursary, Sir Nigel Hamilton said: “We are delighted to be able to offer this opportunity to three Model students in memory of a school legend who devoted over 40 years of his life to the Model. Ernie Davis was a giant of a man and thanks to this bursary his legacy will last more than a lifetime. We strongly feel that this is most definitely something Ernie himself would have supported and wanted for ‘his boys’.”

This is the first year of the bursary and there are hopes that over the coming years a wider range of awards will be available.

When the bursary was launched, Boys Model Principal Alan Logan said that every year past-pupils embarked on successful and rewarding careers in a wide range of professions.

“It is hugely significant to the school community,” Mr Logan added, “that former pupils who have enjoyed success in their chosen fields, and who feel a sense of gratitude to the school, should set up a bursary fund which will encourage and support young men who may be destined to follow in their footsteps.”

He explained that many promising students experience barriers to fulfilling their ambitions to take up university places and “these generous bursaries will make a real difference to the life-chances of many through the years ahead.”

A website has been set up for anyone who’d like to help fund the bursaries on www.boysmodelbursary.com