Peter Sutherland’s reflections on his education at Gonzaga College


I never liked IQ tests and this aversion probably started when I did one to get into Gonzaga. I never understood the result. However, apparently I passed and moved into an environment that certainly greatly influenced my life in many ways. I hope that there was no mistake in attribution that resulted in a deserving boy being declined. I suspect however that there was.

In 1954 Gonzaga was a very intimate place. The relationship with teachers was close and continuing in a way that I imagine is not found in larger schools. The ethos was created by Jesuits such as the O’Connor Don, Wally White, Joe Kelly, Frankie Kavanagh, Joe Veale, Stephen Redmond and Joe Hutchinson but its distinction I now think was founded more on the traditions of the Order itself than merely on the great merits of the individuals themselves. More great Jesuits were to follow. Later I have met alumni of various Jesuit schools from different parts of the world. It is clear that there is a shared heritage that has a meaning that is itself a profound expression of the value of our education and the identifiable common elements in our experience.

I have been sitting for a long time on a September morning reflecting on what the essence of that heritage actually is. Jesuits after all are not in the least homogenized by their long novitiate. As individuals they remain very different but they share, of course, a common vocation and a remarkable education and training. We were the beneficiaries of their remarkable learning and wisdom. What they shared with us – obviously combined a belief in God and in His Church and in its values but that of course could be said of Catholic education generally. They also gave us a liberal education. Liberalism may have been in the 19th century the great besetting evil for the Church but many of its dispositions, though of course not all, were core and differentiating elements of the Gonzaga ethos and I believe the Jesuit ethos more generally. We were thought to think for ourselves and to question independently the great issues of life and our time. There was something more: the Church was not presented as an authoritarian church. This does not in any way imply an acceptance of relativism but simply the self confidence to be open to others and tolerant of their opinions. Our reading included some who were more radical in their views than Rome might fully approve. But apart from religion our required reading lists were eclectic and often stretching for our years as was the teaching more generally. If there was a lacuna in our education it was shared by virtually all Irish schools in the areas of economics and business related subjects (even though this is belied by some illustrious products of the school such as Brendan Walsh).

No doubt we might have made much more of our time at school but all of us benefited through the awakening of an intellectual curiosity stimulated particularly by Joe Veale and, for a short time, by Austin McCurtain. This was combined with a certain sense of obligation to make the most of one’s talents however meagre they were. I believe now that the service given by the Order to education has been more than justified. Whilst the remarkable talents and knowledge of those men who taught us might have seemed, even to some of them, better applied by activities other than teaching in a secondary school, the results of their efforts was a multiplier that has greatly influenced not just our society but many others throughout the world. I continue to believe their teachings to be vitally important for the society in which they lived.

During the summer holidays in my penultimate year a number of us were sent to Clongowes for what was described as a ‘Leadership Course’. I mention this because it provides an overt demonstration of what the Jesuit teaching at the time sought to achieve in its schools. The message was that the benefit of our education brought with it a price. We were expected to lead in society if we could and to do so in the right direction. Today no doubt the expression of this aspiration would be described as evidence of an inherent elitism. However, I suspect rightly or wrongly it embedded in many a desire to succeed and to make some difference. Whether this desire was motivated in the end of the day by personal ambition or, as the Jesuits wished, a sense of obligation of a different kind, I am sure varied fro person to person. But it was made clear to all of us in one way or another that the Gonzaga education in particular with its absence from State examinations was to be the precursor to university and to greater contributions beyond. This straitjacket did not suit of course everybody.

The distinctiveness of Gonzaga’s education was exemplified by the fact that we did the Matriculation in 5th year and then spent an extra year continuing in a relaxed vein with a mix of study and discussion. We played at being intellectuals and indeed some probably were by that stage.

All of this seems somewhat rarified and perhaps it was for some. But it was mixed with sport. Our teams were poor but some of us were consumed even by our limited ambitions on the rugby field where Jesuits like Kevin Laheen drove us on. Debating too was a central activity in the school. Maybe it led many of us to a career at the Bar.

I was certainly no paragon of virtue at school. Indeed I am sure many of my teachers are turning in their graves with shock at what became of me but however unlikely my career it was in significant measure influenced by them and some, such as Joe Veale and Joe Kelly remained close and influential in my life until they died.

The leitmotif of my life has been public service. I suppose that this was driven by motivations that were both good and bad. I ran for election and lost in 1973 and later was Attorney General in two governments before going on to international positions n the European Commission and the GATT/WTO. Even when I left the WTO for family reasons I felt a nagging doubt about whether it was right to do so and ever since – I have subconsciously searched for some other activity in this space. I was asked by Kofi Annan to become UN High Commissioner for Refugees and said yes but was told that I had two weeks to an announcement and could not do it in this time. A consolation prize later was to be appointed Special Representative for Migration a position I still hold. Undoubtedly my other business activities have played a role in my life but the invisible hand of the Jesuits has always pointed in another direction.

Those who shared this experience with me remain friends today. We were moulded in the same forge and share so much that we remain compatible in a unique way. Perhaps it is an excess of nostalgia to see those days through rose tinted spectacles but that is the way it is.

This article first appeared as a contribution to a book celebrating the 60th anniversary of Gonzaga College