Thursday nights were sacred in my schoolboy calendar. I sat in the chemistry laboratory urging the clock to tick faster. The bell finally rang, and a group of us trooped off to the swimming pool for water polo training.
Tommy Kirk was our coach, devoting hours of his spare time to try to mould a mixed ability group of swimmers into a competitive water polo team. He sat on a wooden bench with his legs dangling as we entered one by one. I normally had my head down as I was fixated with an academic obstacle that awaited me later that night when I started my homework. He’d stop me everytime, and look me straight in the eye and ask how any equation or calculus could be more important than the task of beating St Mary’s College that night. I couldn’t disagree.
We loved Tommy for his relentless optimism. He genuinely believed we could win every match we entered in our deeply chlorinated pool, despite a painful results list that often left the headmaster unable to read out our full results due to embarrassment. We played matches against schools all over Belfast. Games took place over four often brutal quarters. Fights were common and at the end of each quarter, we would stagger back to the safety of the poolside like a dazed boxer where he gave us his own version of tough love, depending on the deficit we were facing. One bit of sage advice to a player was to hold the boy he was marking underwater until he couldn’t see the bubbles anymore. Mourinho inspired tactics they were not.
Water polo was and remains a minority sport at school. Tommy had devoted his life to the game, as a player, referee and administrator. Primarily, he wanted us to enjoy a game that had given him so much joy. It was a physically demanding game that required you to be an excellent swimmer, able to fight when necessary and capable of catching a slippery ball with one hand under pressure. Under his patience and devoted tutelage we improved, playing in tournaments in Amsterdam, Dublin and Barcelona.
When you are a schoolboy, anyone over the age of 25 appears ancient. We could never place Tommy’s age, but we suspected he must be retired primarily due to his snow white hair. Beyond coaching, he took an active interest in our lives and we used him as someone you could always rely on for a wise word in a world of foreboding adults and self imposed pressures.
Ten years had passed since I had left school, and I always wanted to say thank you for everything he had done for me. He gave me confidence and self belief that wasn’t there before, which went far beyond the game of water polo. I imagine I am not alone. We organised a game of old boys v the current school team in late October. We were so happy to see Tommy again and thank him for everything he did for us as schoolboys. It turns out that sadly that was the last game he coached. The years had caught up on us as we approached the wrong end of our twenties, swimming at pace didn’t seem so easy anymore. Conversely, while we had slowed up, Tommy hadn’t seemed to age at all, a part of our childhoods was frozen in that pool that day.
On behalf of the hundreds of boys who played water polo at Inst, I want to thank Tommy Kirk for everything he did for us, we will never see his like again. Rest in Peace.