Founding Head of NCPE, Prof Paul Robinson, Dies in Wales – Professor Mary O’Sullivan & Dr Joanne Moles

It is with great sadness we learned that Prof Paul Robinson passed away following a brief illness on December 30, 2017 in Wales.

The Physical Education and Sport Sciences department was established initially in 1972 as the National College of Physical Education (NCPE).  Paul was the Founding Head of the Department and served in that capacity for over 10 years.  Some of his colleagues during that time included Liam Dugdale (RIP), Tony Lanaway, Teresa Leahy, Joanne Moles, Ann Sweeney (RIP), Dave Weldrick and PJ Smyth (RIP).  Those staff who worked first in Tralee and then in Limerick were young pioneers managing in a new culture. Several served the Department and the Irish PE profession and Irish Sport with distinction for almost 40 years.

PJ Symth recently spoke of Paul’s influence on his own early career during an interview following PJ’s receipt of the PEAI 2016 Michael Darmody Award for his own contributions to the PE profession.  This was only months before PJ himself passed away. At that time PJ commented:  

A  number  of  individuals  at  Limerick  were  very influential  in  my career.  Paul  Robinson  was  Head  of  PE  at  The  National  College  of  Physical  Education  (NCPE) and  later  when  it  became  Thomond  College  of  Education.    Paul  saw  my  interest  in  motor  development  and motor  learning.    Paul,  himself  was  very  knowledgeable  in  these areas  and  encouraged  my  interest.  

Soon after Paul resigned from what was then Thomond College of Education, he replicated his work in Limerick but this time in the Far East.  Paul and his wife Jessica and their family went to Singapore and Paul became the Founding Principal of the College of Physical Education in Singapore.  Paul and his wife travelled back to Singapore in 2004 and again in 2009 as the invited guests of what is now the Physical Education and Sports Science (PESS) Academic Group at the National Institute of Education in Singapore.

In 2012, Paul and his wife returned to Limerick to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of UL and the contribution of NCPE and Thomond College of Education to that history.  The feature photo was taken from a reception that weekend. Paul (on the left) is seen here chatting with Tony Ward, a Thomond College graduate from the 1970s and Dr Ed Walsh, the Founding Head of the University of Limerick.

Paul was one of Professor Mary O’Sullivan’s lecturers.  She noted how she “loved his enthusiasm for Physical Education and I learned so much from him about dignity and respect for people, and the value of motor learning for Physical Education teachers.  He encouraged me on many occasions as an early career scholar. Paul was much respected by the early cohorts of students of NCPE and then Thomond College of Education graduates.

Joanne Moles, friend and colleague of Paul Robinson’s, took time to share some of her personal memories of him with PESS recently.

Paul Robinson 1The National College of Physical Education opened in a fairly haphazard way. The building in Limerick was not completed. The first meetings of staff took place in the Crescent Building in Limerick with some of the appointed staff in attendance and some still to arrive. The first important announcement was that we would be based in Tralee and would commute between Tralee, where the incoming first-year students would be billeted in the Brandon hotel, and Limerick where the students who had begun their course in St Mary’s College Twickenham would finish what they had started. The mix of staff and students reflected a range of experiences and backgrounds, informed by different cultures and embodying wildly varied expectations of a four-year Physical Education degree course.

Enthusiasm for the venture among the new staff was nurtured and given expression by Paul Robinson. Somehow students were given a fairly expansive programme and a range of practical activities which reflected Paul’s love of physical activity. He was an exceptionally talented performer whose gymnastics background allowed him to perform complex skills magnificently. He was perhaps the only Head of Department in Limerick who could perform on the gymnastics rings and who could go up flights of stairs walking on his hands!!  His Physical Education course in Loughborough followed a BSc in Bristol. His PhD from Michigan State University looked at proprioception. He was interested in the development of skilful performance and acknowledged the complexity of the process.

His insatiable curiosity meant that he involved himself in critical inquiry with his students and colleagues. His wife, Jessica, was always available to offer support and encouragement to the various projects and commitments. Jessica was a Froebel teacher whose child-centred thinking influenced Paul in his professional philosophy. Paul was strongly committed to the concept of ‘Physical Education for All’. His was not a soft approach. His Athletics warm-ups with PE students included more running than some of them had undertaken in a single session in their lives. He was always prepared to join in and provide a strong role model.  One Monday he told us how he had come across a weekend country Athletics meet and had taken off his jacket and competed in one or two events (he probably won!).

Paul’s love of children and his desire to involve them in meaningful activity was a strong influencing factor in the underpinning philosophy in NCPE. He was not driven by competitive success despite his immense talent. His love of movement and accepting challenges gave Paul daily pleasure.

His willingness to accommodate the aesthetic alongside the functional and not to make finite distinctions was sophisticated and required a special vision. One of Paul Robinson’s long-standing contributions to Irish Physical Education is the practice of students working in non-differentiated classes. When NCPE was set up, most of the students had attended single-sex schools and their involvement in Gymnastics, Dance and Swimming classes which included both men and women students was progressive. Paul was aware of the importance of educating students through expressive movement and encouraging participation in Dance and creative movement. He involved students in bio-mechanical analyses of movement and in examining physiological systems and their responses to movement. His enthusiasms ranged across the disciplines of physical education and sports sciences – a renaissance man!

Competing discourses within Physical Education were simultaneously accommodated at the time that Paul Robinson was in Limerick and each was given credibility and expression. Paul’s willingness to debate and listen to different perspectives was a big factor in developing an academic environment which encouraged and facilitated inquiry.  His background was in science, but his willingness to encourage an input reflecting the humanities into the Physical Education programme has benefitted graduates and their students for generations.

It is hard to believe that Paul Robinson’s energy ran out. He seemed to be indestructible. His contribution to Physical Education has been immense and his legacy will live on in Ireland and elsewhere.

We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Jessica, his children, Jason, Abigail, and Hannah, and all his family.  There will be a service of thanksgiving for Paul on Friday 16th February in St. Andrew’s Church, Presteigne Wales at 12 noon.

In photo: (from left) Prof Paul Robinson, Founding Head of the National College of Physical Education (NCPE) 1972, Tony Ward 2012 Alumni Award Recipient & Dr Ed Walsh, Founding President, University of Limerick.

_P Robinson

Dr Joanne Moles was one of the first lecturers of the PESS department (originally NCPE and later Thomond College of Education) from 1973 until her retirement.  She continues to lecture on the Graduate educational mentoring program in the School of Education.

Professor O’Sullivan joined the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences in 2005 and then served as Inaugural Dean of Education and Health Sciences (2008-2014). She established the PE PAYS Research Centre in 2005 and served as a Director for ten years. Mary’s current research interests are focussed on Teacher Education practices and policies with projects on Irish teacher accreditation, global issues in Physical Education teacher education, and student voice (preservice teachers) in Physical Education.  Contact Prof O’Sullivan by email  or view her profile on the  PESS webpage or on Researchgate


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