Foster, Alexander Roulston ('Alec') (1890–1972), rugby international, schoolmaster and political activist, was born on 22 June 1890 in Derry city, the younger son among two sons and four daughters of John Foster and his wife Christina ('Chrissie') (née Roulston(e)). John Foster was employed for forty-four years by Londonderry board of guardians; his sympathy for those living in poverty with whom he worked is evident from his unconventional outburst at a meeting of the board reported in the Derry Journal of 17 May 1926: '“My God!”, exclaimed Mr John Foster, relieving officer, “five shillings a week for a family of seven! How do you expect them to live on that?”' John Foster's elder son, Samuel Russell Foster (b. 1888), became a doctor and served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the first world war; he was awarded the military cross and bar for bravery.
After attending Foyle College in Derry, Alec Foster entered Queen's College, Belfast, in 1908 with the top foundation scholarship in classics. He graduated from Queen's University, as it was then known, with first-class honours in classics. He sat the examinations for the Indian Civil Service, and was offered a place, but rejected it, and instead became a teacher, first in his old school, and then in Glasgow High School until 1921, after which he returned to Belfast to teach in the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (RBAI). It is possible that Foster's love of rugby was a factor in his decision not to become a colonial civil servant. He played for Blackheath, North of Ireland, Instonians and Glasgow High School Former Pupils, and was captain of Foyle College's first XV, City of Derry and the Queen's University side (1908–12); he also captained Ulster ten times. In 1910 he won the first of seventeen caps for Ireland; over eleven years, until 1921, he was an outstanding centre three-quarter, and scored four international tries. His long international rugby career spanned the first world war, and he was captain of the team that won the international championship in 1912, and captain again in 1914. At the very start of his international career, in 1910, when he had only just turned 20, he was a member of a Great Britain team that toured South Africa, and scored a try on his debut.
His interest in sport was lifelong: he was a selector for the Irish rugby team (1922–5) and president of the Ulster branch of the IRFU (1925–6). He also played cricket and competed successfully in rowing and swimming. His sporting prowess was clearly a factor in his appointment in June 1923 to the post of headmaster in Belfast Royal Academy (BRA); the strength of his physique, personality and academic attainments likewise impressed the school governors and later the school community. His achievement in twenty years at BRA was considerable, as was his influence on hundreds of pupils, including Jack Kyle (qv) and Douglas Gageby (qv).
The school had educated boys and girls separately; as soon as he was appointed, Foster announced that he wanted to bring in full co-education. The wording of the pronouncement can be seen as typical of the man and of his convictions; to retain such segregation, which he believed was no longer justified by educational theory, was 'to sin against the light'. Within a few months of taking up his post, the new headmaster had central heating installed, altered the gymnasium to provide more classrooms and the school's first science laboratory, re-established a school magazine, instituted an annual sports day and set up a troop of boy scouts and a company of girl guides. He also introduced a new school uniform, a prefect system, and promotion opportunities for teachers within subject areas. Enrolment increased rapidly, in line with the school's heightened reputation. Foster's enthusiasm revitalised rugby in the school; he personally tramped round much of north Belfast seeking suitable locations for new and much needed sports grounds. These were opened in 1935; years afterwards, in 1969, a rugby pavilion was named in Foster's honour.
Foster's energy and drive, which led to such dramatic results in BRA, were perhaps indicative of positive aspects of the bipolar condition from which he increasingly suffered, while the long delay before the school honoured him perhaps hints at the troubles that led to his resignation in 1942. In 1927 he argued strongly for building expansion to deal with larger enrolments, but the board, dominated by Robert Mitchell Henry (qv), overturned his recommendations. Although Foster had been Henry's star student in classics at Queen's, the two men frequently disagreed, notably over co-education, of which Henry was a bitter opponent. Foster had a breakdown in 1927, the first of several episodes that required months of absences from his role, and in 1934, probably because of his mental state, he complained inappropriately to the board about the performance of several named teachers. The staff responded with written complaints about the headmaster; a settlement and apologies were finally required and accepted, but relations were never again cordial in the staff room.
Foster's condition was not helped by the stress of the tensions in the school, and further stress resulted from controversies caused by his radical political and social views. His family and some of his friends were still influenced by the liberal traditions of Ulster presbyterianism, and his support for nationalist and even republican ideals was always going to cause him problems in a city dominated by unionist politics. He supported the activities of the National Council for Civil Liberties, and especially its 1936 report on the repressive legislation enacted in Northern Ireland by the Stormont government. Foster's forthright criticisms of Stormont's educational policies in articles in the Belfast Telegraph in autumn 1941 annoyed the authorities, the governors of the school, and probably even some of his friends; his ambition to open BRA to more children from disadvantaged backgrounds was also potentially divisive. A serious bout of depression in December 1941, and the realisation that he was no longer supported by the board, led to his resignation as headmaster in August 1942, though he continued to teach in the school throughout the second world war.
After the end of the war, following his second marriage, the family moved to a farm in Co. Wicklow. They returned to Belfast in the 1950s, and Foster taught in RBAI. His involvement with the republican Wolfe Tone Society continued for many years from 1963 when it was founded; he chaired a meeting of the society in Maghera, Co. Londonderry, in August 1966, which contributed to the impetus for the founding of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association early the next year. He was involved with the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement from its foundation in Dublin in 1964. In 1970, during the protests against the rugby tour of the South African Springboks, Foster as a former international player was a leading figure, and at the age of 80, with his son-in-law Conor Cruise O'Brien (qv), Patrick Lynch (qv) (1917–2001) and Bernadette Devlin, marched at the head of about 8,000 protesters to the rugby grounds at Lansdowne Road.
Foster regularly wrote articles in newspapers, as well as many letters to editors, about his rugby career, contemporary issues in the governance of the sport, and his political views, and also delivered talks on the radio. He was noted as a collector of traditional songs and of local stories, and as a fine singer. He made a radio programme on Ulster ballads for the BBC shortly before his death.
He married twice, first on 29 June 1914 in Belfast, to Annie Lynd, daughter of Robert Wilson Lynd (qv); her sister Catherine married William Lowry (qv) and was mother of Robert Lynd Erskine Lowry, Baron Lowry (qv). The Lynds were related to the Rentouls, a dynasty of distinguished presbyterian ministers and scholars. Annie Foster died 4 December 1945, leaving one daughter, Christine, whose first husband was Conor Cruise O'Brien. Alexander Foster's much younger second wife, Elizabeth (Betty) Guidera, was a catholic. They married in the autumn of 1946 in Dublin; he had converted to catholicism. They had two sons and a daughter.
Foster spent his last few months in Co. Kerry, and died on 24 August 1972, in Bantry, Co. Cork. An essay competition for schoolchildren was established in his honour by the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement.