2019 marked the Diamond Jubilee of St Mary’s which over a period of sixth years has been referred to as St Mary’s Secondary Intermediate School, St Mary’s High School or as it is quite simply known today as St Mary’s, Limavady. The school began life under the 1947 Education Act (Northern Ireland) when a number of second level, non-selective schools were established. St Mary’s became in 1959 a Catholic Maintained school with representatives of the Londonderry Education Committee on its management committee a ‘four and two committee’ as it was known then. Funding was initially 65% and rose eventually to 80%. St Mary’s like other post-primary schools now receives 100% funding to meet all maintenance and management costs.
After many fund raising events in the mid-fifties led principally by Fr William Campbell, who was then curate in the Limavady parish, the school was built on the present site. The Clerk of Works on the project when the school was under construction was Mr Jim Loughrey. The land on which the school was built was provided by the sisters of Notre Dame who had a community house on Irish Green Street. The overall cost of the building on a site of “five acres and two roods” was £105,563. Mr Patrick White of Derry was appointed as the first Principal and Mr Patrick McLaughlin was the first Vice-Principal.
When the school was first opened on the 1st September 1959, Mr White was faced with builders’ materials, unfinished work and a scene which in today’s world would not comply with health and safety standards. To the pupils’ delight the school had to be closed for two weeks until the building was ready and safe for occupation. Initially it consisted of eighteen classrooms and an Assembly Hall. 407 boys and girls started the school year on 14th September to begin their secondary school education. The teaching staff of twelve which included two sisters of Our Lady of the Missions (Sister Cecilia and Sister Mary Joseph) set about delivering a sound curriculum for the young people of the Limavady, Faughanvale and Magilligan parishes. Like now the school had a set of core aims. Mr White, guided by the school’s trustees at that time saw the purpose of the school as imparting in a Christian context “a broad and liberal education”.
In a very short time the enrolment figure grew to just over 500 pupils. Two years after it opened a general inspection was carried out and it was evident from the inspectors’ report that the existing accommodation just two years after the school had first opened was inadequate. There was an emphasis on technical and commercial subjects alongside the more traditional elements of the curriculum. The report which was very positive reflected the enthusiasm of the staff at that time and referred to their “industrious and conscientious nature”. It welcomed the fact that the staff there seemed to possess “a good blend of youth and experience”. The Inspectorate referred to the pupils as making “a favourable impression”. A few recommendations were made. It was considered important that the library should contain more than 520 books and that the school should extend its resources by “building up a library of suitable film-strips”! It proposed that “home-crafts and embroidery” should be introduced and that if the full benefit of lessons in Physical Education were to be realised that “a record-player and suitable records” be made available for dance! Then as now the school was judged not only on pupils’ achievements but on the general atmosphere of the school. In summary the report stated:“the school is one of quiet and purposeful industry; and the orderly behaviour of the children reflects the good standard of tone and discipline”.
Mr White retired in 1966 on the 31st December and he was replaced by Mr Peter McGirr who introduced many significant changes to the school both in terms of physical resources, curriculum and staffing. Throughout Mr McGirr’s time as Principal the school would grow to just over 1,000 pupils in the mid-eighties and a much needed extension including a Sports Hall was built in 1975. Committed as Mr McGirr was to non-selective education he led the school with great energy and vision. He challenged the status quo in terms of the selection arrangements which continue to prevail. He set about successfully introducing “O” and “A” levels. Results were excellent and the reputation and status of the school grew throughout the community. He was supported in his endeavours at that point by Mrs Susan Hunt and Mr Michael Crilly as the Vice-Principals along with 66 teachers. Their dedication and direction extended so many young people who excelled academically, in sport, debating, science competitions, drama and music throughout the seventies and eighties. Fr McGarvey as Parish Priest was replaced by Fr Philip Donnelly who also became Chairman of the Board of Governors. Throughout his time in Limavady he readily engaged with Mr McGirr and the staff taking a very active and generous interest in all the achievements of the school. His personal understanding of the education system as a former Principal of St Patrick’s College, Maghera provided impetus to the changing status and aspiration of St Mary’s as a non-selective school.
The school however was to face a major challenge in 1985 when the Department of Education intervened and ruled that the school should no longer deliver subjects at ‘A’ level. In their view it made poor economic sense to have smaller classes at ‘A’ level when those subjects could be delivered in a Grammar school. Despite representation from the Trustees, Governors, parents and of course Mr McGirr as Principal and Fr Donnelly the Department of Education enforced their decision.
Mr McGirr’s ambition to create a high achieving, all ability, Catholic Maintained School in the Limavady area was shattered. Pupil numbers dropped for the first time in twenty years and there was a huge challenge in terms of sustaining staff morale and delivering the desired future for the school. However the young people of Limavady and the surrounding parishes continued to avail of a good education and in due course the GCSE examination structure as we know it today was introduced. Apart from this dramatic and disappointing interlude in the school’s history in the eighties the other memorable event was in March 1980 when due to serious contamination, discovered in egg croquettes served up in the school canteen, half the school came down with food poisoning. Members of staff were bed ridden for days and Ulsterbus had a difficult job on their hands trying to transport many of the sick pupils home. In 1984 the school marked its Silver Jubilee and Mass was celebrated on that occasion by Bishop Edward Daly.
Mr McGirr remained determined to provide the best possible resources for the school. In the late eighties land was purchased by the Trustees to provide additional facilities for Physical Education. New playing fields and a pavilion were created on Greystone Road, some distance from the main school building. These facilities contributed to the success of many teams which excelled at regional and national level particularly in Gaelic Football.
In 1990 the Department of Education approved a much needed programme of refurbishment. An extension was needed to address the vast number of temporary classrooms at the rear of the school. Building work commenced shortly afterwards with additional classrooms provided, a new library, music suite, lecture theatre, oratory and improved space for the delivery of craft, design and technology. After twenty six years of dedicated service and increasing ill health Mr McGirr retired in 1992. He was replaced by Mr Sean Bradley, a native of Maghera who at that stage had spent almost nineteen years in the school as a Science teacher. Familiar as he was with the staff, the pupils, their parents and the community he continued to lead the school with good guidance, judgement and clear vision. His involvement with curriculum and timetabling within the school over several years left him well placed to address the constant change which continued throughout the nineties and right up to the present day. Mr Bradley as Acting Principal and later Principal attended to the building programme which was completed and opened in 1993. He was supported in his role as Principal by Mrs Barbara Downey, Mr Sean Colgan, Mrs Mary McCloskey and Mrs Celine McKenna.
The beginning of the demographic downturn started to become apparent in the mid nineties and staffing reductions were necessary. Thankfully most of these were taken on a voluntary basis and the careers of several members of long standing and dedicated teachers drew to a close. In 1995 Fr Donnelly moved to the Foreglen Parish and he was replaced by Fr Michael Collins as Parish Priest. For the last fourteen years Father Collins has been Vice-Chair of the Board of Governors and as the Senior Trustee he has assisted with the smooth running of the school providing good counsel and a generous commitment of both time and finance to support the needs of the school.
In 2001 Mr Bradley was seconded to work in another area of education and was later in 2002 appointed as the Principal of a new bi-lateral school in Strabane, Holy Cross College. During that time Mrs Celine McKenna, the current Vice Principal was appointed in an acting capacity to run the school alongside Mr Thomas McIvor as a newly appointed Vice-Principal. Mrs McKenna was appointed as Principal on a permanent basis in 2003. Under her leadership the school continues to flourish and staff, parents, trustees and governors provide the necessary support. In 2004 a new wing was added to the school providing six additional classrooms with additional work undertaken to provide disabled access. Further work will be carried out this academic year in the Sports Hall and the Design and Technology Department will undergo considerable refurbishment. The school environment as it stands today provides ample evidence that pupils enjoy a first class learning environment in St Mary’s.
The present Chairperson of the Board of Governors is Ms Helen McNicholl, who along with several other members of the existing Board have provided guidance and direction over many years. Parents provide a vast reservoir of support both with interest, engagement and gratitude.
In 2011, after many years of dedicated service Mrs Celine McKenna retired and was replaced by the then Vice Principal Mrs Mary McCloskey, a well known figure in Limavady Parish who led the school within energy and enthusiasm. During this time the school continued to go from strength to strength with increasing students outcome seen.
In 2017 with over thirty years of service to St. Mary’s and the local community Mrs Mary McCloskey retired. Mrs Rita Moore the then Vice Principal was appointed as her replacement and former pupil Mr Sean Mullan, a native of Magilligan, was appointed as the new Vice Principal.
A school’s life and ethos is determined not only by its mission and values but also by the people who work there on a daily basis. The non-teaching staff in St Mary’s have always played a very significant role in the service provided. St Mary’s has been fortunate over the decades to have employed people in the administrative, technical, cleaning, catering and support service who have responded in a totally selfless and unstinting manner. To have delivered that service for almost six decades, developing an incomparable insight into the development and progress of the school is an outstanding achievement. We recognise that special contribution in Mrs Anne McCorriston who is the longest serving member of staff. The school is blessed also in having the outstanding technical and creative skills of Mr Barney Harrigan who has performed his duties as technician in the Design and Technology Department for over forty years. The loyalty and generosity of individuals such as these enriches the school on a daily basis.
Community tensions were often low level and with the emergence of a new and more promising future for the young people of Limavady in recent years there is a growing sense of mutual understanding and solidarity developing between the schools across all sectors. An obvious example of this is the Roe Valley Learning Community which was established in 2002. It involves the other post primary schools in the area, Limavady Grammar, Limavady High School, St Patrick’s College Dungiven and Rossmar Special School along with the Limavady Campus of the North West Regional College. The Partnership is often referred to as one of the most successful and one of the first to practise effective co-operation and collaboration.
This has been taken a step further with the announcement On 9 May 2013, by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister making a statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly on the ‘Together: Building a United Community’ strategy, which contained a range of proposals including details on Shared Education Campuses. Limavady, Ballycastle and Omagh would be the first of these. The Limavady Shared Education Campus will be first of its kind and will see the continued history of sharing between St. Mary’s and Limavady High School.
In celebrating its Diamond Jubilee this year the school has much to be proud of. The hundreds and thousands of young people who have passed through the corridors of St Mary’s have built and created successful careers for themselves. Very significant numbers have progressed into Higher Education. Many members of the current teaching staff are past pupils. Many have become highly successful entrepreneurs both locally and further afield and many have dedicated themselves to helping others. Their sense of mission and values was enriched and developed within St Mary’s. The spirit of the school dictated largely by its strong Catholic ethos has nurtured a concern for others, a respect and vitality for life and the joy of success.
Pupils both past and present form a strong attachment to the school and that can only be attributed to the relationships they have formed with their teachers; their patience, concern and professional commitment is so often acknowledged by pupils, past and present.
In six decades St Mary’s has responded confidently and enthusiastically to change. Good teachers will continue to be the school’s greatest asset and pupils will hopefully be the beneficiaries of a lasting and influential education. Approval granted by the Ministry of Education in 1953 was just the start of it. The vision, energy and drive which contributed to the success of all those guest teas, carnivals, beauty contests, boxing matches organised by the memorable Father “Willie” Campbell to raise the much needed funding to build St Mary’s must never be forgotten. That legacy is one the school will continue to cherish and accept with grace and responsibility. St Mary’s is fortunate to have the continued good will and support of so many parishioners from that time whose grand-children now will be part of the educational progress in St Mary’s in the next half century.