Newry School Has A Tradition Of Excellence

WHAT a contrast between the ultra-modern Our Lady’s Grammar School at Chequer Hill in Newry, and the scene in 1887, when nine young girls began their secondary education in a room at the Convent of Mercy in Canal Street.

Speaking a century later, the principal, Sister Perpetua McArdle stated: “Over the years, Our Lady’s has met the challenge with fresh vision and commitment. It has maintained a reputation for high academic achievement, and is renowned for its formation of students, who can go confidently and competently into the world.”

Indeed, that record remains at a proud level as, in 2002, Our Lady’s was a top-ranked school in Northern Ireland, according to a Sunday Times survey. And, the next year, even a higher ratio of girls had achieved the highest grades at GCSE and A levels, while 82 per cent of the students have achieved at least 3 A’s.

Our Lady’s pupils have also excelled at a wide range of sports, including gymnastics, camogie, netball, swimming, golf and athletics, receiving Newry and Mourne Sports Personality Awards. They are also deeply involved in music, classic dance and drama. But more about all those successes later!

The story of this historic school began in the late 1880’s, when Bishop Thomas McGivern consulted with Mother Emmanuel Russell from the Sisters of Mercy, about the need for a school of higher education for Catholic girls in the Newry area. Mother Emmanuel was a sister of Newry-born Lord Charles Russell, the first Catholic Lord Chief Justice of England. He dedicated the convent chapel to her memory.

At that time, the Sisters were already involved in running national schools at Newry, Warrenpoint and Newry; an orphanage at Canal Street and a Home for the Elderly in Kilmorey Street. A sewing school and a laundry were giving employment to many women and girls. And a night-school was compensating local girls, working in the mills, for the loss of normal day-schooling.

So a new project was launched, as just nine girls began lessons, conducted in a room at the convent. When the numbers increased, it was decided in 1894 to build a permanent school at Canal Street, to be known as Our Lady’s. Another milestone came in 1918, when seven girls became the first boarders at Ogle’s large house in Canal Street, once a stagecoach inn on the main route between Belfast and Dublin.

The building was converted into a convent, when the nuns arrived at the frontier town in 1855, while awaiting the construction of a convent at Catherine Street. Closure of the boarding school in 1971, due to better transport facilities and scarcity of space, led to the dormitories being converted into classrooms and a library for the ever-increasing school population.

But the Canal Street structure, along with several mobile classrooms, still constituted Our Lady’s Grammar School until 1992, when it became the relocated Cloghogue primary school. In 1981, the Minister of Education, Brian Mawhinney, had visited the school and announced approval as well as funding for a new grammar school. And so began the Chequer Hill project.

The new multi-story complex accommodates about 850 students, drawn from 50 primary schools in South Armagh and South Down. Two blocks are connected by a central courtyard, and contain over 20 classrooms, laboratories, lecture theatre, and computer suites, as well as Home Economics, Art and Design. The sports block consists of an assembly hall, sports hall, dressing and changing rooms, kitchen and dining facilities.

Officially opening the new grammar school in 1992, Bishop Brooks stated: “The building of a school as large as this one, with all its necessary facilities, is a very costly project. The Sisters of Mercy had the support of an enthusiastic past pupils fund-raising committee, which has raised 15 per cent of the cost. The balance has been paid by the Department of Education.” He reported that the oldest past pupil, 102-year-old Mrs Mary Morrow, was being buried that day.

To mark the centenary of Our Lady’s Grammar School, various past pupils and teachers had related their memories of the building at Catherine Street in a publication, edited by Mrs Teresa McAllister. Former principal, Sister De Sales Durkin wrote: “Each school morning, more than 700 girls arrived for class, some by Ulsterbus, others on foot or by car. They weaved a navy-and-blue skein into the complex pattern of Newry school uniforms.

“The bell for assembly, strident and commanding, silenced the laughter and the chatter. The discipline of another school day had descended. A tradition of 100 years had forged another link,” she added.

Past pupil, Dr Una McClafferty commented: “Since retirement. I have often thought of people, events and incidents connected with Our Lady’s. Perhaps a class of youngsters, pink-and-white young buds, bright and brimful of energy; the `O` Level girls, hard-working or otherwise; and the studious, `A` Level class, sometimes serious, often fun-loving, ambitious young ladies. I feel proud of them all.

“I contemplate the miracle that has matured those children of yesteryear into grown-up and vibrant members of society. Some were more fortunate than others, made the most of their opportunities and talents, and attained their full potential. And I think of the mellifluous choirs and orchestras; May processions in the lovely garden; sports day with camogie, tennis, netball and netball matches.”

Dr McClafferty also recalled the elevation of Monsignor John Magee as Bishop of Cloyne, performed by Pope John Paul at St Peter’s in Rome. She was “reminded of the preparatory school for girls and boys, upstairs in Our Lady’s. There I taught Irish to some boys, who became doctors and specialists, one becoming Bishop of Cloyne, after being secretary to three pontiffs.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008