Dominican College, Portstewart 1917 – 2006
The School on the Cliff
In 1917 Portstewart had a growing population of over 1600, yet there existed no provision for the education of Catholic children apart from the local Catholic primary school.
It had been customary for the Sisters from Falls Road Dominican Community to visit and holiday in Portstewart during the summer months to escape the trials and tribulations of life in the city. The Dominicans, since their foundation in the 12th century, had been committed to preaching and teaching. The Sisters, true to their calling, acknowledged the need to set up a school and this was welcomed enthusiastically by the local priest Fr. Rafferty.
A site was needed and ‘O’Hara’s Castle’, which had been built in 1834, became available. The grounds were formerly part of the Flowerfield Estate. The castle passed to the Cromies and then the Montagus who sold it to the Dominican Sisters in the spring of 1917. It was fitting that such a site, with its commanding position a hundred feet above sea level, should serve as the Dominican Centre for education in the northwest part of Ireland.
The first Mass was celebrated by a Vincentian Father on the 24th June 1917, and on the 3rd September that year the school opened with sixteen boarders and five day pupils. While the foundation of the community in Portstewart offered hope for the future, many real and practical difficulties had yet to be overcome, and many hardships lay ahead for the Order.
The partition of the state in 1921 led to separate educational authorities in the island. Given the impact of war and economic difficulties which followed in the early 1920’s, the dedication and commitment of the Sisters was of enormous and crucial importance. Through their efforts the school set high standards of excellence in education, and provided wide and varied opportunities and experiences through a broad and relevant curriculum. The period saw increasing emphasis on the teaching of all aspects of science and the Sisters, recognising the changing educational demands, ensured that a science room and domestic economy kitchen were provided. The teaching force primarily came from the Order, and so monies from their salaries were reinvested into the school to supplement the small grant from the Ministry of Education. Small wonder that the Bishop of Down and Connor forty years later would comment, “If the church were to endeavour to compile a list of its invisible assets, I think our nuns would have to figure very highly on it.”
In 1928 Amalgamation within the Order led to one central authority – the Congregation of Irish Sisters. The following year new accommodation was urgently required and a drill hall, study hall and a new dormitory and classrooms were all added. Yet again the cost had to be borne by the Order.
World economic depression led to government review of small schools and a policy of closure appeared to threaten the Dominican existence especially since the Loreto Sisters were opening a convent school in Coleraine. However, numbers slowly picked up and the positive HMI reports of 1932, 33 and 36 ultimately resulted in not only its survival but expansion in all areas. The school was reorganised as an Institution of learning. More pupils, more Sisters, more facilities and a more varied curriculum all followed in the later 1930’s.
The school acquired a reputation for its cultural activities; music, language, sport and drama all developed extensively during this period. A system of scholarships to poorer children was introduced and further building took place and a new Chapel and classrooms were ready by 1935.
Despite the horrors of World War II from 1939-1945, the Order with its strong links with the local community and the reputation as a centre for learning, could justifiably celebrate its Silver Jubilee in 1942 in a spirit of success and hope for the future. The Belfast Blitz had resulted in an increase in boarding numbers, and yet again the Order was here to serve the needs of the day.
In the post world war, many changes occurred in the educational sector and the Dominican Order sought to preserve their control and independence and yet take advantage from reforms which laid the basis for the modern system. Numbers increased and boarding became even more popular. In 1962 another new extension was added comprising of an assembly hall, 2 laboratories, 5 classrooms, a library and 56 study bedrooms for the boarders. A former dance hall was acquired and turned into a Sports Hall and art room in 1967 – this became St. Joseph’s Hall.
Two developments in the late 1960’s had important consequences for the school. One was the decision to make the school co-educational in 1968. This followed a request from the Bishop of Down and Connor that the boys who had passed the qualifying examination be admitted to the school since there were no Catholic boys’ grammar schools in the area. The second event was the opening of the University of Ulster at Coleraine – this led to close links being forged which were of benefits to both institutions.
The school went from strength to strength and numbers had risen to the 400 mark when in 1980 another new wing was opened providing a Biology laboratory, Drama and English rooms as well as PE changing facilities and cloakrooms. The number of mobile classrooms also increased indicating the expansion and growth of the school.
The school in the 1980’s had won a reputation, showing itself to be in the forefront of educational developments. The high profile and successful image is simply the result of 75 years of commitment and dedication. The Christian ideals, the spirit of trust, independence and initiative we owe to the teachings of St. Dominic.
The 1990’s were also to prove a decade of enormous change. The Dominican Order began handing over the running of the school to lay staff. In Portstewart Mr. J.F. Murphy was appointed Principal in September 1989, a post he was to hold until August 2001.
Changing times meant a decline in the popularity of boarding schools throughout Northern Ireland and the decision was taken to close down the Dominican Girls boarding department in 1995. This truly marked the end of one era and simultaneously began a new and exciting phase of redevelopment.
The dormitories previously used for borders were redesigned into an Art Suite and English and Media classrooms. In 1995 the first year dormitories were converted into a top of the range ICT Suite with up to thirty-five Pentium PC’s and an extensive range of hardware making it one of the most well equipped school ICT suites in Northern Ireland. September 1996 witnessed the opening of the newly built Science block as well as the new Technology Suite, which includes a Systems Room, a Manufacturing Room and a Planning Room. The P.E. department’s facilities were also boosted in 1998 with the opening of the Astroturf tennis courts/pitch. This area was the Convent’s vegetable garden originally, later transformed into an area for mobile classrooms.
The new buildings coincided with an increased school population, which has now reached 475. The Dominican Sisters finally left Portstewart in 1999. Sr. Sarah and Sr. Lambert bade farewell on behalf of the Order. They and all the Sisters who served so faithfully in Portstewart are greatly missed. However they can be confident that the tradition and inspiration of the past 87 years will be nurtured in the years ahead.