The dream of opening an integrated college in East Antrim began a long, long time ago and has been very well documented.
My involvement in the dream of creating a college in East Antrim began on the 18 April 1997 when, two days after being appointed Principal, I was to meet the steering group – equivalent to Governors – of the college, for the first time. I walked into the house of George Leslie, a founding member of the College governors, and was greeted by half a dozen smiling, friendly and determined faces.
It was a very strange, yet very rewarding meeting. As I have said many times before, the steering group discussed every educational issue under the sun; the curriculum, the pastoral system, parental involvement in the school, timetabling – even organising school trips.
Three hours later – driving home to Belfast I couldn’t help but think we were all mad – we didn’t have any students yet, nor any school buildings, nor a site identified to put the school on, nor any staff appointed, and – we didn’t have any money either!! Yet, somehow, I knew this college would succeed – the people I had just met had told me it would happen – not to worry – and I couldn’t help but believe them.
They were so sure it would happen – they had many convincing arguments that an integrated college would exist in East Antrim before September 1997. For me, to be their founding Principal was my dream come true.
Many, many very late night meetings later, we eventually achieved the required student numbers to open the college, obtained the right religious balance and the dream of these dedicated parents, governors, staff and students began in earnest.
And, as they say, the rest, my friends, is history!
It’s a history of hardships, perserverance, determination, support, joy and exhaltation. A history of successes and set-backs. Nonetheless, and through it all, the college has managed to grow, over the years, to become:
- a college that has a remarkable reputation, in the community in which it serves, for excellence in its teaching and in its pastoral care
- one of the most over-subscribed schools in the NEELB region
- and a center of academic excellence for the community of East Antrim
- one of the most respected integrated schools in Northern Ireland
My story of how I became involved in Integrated Education is the story of a normal young man, a long time ago, who just happened to be walking to school, past a Police Station, when a bomb, that had been planted a few minutes earlier, exploded. I was hurt in the blast: severe cuts to my face, hands and legs, and some debris impaled into my body.
I was taken to hospital, bleeding, in the back of a police Land Rover. I arrived at the Accident and Emergency Unit. My mother was sent for. After my wounds were stitched by doctors, I was hospitalised for a while to recover. My mother arrived, and I remember her looking lovingly at me, and she was crying.
I remember crying myself, although I didn’t really understand why either of us was crying. After all – this was all normal in a city torn apart by hatred. It was just one of those things. It seemed to happen to every family at least once.
I recovered from my injuries, but my mind kept re-living the horrors of that day for many weeks. When I returned to school, the talk was about how brave I was – I had stood up and survived one of ‘their’ bombs – this made me, in the eyes of my classmates, a hero – a feeling I was very uncomfortable with.
I grew up and became a teacher – I’d always wanted to teach Mathematics. My first job, in a secondary school in East Belfast, happened to be in a Protestant area.
Unfortunately, I was naïve – and Catholic! Once appointed, I was forced to change my Christian name – my name was deemed to be too ‘Catholic’ for the area for my safety. So I adopted an alias.
Whilst at the school, I had the pleasure of teaching very decent and kind pupils of the ‘other’ religion and couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about! We’re all the same – I thought to myself.
Yet I also felt like an undercover agent – unable to reveal my true identity. One of my students was supposedly the daughter of the local UDA commander – I remember him as a delightful man, a parent who had sincere interests in the education of his daughter.
Once, one of the young students that I was particularly fond of, ran into my classroom, and yelled hysterically, ‘Sir, Sir, there’s a Fenian in the school.’
Blushing, and with only seconds to think, I looked over my left shoulder, then my right, and said in a surprised voice, “Where? Where …….?”
This was the ridiculous atmosphere that the children were being educated within – segregated and bigoted. These kids hadn’t a chance to grow up normally.
Everybody has a dream and my dream was to be part of something – anything – that brought both communities together. I left that school and went on to teach in other schools, until one day I saw an advertisement in a newspaper. A new integrated college was to be opened in Carrickfergus and a principal was being sought.
I applied for the job and was fortunately successful.
On the 18th April, 1997, I walked into George Leslie’s house as the new Principal… and smiled.
That day I stood on the threshold of my dream.
Please understand – this is not meant to be a self-gratifying story.
This is the story of every person in integrated education, every principal, every teacher, every parent… Somewhere in our lives, something has hit us and has forced us to change directions in our lives, or rethink our commonly held beliefs.
It is the story of the founders of the integrated movement – those dedicated pioneers, whose determination, through the last 20 years, has resulted in integrated schools being created, serving over 17,000 students. What an achievement!
When the annals of history are eventually written, and this period is studied, I am convinced that the integrated education movement will stand proud, above all other entries, as the movement that was central in educating together, under the same roof, two sides of a decent community, that were caught in a time-warp of prejudice, hatred and fear, through the complex maze of reconciliation to new and untrodden roads of peace and understanding.
I am proud to be associated with this marvellous school and with the integrated movement.
Ulidia Integrated College