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One Hundred years of The School on the Cliff

One hundred years of the school on the cliff.
“Dominic built his ship both spacious and very happy”

In 1917 Portstewart had a growing population of over 1600 people, yet there existed no provision for the secondary education of children in the town. This was to forever change in the summer of that year with the arrival of the Dominican sisters who would go on to open St Mary’s Dominican Convent, Portstewart. The school would subsequently open its doors on 3rd September with the grand total of sixteen boarders and five day pupils.

Prior to 1917 it had been customary for the Dominican sisters from the Falls Road community to visit and holiday in the seaside town of Portstewart during the summer months to escape the trials and tribulations of life in the city.

The continuation of war and the prevalence of TB throughout Belfast in 1917 led to the suggestion that the sisters establish a house in the country.

Since their inception in 1217 the Dominicans had been committed to preaching and teaching. The Belfast sisters, true to their calling, recognised the need to set up a school; a decision welcomed enthusiastically by the local parish priest, Fr Rafferty.

A Portstewart site was needed and O’Hara’s Castle, built in 1834, became available along with the grounds which had formerly been part of the Flowerfield Estate. The Castle had previously belonged to the Cromie and Montagu families before being bought by the Dominican sisters in the spring of 1917. Their first prospectus described the site, with its commanding position a hundred feet above sea level as “a lofty eminence overlooking the Atlantic”, and so the Dominican centre for education in the north-west of Ireland was established one hundred years ago.

The first mass was celebrated on June 24th 1917 by a Vincentian Father and, whilst the foundation of the community in Portstewart offered hope for the future, many real and practical difficulties lay ahead to be overcome and many years of hardship faced the Order as they began to develop their new school.

The advent of partition in 1921 brought challenges and led to the creation of separate educational authorities on the island. Given the impact of war and the austerity of the early 1920’s, the dedication and commitment of the Dominican sisters was of enormous and crucial importance. As a consequence of their efforts the school set high standards of excellence in education and provided wide and varied opportunities within a broad, balanced and relevant curriculum.

The teaching force came primarily from the Dominican Order itself and salaries, along with a minimal grant from the Ministry of Education, were reinvested into the school to extend the original school and to create provision for Science and Home Economics. In 1928 the Congregation of Irish sisters came about as a result of the creation of one central authority and new accommodation was urgently required in Portstewart. A drill hall, study hall and new dormitory and new classrooms were added.

Positive HMI reports in 1932, 1933 and 1936 not only helped the as yet small school to survive but enabled its expansion in all areas. The 1930’s saw more pupils arrive, more staff, more facilities and a more varied curriculum.

The school began to acquire its reputation for its cultural activities and language, sport, drama and music all developed extensively during this period. It is this musical legacy that we proudly celebrated in March 2017 in our special Riverside concerts.

Throughout the 1930’s a system of scholarships to poorer children was introduced and fees were kept to a minimum. This period witnessed the building of the school chapel and the continued expansion of the school estate.

Dominican celebrated its Silver Jubilee in 1942 with its strong links with the local community as a school with a strong reputation as a centre of learning and as a school that could look forward to an even brighter future.

The post-war period saw many changes in education and the Dominican Order sought to preserve their control and independence whilst taking advantage of the reforms which laid the basis for the modern school. Numbers grew and boarding became even more popular in this era.

The year 1962 saw a further extension begin including a new assembly hall, two Science labs, five classrooms, a library and more than fifty boarders’ bedrooms. This work was completed by 1965 at the cost of £100,000 and allowed the school to successfully embrace the educational challenges of that era.

A former dance hall was acquired and by 1967 this had been converted it St Joseph’s Hall and used as an Art room and PE hall. At this time there were around 120 girls at the school and three lay members of staff.

The 1960’s saw two key developments: the first was the opening of the University of Ulster at Coleraine - this led to the forging of close relations of mutual benefit to both institutions. The second was the decision in 1968, as there was no Catholic grammar school for boys in the area, to make the school co-educational. And so the first boys made their appearance at the newly-named Dominican College. Within ten years the school population had risen to 255 pupils with equal numbers of boarders and day pupils.

By 1980 the school had further expanded to the 400 mark and this period saw the development of a new Biology lab, Drama and English classrooms as well as PE changing rooms; this time at a cost of £250,000.

The 1990s saw continued changes as the school celebrated its Diamond Jubilee (1992),witnessed the end of the boarding department ( 1995) and said a sad farewell to the last of the Dominican sisters on the teaching staff.

And now, in 2017, as we celebrate our centenary, the school can look forward to continued growth and change. In this our 100th year we hope to welcome 100 pupils into year 8 with up to 31 of these pupils selected by non-academic criteria. Ambitious plans are in place to develop the school estate to meet the needs of the school population which should rise to around 650 pupils in the coming years.

The school continues and will continue to be at the forefront of educational developments and the current high profile and success of the school is the result of a century of commitment and dedication from the Dominican sisters and the lay staff who have contributed so magnificently to the school we celebrate in 2017 and beyond.