Northern Ireland

The little school on the front line in 1970s Londonderry

Holy Child Primary School Image copyright Eamon Melaugh
Image caption Holy Child Primary School in Creggan was on the front line

You never forget the day your primary school was almost blown up and you never forget the teacher either - Miss Doherty - shouting for everyone to get under their desks.

It was the early 1970s and Holy Child Primary School was on the front line in Creggan, Londonderry.

It had been built at a natural focal point in the estate - opposite a row of shops, near the library and church - which, in a peaceful society, made perfect sense.

But when things went wrong in the late 1960s, the school found itself in a war zone, on the front line of regular riots.

Image copyright Paul Doran
Image caption Celebrating First Communion day with Miss Doherty

CS gas was often in the air as we ran around outside and bullet casings frequently littered the playground.

The attack which forced many under their desks, though, was the closest we came to any serious danger. There was a massive explosion and it was obviously very close.

It turned out to be a mortar, fired with little concern for anyone nearby - including several hundred children. It hit a small building next door.

I didn't get under the desk. I saw no point: the explosion had already happened and we were alive and I was in school so I knew I was safe.

Interned or jailed

We had floor to ceiling windows which gave us a great view outside. And it always happened outside, never in the school. In the school we were children, learning and playing just like Peter and Jane in the reading books.

For most of us, the violence was just the way of things. We were used to it. In a lot of ways it was fun. An adventure. For some of our class mates, of course, it was more serious - some people had lost members of their families or had relatives interned without trial or jailed.

I loved my primary school, I still do. It taught me things I will never forget - a love of learning, a love of reading, and the ability to sew with a needle and thread.

So when the school was attacked by vandals a few years ago I was enraged. I tweeted out my anger at this attack on the plucky little school.

Image caption The tweet that reunited teacher and pupil after more than 40 years

The tweet had gone out into the ether and I thought little of it. But then I got a message from someone whose name I didn't recognise - Sheila Higgins.

She said she was my teacher in P3 and was glad I had good memories of the school.

Sheila Higgins was Miss Doherty - the teacher who had ordered us under our desks. She had taught me in P2 as well as P3 and I had not seen her since I left the school in June 1977. This was now 2016.

I wrote to her with memories of the day of the mortar attack and she replied saying she was in tears as she remembered it in exactly the same way. She told me she had shown it to her grown-up son who couldn't believe such things had happened.

We arranged to meet up and I decided to record our chat.

There was so much I wanted to know: what was it like teaching in those conditions? How did you keep everyone calm? How did you keep calm yourselves? How did you cope with the poverty many of the children were growing up in? What really went on in the staff room?

Image caption The 2016 vandalism attack which prompted a tweet in support of Holy Child Primary School

So after 40 years, I met Miss Sheila Doherty again, now Mrs Sheila Higgins.

There were so many things that we as children couldn't and shouldn't have known about. The various pressures those teachers were under, some of them just out of college and starting their first job at 21 or 22, basically teaching in a war zone.

We talked about the day the mortar nearly hit the school. She talked about the fears the teachers had about the floor to ceiling windows - those same windows that gave us a great view out - but also made us vulnerable to stray rockets, bullets, bricks or any other missile.

She said while the children would regularly pick up ammunition and bullet casings in the playground, that wasn't what worried her most. Her biggest fear was a Laburnum tree in the grounds. She was worried that we might be poisoned if we ate the seeds.

Sheila told me she taught a class of 42 children, some of them from really deprived families. Some were traumatised by their home life and by the Troubles but the teachers never got any help from outside agencies. No-one told them how to deal with the circumstances they were facing every day.

The teachers created a bubble of calm and they did it very deliberately - they refused to close the school even if they were pressured to do so by paramilitaries. The school principal just said no.

Image copyright Google Maps
Image caption Children at Holy Child Primary School live in a different era today

There were evacuation plans in case of an emergency though. They were prepared, but always calm.

And as for what went on in the staff room apart from smoking? Well knitting seemed to have been a big thing.

I asked her how she suspected it was me who tweeted about the school given she had not seen me in 40 years. She said when she saw my picture on Twitter, she knew, adding: "The child never goes".

Dana sang to the school

The day we met up, by coincidence, was also the school's annual open day. For the first time since leaving there in June 1977 I was back.

I looked through old photos and old school registers - all the names of my classmates that I had never forgotten.

I walked through the playground - no bullet casings or bricks from short-lived riots and, no Laburnum tree, just a small garden the pupils had planted.

I saw where Dana had once sung All Kinds of Everything to the whole school.

And I remembered all the teachers, but especially Miss Doherty, who had made that place so special.

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