Lives Remembered

Terry Cunningham: Courageous school principal who stood firm through bombs and bullets

Donna O'Hagan (right), head girl of St Cecilia's, presents a cameo brooch on behalf of pupils to principal Terry Cunningham on her retirement in 1982. Also pictured, from left, is new principal Mamie Pederson and pupils Vanessa Campbell and Patricia McCarron. Picture from Derry Journal

TERRY Cunningham was a calm and courageous principal of a secondary school in the heart of Derry during some of the most testing times imaginable.

As head of St Cecilia's College when it opened in Creggan in 1967, she stood firm through bombs and bullets to keep the flag of education flying against all odds.

Aged only in her early thirties when she was appointed, getting a new school off the ground was an daunting task in itself.

To do so in one of the most deprived areas of western Europe and in a system which had already deemed many pupils a 'failure' added to the challenge.

But to do all this in the middle of what was effectively a war zone required a special kind of fortitude.

When violence erupted on the streets of Derry after the civil rights march of October 5 1968, St Cecilia's found itself literally on the front line - the British army moved into the school grounds and took up residence in a classroom block.

Their presence inevitably attracted attacks from the cover of the nearby city cemetery and the school remained in the crossfire when soldiers finally left in 1970 for a new home across the street.

The deaths of two 14-year-old pupils - Annette McGavigan, shot in the head in her school uniform by the army in the Bogside in 1971, and Kathleen Feeney, killed by an IRA sniper in the Brandywell area three years later - devastated Terry and the entire school community, but she remained resolute through these years.

Grainne McCafferty, one of her successors as principal, joined the staff in 1971 and recalls army bullets striking her fourth floor classroom on one occasion, sending girls scattering for cover.

"Terry led a school through what can only be described as hellfire," she said.

"Every day for years there was a riot outside the school gates, to point where school buses couldn't get in and she had to change the closing time.

"Through it all she managed to create a haven for pupils and I would pay tribute to her for her great courage and strength.

"She managed to keep the girls' spirits up and focus on their education when the world around them was falling apart."

Terry remained principal until 1982, after another difficult period during the hunger strikes, and is credited with putting in place the foundations for a school environment that would become synonymous with aspiration and achievement.

"She lit the torch, she set the tone for what St Cecilia's would become," Mrs McCaffrey said. "She tried to encourage the pupils and staff to reach high and her contribution should not be forgotten."

The school also paid tribute to her achievements "during the most difficult and turbulent times in our city and the school's history".

"She led the staff to work tirelessly to create and maintain a degree of normality and to provide a safe, secure, disciplined and peaceful environment in which all pupils could develop academically, physically and spiritually to reach their true potential," it said.

"Miss Cunningham instilled self-belief in children in the school and helped to restore self-confidence to pupils disappointed by their 'failure' at the 11-plus selection procedure.

"She introduced the first A-Level courses to be delivered in the school in 1976 and was incredibly proud of the successes of these first pupils as they continued their education onto university.

"Her legacy is in the abiding strength and success of the school and its roots in the local community. She will be greatly missed but here, in St Cecilia's, her spirit will live on."

Miss Cunningham, who started her career at St Joseph's Primary School in Artillery Street, also taught maths at St Mary's College and Thornhill before St Cecilia's.

She lived in later years at Troy Park and Gleneagles on the Culmore Road with her sister Pat, and spent her retirement playing bridge, travelling, bird watching on Inch Island, and in voluntary work.

She was predeceased by Pat and by her brother Joe, a Vincentian priest and teacher.

Terry Cunningham died on New Year's Day and was buried after Requiem Mass in Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Steelstown on Thursday.

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Lives Remembered