Lives Remembered

Billy Gleeson: North Belfast school principal with abiding passion for people

Billy Gleeson was a former principal of St Gabriel's College in north Belfast

TWO stories about Billy Gleeson encapsulate his life in teaching.

As principal of St Gabriel's College in north Belfast in the 1980s, he found himself in the headlines for his brave actions when a suspect device was found inside the school.

It was discovered in a toilet block by a pupil, who brought it to the school office.

As the bell was about to ring for the end of class, Billy picked up the package without thought for his safety and took it out away from people into the yard.

Twenty years earlier, as a teacher of maths and history at nearby St Patrick's College, Bearnageeha, he had also demonstrated his commitment to the children in his care.

Billy was always passionate about helping those who came to secondary school with poor numeracy and literacy skills.

And while teaching one pupil who had been ejected from grammar school because it was thought he would not work hard enough, he realised there was more to the story.

Billy arranged hospital appointments where dyslexia was initially diagnosed and later a high blood sugar count. Both would be recognised quickly today but not in the mid-1960s.

A modest man, his family did not hear about this until some 50 years later when the same pupil had retired from a senior public sector post. He said: "If it was not for your father I would have left school without a qualification to my name."

Although he spent more than half a century in Belfast, Billy was a native of Co Limerick who always remained immensely proud of his family roots.

Born in Fedamore in 1926, he was the eldest of 14 children to Stephen and May Gleeson, who ran the local post office.

Billy Gleeson named every house he lived in "Glenogra", after the five-arch bridge over the River Camogue near Fedamore where he grew up

Hurling, history and politics were part of his DNA. Billy was born 10 years to the day after the Easter Rising, and was a baby when his father won the first GAA All-Ireland Doubles Handball Championship.

His father also played hurling for Limerick, winning a Munster championship, while his uncle Bill won All-Irelands in 1918 and 1921 and his cousin Paddy Clohessy, a TD, collected three Celtic crosses in the 1930s.

Billy's grandfather William had meanwhile been one of the founders of the GAA in Limerick, playing in the city's first ever hurling match, while his great-uncle Richard was a member of the town council.

Billy himself won an East Limerick junior championship with Fedamore and played for UCD and Emeralds, a Limerick-based team in London.

However, his abiding passion was for people and how he could help others to develop and make a difference to their lives.

Billy Gleeson was passionate about people

In London he was one of the founders of the Limerickmen's Association, a godsend for emigrants seeking work and accommodation. It was also there that he met a kindred spirit in Donegal woman Mary McCafferty, who was training to be a nurse.

They married in 1957 and would have three children, Stephen, Karen and Clare.

After being persuaded by St Patrick's principal Billy Steele to take up a teaching job in Belfast, Billy worked with the National Democratic Party and took part in some of the civil rights marches in 1968.

He was very taken with John Hume's message that people mattered before flags and was one of the founder members of the SDLP.

Having been involved with Labour in London, working on three election campaigns, he knew that organisation was essential. He was involved in the SDLP's first party conference and helped establish some of its first branches in Down, Armagh and Tyrone.

Billy also became involved with his son Stephen's GAA club, Naomh Eanna in Glengormley. He managed a struggling young hurling team, winning Division 4 and 3 league titles and taking them to a play-off for Division 1, and was part of the management team when Naomh Eanna won their first ever championship, the junior title of 1992.

He also served as club chairman for 10 years and was the driving force behind their new pitch and clubhouse which opened in 1998, when Stephen was fittingly chairman.

In the weeks before his passing Billy was able to enjoy Limerick's dramatic All-Ireland hurling triumph as well as a first ever football championship for Naomh Eanna.

He died aged 92 on October 27 and was buried with his wife in Carnmoney Cemetery after Requiem Mass at St Gerard’s Church, Antrim Road.


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Lives Remembered