Former principal of Northern Ireland's first Gaelscoil remembered as pioneering educator

Bunscoil Phobal Feirste principal Diarmuid O Tuama.
John Breslin

A FORMER principal of Northern Ireland’s first Gaelscoil has been remembered as a pioneering educator and hero to his family.

Diarmuid Ó Tuama, for decades a teacher at Bunscoil Phobal Feirste on the Shaw's Road in west Belfast, was also an author of dozens of schools texts, a historian and Irish language activist.

The 70-year-old died at his home off the Shaw's Road on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack. He is survived by his wife Elaine, children Séamus, Brónach and Diarmuid, their spouses and six grandchildren.

His son Séamus, current principal of Bunscoil Phobal Feirste, said the family was devastated. He said his father had been recently diagnosed with cancer.

"We had expected a bit of a long road so I suppose he was saved a bit of a tough journey. But it was very sudden," Mr Ó Tuama said.

"His love of local and national culture, nature, history and geography shone through his many texts, motivating a whole generation of pupils and their families."


Bunscoil Phobal Feirste principal Diarmuid O Tuama.


He helped to develop in them a "love of their surrounding areas, native tongue, land and culture and exists still through the thousands of pupils who went through his hands at Bunscoil Phobal Feirste and are now taking up key roles in our society".

Former bunscoil pupil, Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile, praised Mr Ó Tuama as a "pioneering Irish language educationalist and teacher". The one time Belfast Lord Mayor said he was "a proud Gael, a dedicated republican, a historian and author. He was a loving husband, father and Daideo. For many of us he was and always will be An Máistir".

He added: "I was lucky to call him my friend."

Mr Ó Tuama was born in Belfast in 1952, the son of Rosie and Seamus Twomey, later PIRA chief of staff. He attended Holy Child PS from 1957 when it was situated in Casement Park.

"He always commented that whilst the rooms in Casement were cold, we had the greatest playground in Ireland and that this is where his love of Gaelic games was sown," his son Séamus said.

Following secondary school at St Malachy’s College, Mr Ó Tuama spent a couple of years at Maynooth with a view to joining the priesthood. But the turbulent political situation drew him home to Belfast, where he studied teaching at St Joseph’s College.


Former Bunscoil Phobal Feirste principal Diarmuid O Tuama with his sons Seamus and Diarmuid.


Bunscoil Phobail Feirste was established in 1971, housed in a portacabin and with just nine pupils. It now has more than 400, among the estimated 7,000 attending Irish-medium schools across the north. From the 1970s, Mr Ó Tuama was a teacher at the school during a time when it was under regular threat of closure and the staff faced imprisonment as it was not officially recognised. It was recognised in 1984 and the educator went on to become vice principal and, from 1997, for 10 years the principal as the school continued to grow and feed pupils into the Irish-medium secondary established in the early 1990s.

An author and historian, he most recently helped put together as a book, interviews with northern republicans involved in the War of Independence and Civil War. The book, The Men Will Talk To Me is based on interviews conducted by Ernie O'Malley, the noted republican.

He was also a dedicated GAA follower and would travel often to watch games. He was a member of the St John's club, which last night noted his passing "with sadness and indeed shock".


Bunscoil Phobal Feirste principal Diarmuid O Tuama.


In a Facebook post, another son Diarmuid wrote, “We sadly lost my daddy this morning. I haven’t enough words to describe how much he meant to me. He was my daddy, my hero, my friend, my everything."

In a statement, the school said: "He was loyal to the language, education and games. He had a sense for humor and poetry. He was diligent in his work and generous in his humanity. Irish to the core."

Requiem Mass will take place at St Oliver Plunkett Church at 11am on Saturday followed by burial at Milltown Cemetery.