Northern Ireland

End of an era as west Belfast school where Seamus Heaney taught is razed

A digger tears down the facade of the former St Thomas's school in west Belfast, and inset, the school in the late 1950s
A digger tears down the facade of the former St Thomas's school in west Belfast, and inset, the school in the late 1950s

IT WAS a school at the heart of a west Belfast community during the darkest years of the Troubles, and has remained a landmark building for decades.

The old St Thomas's Intermediate also had the likes of poet Seamus Heaney as a former teacher and ex-footballer Gerry Armstrong among its alumni.

But signalling the end of an era, the former secondary school for Catholic boys as it once stood will no longer be a feature of the Ballymurphy and Whiterock area.

Demolition work has been continuing, and is due to finish in the coming weeks, to remove much of the building and make way for new housing.

Built in 1957, St Thomas's served an area of social deprivation that was deeply affected by the years of violence during the Troubles.

The school developed a strong relationship with the area, having been used as a community centre and for the celebration of Mass in its assembly hall.

It closed in 1988 due to a reorganisation of schools in the Catholic controlled sector, with Corpus Christi formed through a merger of St Thomas's, St Peter's, St Paul's and Gort Na Mona schools.

Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin's former director of publicity, recalled how in 2010 he brought Seamus Heaney back to St Thomas's where he began his teaching career in the early 1960s.

On the visit, a "very emotional" Heaney described how the school's former principal Michael McLaverty, himself a renowned writer, told the young teacher that he would become a poet.

"He went through all his old classrooms and it was quite emotional. He was pointing out to me where the desk was and one day Michael McLaverty called him in," Mr Morrison said.

"He said, 'Michael McLaverty in this room here told me I was going to become a poet.' He was very emotional about it because, I didn't realise it, but it was the first time he was back in the school."

Former Northern Ireland and Spurs footballer Gerry Armstrong was a pupil at the school.

He described how in his final year, he started playing soccer and the team won the Robin Kinahan Cup.

"It was my first time playing soccer. The teacher at the time who was running the soccer team, he was a Geography teacher, he got me to play in the soccer team. That was the start of my soccer career," he said.

Armstrong also played gaelic football and hurling at the school, and also played football for Antrim before his soccer career took off.

The 65-year-old said he has "nothing but good memories" of St Thomas's and it is "obviously sad to see it go", but he acknowledged the need for regeneration.

"It's obviously sad when you see things like that happen, but the memories will stay in the mind," he said.

"I had a really good time and I made an awful lot of friends there."

The building had until recently been used by Belfast Metropolitan College, but much of the structure is now being demolished.

Some parts are to be retained which are used by Corpus Christi boxing club, a youth club and the Whiterock Children's Centre.

The site, which is owned by the Down and Connor diocese's property arm, is due to be sold and is expected to become new affordable housing.

Sinn Féin councillor Steven Corr said there was a "sense of sadness" over the demolition, but the building "had reached the end of its life".

"It has been an iconic and integral part of the landscape of Whiterock and Ballymurphy. Thousands of local young men went through it," he said.

The Black Mountain area representative said the demolition is set to be completed in the coming weeks, and the site will then be sold.

"What we're trying to do is we're hoping that it is sold for some type of affordable housing," he said.

"We're trying to take it from being an iconic building in Ballymurphy to being an iconic symbol of regeneration."