Lives Remembered

Ballymurphy principal was beacon in community torn apart by violence

Co Tyrone woman Celia O'Reilly was principal of St Bernadette's girls' school in west Belfast

Celia O'Reilly was a standard bearer for that remarkable generation of teachers who provided an oasis of calm for children in the most turbulent of times.

The Co Tyrone woman spent more than 40 years in Ballymurphy in west Belfast, one of the most deprived areas of the north and worst affected by the Troubles.

As head of St Bernadette's girls' school, she ensured it was place where children could be children, no matter what was happening outside its doors.

However, as Gortin parish priest Fr John Forbes told her funeral, teachers had to be much more than teachers.

"They were counsellors, mothers, friends and support in an otherwise disturbed world," he said.

"Celia thrived in such a world because she loved children. She saw their potential, their goodness and their eagerness to improve their circumstances.

"Many of her pupils became leaders in their own way; trailblazers for a more stable and peaceful community.

"She was a strength and a beacon in a community torn apart by violence, imprisonment, death and injustice."

That strength was drawn from Celia's upbringing in the Keenan family in Gorticastle at the foot of the Sperrins in west Tyrone.

Born into a community "steeped in its own history, founded in the knowledge of God and His goodness, formed in the certainty of who she was and where she belonged", it was at Leckin school that she first learned the ritual of hard work that brought success in later life.

Celia joined St Bernadette's as a newly-qualified teacher in 1970, where her stylish outfits lit up the grey classrooms of west Belfast.

She spent a few years at the North Eastern and Belfast education boards as a numeracy officer, helping create the Northern Ireland Numeracy Strategy.

She also lectured for year in the teaching of maths at St Mary's training college.

However, Celia returned to St Bernadette's when the post of vice-principal became available and she would serve as principal for almost 20 years until her retirement, when it was amalgamated with St Aidan's boys' school to became John Paul II PS in 2013.

Remembered for her grace and elegance, she also had tremendous strength of character.

Celia was proud of the people of Ballymurphy and instilled in 'her girls' the value of perseverance to achieve their potential.

Her work with Save The Children - she was the first principal to adopt its family support progamme - saw her nominated as 'Woman of the Year'.

The charity said: "Celia held respect, she was brave and she always acted for what she felt was the best. She was not one to follow, she always led."

She remained proud too of her roots in Gortin in Co Tyrone. When the Red Hands finally won Sam Maguire, she carried it head high into the assembly hall.

However, her greatest pride was in her two boys, Michael and Kevin, and her extended family.

Celia O'Reilly, late of the Antrim Road area of Belfast, died aged 67 on May 10.

Predeceased by her parents Lucy and Patrick, she is survived by her sons, sisters Catherine and Mary Rose and brothers Harry, Fergal and Roger.

She was buried in her native Co Tyrone after Requiem Mass at St Mary's Church, Rouskey, where her month's mind Mass will be celebrated at 7.30pm on June 10.

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Lives Remembered