Gerry Deignan: Inspirational music teacher leaves a lasting legacy
FOR Gerry Deignan, music was a passion.
As a teacher, he inspired countless musicians with his enthusiasm, dedication, compassion, ability to draw out the best in each pupil and his sheer love of his art.
He also loved people and had a unique ability to connect with folk of all ages and from all different backgrounds.
“People were drawn to him,” as one former pupil remarked.
His first teaching post was in St Louise’s Comprehensive School in west Belfast in 1969.
The Troubles were brewing and life was very difficult for many of the girls.
Gerry started up an orchestra from scratch, coming in every Saturday to rehearse.
Soon, thanks to his inspirational leadership and the dedication and hard work of the girls, a large, talented group was formed.
In 1993, UTV made a documentary about Gerry’s time at the school entitled My St Louise’s Orchestra. Many of his former pupils were contacted and a reunion was arranged, with Gerry present too.
All of the girls reflected on what a wonderful experience it was to be playing in the orchestra at that uncertain, difficult time in their life.
Some of them went on to pursue music as a career themselves. They all spoke with such warmth and affection for Gerry.
He then went on to teach in St Louis’s Grammar School in Ballymena and finally Dominican College in Belfast.
Again Gerry started up a wonderful orchestra from scratch, performing in various venues across Northern Ireland, Britain and Germany, encouraging and inspiring the children every step of the way - memories few will forget.
An amateur cine film enthusiast, he recorded many of these orchestral performances, operas and sporting events, treasured moments captured for life.
His pupils all remember a man who was so generous with his time, so passionate, so inspirational and with a great sense of humour too.
In 1977, Gerry and his best friend, the late William Curran, got together and founded the Fortwilliam Musical Society, with the aim of bringing people together from all communities and walks of life in north Belfast at the height of the Troubles.
Gerry became musical director and was very proud of the fact that people in the area now had a chance to take part in musical performance.
Fortwilliam has gone from strength to strength and is now one of the most successful and thriving musical societies in Ireland.
Gerry was not a northerner by birth. He was born in April 1935 in Oldcastle, Co Meath to parents Gerry Deignan senior and Patricia McCormick.
His father was a bank manager and when Gerry was two, he took up a position in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim where he spent a very happy childhood.
When Gerry left school, he initially followed his father’s footsteps and began a career in the bank.
But music kept calling him and in his early thirties, with his wife Helen and four children to support, he took the brave decision to abandon his secure job and follow his heart.
He taught music for two decades until unfortunately his hearing started to decline and this cruel twist of fate meant that he had to retire prematurely in 1989 at the age of 54.
However, Gerry did not give up easily and swiftly refocused his energies for the next 13 years, teaching English to small groups of students in Warsaw in Poland, while keeping up his interest in music by joining an orchestra as a pianist.
In 2003, he came home to Belfast and was able to enjoy 17 wonderfully happy years spending time with his children and grandchildren, encouraging them as always to have music in their lives.
As his best friend William used to say, “Gerry, I have never met a man as enthusiastic about his surroundings as you!” Or, as his mother would say, “Gerry, you were always a very curious little boy!”
This enthusiasm and curiosity truly allowed him to have such a fulfilling and rewarding life, while at the same time inspiring so many others.
Gerry passed away aged 85 on December 8, a loving brother to June, Eithne, Andra, Noeleen and Robert, a dad to Hilary, Patricia, Eithne and Robert and a grandad to Aissatou, Kevin, Ronan, Lara, Ryan, Claire, Anna, Patrick, Aoife and Finbarr.
He is sadly missed by everyone who knew him.