Lives Remembered

Rita Gunning: World will be a duller place without wit of golden girl Rita

WITH her wit and charm, her vivacious and engaging personality, her generosity and her sympathetic, caring nature, Rita Gunning was a popular figure with all who knew her.

She was a much-loved teacher of infants for two decades at St Bride’s PS in south Belfast, as well as assisting at many other primaries across the city.

Always one of the first to arrive each morning and last to leave, former pupils have remembered her as a “marvellous and inspirational teacher”.

Her theory of teaching was that education should be fun – but well-structured fun. Her focus was always the academic and spiritual development of her pupils.

As a “teacher tutor” she also mentored generations of young entrants to the profession, many of whom have gone on to occupy senior positions today.

Rita Mary Shaw was born in 1943, the elder of two children to Terry from Belfast and Tessa from Aughnacloy.

She grew up in Dunmurry and Ormeau and was a pupil at Hilden PS, the first integrated primary school in Northern Ireland, before being one of the first cohort of girls at Rathmore Grammar.

Before entering St Mary’s training college she had a gap year carrying out a variety of roles – at a bureau de change on the Costa Brava, with Belfast Public Libraries and in the veterinary department of the civil service. She also taught ballroom dancing at various dance schools.

Rita majored in English, a subject which afforded her great pleasure. Even a simple note of thanks or appreciation from her was in beautifully-crafted prose.

On graduating as a specialist infant teacher in 1966, she took up a position in Holy Trinity Boys PS in Turf Lodge.

Due to delays in construction of the new school, teachers had to “double-up” classes and so, as a brand new teacher, she had 48 six-year-old boys to teach. After this, classes presented few problems to her.

In 1968, she went to Canada to teach in a primary school in West Toronto.

Teachers from Northern Ireland were highly prized and well rewarded in Canada and her aim was to earn sufficient money in a year to return home and marry her long-term boyfriend, Joe Gunning.

 Rita and Joe Gunning at his graduation in 1968

Joe was a civil engineer who also worked that year in Toronto. They had a most romantic courtship during the carefree sixties, with a hitch-hike from Belfast to Casablanca among their more exotic adventures.

After marriage in 1969, Rita resumed her teaching in Holy Trinity, but was compelled to resign as a result of severe pregnancy sickness.

She ‘subbed’ at various schools in west and south Belfast, including Holy Child and Blessed Oliver Plunkett, until in summer 1974 the Troubles persuaded the couple to move with their two young children to Guernsey.

They returned after a year and their third and final child was born in 1976.

Rita took on more substitute teaching, including a year working with deaf children in St Francis de Sales in Beechmount, before being appointed to a full-time position in St Bride’s, where her father-in-law Henry J Gunning had recently retired as principal.

As a specialist teacher of Primary 2 children, she spent what she described as “among the happiest days of my life” in the Malone Road school.

Rita with a P2 class at St Bride’s PS in south Belfast

Thirty years ago she embodied diversity and inclusivity, long before the terms became widely used in education.

Rita retired from full-time teaching in the early 2000s and had time to enjoy the arrival of 10 grandchildren.

A lady of style and great humour, she had a love of fashion, travel and literature. She coupled this with an avid interest in local, national and international politics and took great delight in following art and popular culture.

She was an excellent cook and entertainer, relishing hosting dinners and parties for family and friends. An aura of real happiness prevailed around her.

She especially enjoyed spending time in the family apartment in Cushendun, just yards from the sea, where her favourite season was winter.

Rita had a smile that could light up any room, and possessed a tremendous sense of fun.

Among her many groups of friends was “The Golden Girls” – former colleagues who describe Rita as being the “most golden” of them. 

They say that she will be forever in their hearts, and that the world will be a duller place without her presence.

Rita Gunning died on December 5 following an accidental fall on a very steep staircase in Amsterdam, where she had been visiting her son and his family to celebrate her 78th birthday.

Her popularity was evidenced by the large attendance at her funeral Mass in St Bride’s Church.

Her ashes will be inurned in a private ceremony in the columbarium in St Patrick’s Church, Donegall Street.

She is survived by her beloved husband Joe, her children Christopher, Lucy and Una and 10 grandchildren.

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Lives Remembered