Alma Loughrey: A gifted teacher and a loving, wonderful mum
“You can't teach an unhappy child.”
These were wise words frequently spoken by our mum, Alma Loughrey, who devoted her life to teaching children and reaching out to the most vulnerable who needed her help.
Growing up in Derry with her two younger sisters, mum would recount how she used to position her dolls in an imaginary classroom and spend many happy hours teaching them how to read.
That passion for the profession, which she always declared was a vocation, not a job, continued right until her death on April 29 after a very short illness.
Born in Philip Street in Derry in May 1936, her journey to St Mary’s Training College in Belfast after leaving Thornhill school was a thrilling but somewhat unusual step at that time.
An uncle had suggested a place should be secured for her in a secretarial college but her mother, a widow since 1949, insisted her eldest child should follow her dream – a decision which not just changed mum’s life, but the lives of thousands of children and teachers in Northern Ireland.
The late Seamus Mallon was among her contemporaries at St Mary’s and she revelled in her time there before returning to Derry where, in 1957, she accepted her first teaching job at the Holy Child school in Creggan.
Thus began an illustrious career.
Mum, who was always immaculately dressed and very elegant, brought nature tables into the classroom and pupils marvelled at the conkers, catkins, frog spawn and hyacinth bulbs.
The room was also filled with music as her glorious singing voice was used to ensure her primary school classes were both fun and educational.
A move to Belfast in the early 1960s resulted in mum bringing her teaching skills to St John’s Primary School on the Springfield Road, where she remained for over a decade.
Teaching in west Belfast during the 1970s was challenging, to say the least.
When Northern Ireland ground to a halt during the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974, mum insisted on driving from our home in north Belfast, through the many terrifying roadblocks, over to St John’s every day, declaring: “There is no place for politics in the classroom.”
Never afraid of change, in 1977 she became the first principal of the newly-built Holy Family Nursery School in Baltic Avenue in north Belfast. It was a proud moment as 50 children stepped through the doors for the first time.
A number of these children, now adults, attended her funeral in Holy Family Church. Many more have sent letters and cards remembering 'Mrs Loughrey', with great fondness and regret that such a force of nature has left us.
Mum adored teaching primary and nursery school children but she was also passionate about lecturing student teachers, passing on her skills to the teachers of tomorrow.
A post as a lecturer at St Mary’s University College was eagerly accepted. It has been a comfort to our family that so many have told us mum blazed a trail and inspired them to be the teachers they are today.
A true champion of children, mum also really valued her role as president of the Early Years Organisation and was honoured to receive an OBE from Prince William at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace in 2019 to recognise and celebrate her decades of extraordinary work with children during their formative years. It was an emotional, proud and very happy day.
Even in her eighties, mum continued to work. Neither increasing years nor Covid prevented that.
Undeterred by lockdown, she switched her meetings with the schools where she remained on their board of governors online. Her wisdom and experience will be much missed.
Above all mum will be missed by her four children, Anne, Jane, Una and Stephen, and her 10 grandchildren whom she cherished.
Her stories about the thousands of children she taught are legendary. “There is no one more honest than a child,” she would say as we howled with laughter at a rebuke a pupil may have innocently, yet eloquently delivered earlier in the day.
We are forever grateful to the former pupils and teachers who have shared their memories of mum and are comforted by the knowledge that her legacy will be found in classrooms across Northern Ireland for generations to come.
Alma Loughrey will be remembered as an exceptional, gifted teacher.
We will remember her as an exceptional, loving mum, who is sorely missed and whose death has left a huge void in our lives.
Alma Loughrey’s month’s mind Mass will be celebrated at 11.30am tomorrow in Holy Family Church.
Her inurnment in the Columbarium at St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street will take place after 6pm Mass on Saturday June 11.