How it all Began
Dominican College grammar school, with a current enrolment of approximately 1050 pupils, is an all girls Catholic grammar school situated in the leafy Fortwilliam Park area of north Belfast. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Fortwilliam area was one of the most exclusive areas of the city and had among its residents numerous wealthy business people involved in Belfast’s engineering, candle-making and linen industries. One residence, Walton, was purchased in 1930 from the Morrow family and renamed the Convent of the Holy Rosary. This became the home of the Dominican Sisters who, at the request of the Bishop of Down and Connor, Reverend Dr Daniel Mageean, came to the area to provide much needed secondary educational facilities for young, female Catholics. Although Belfast was a developing business centre, provision for the post-primary education of girls was scarce and the Dominican Sisters undertook the task of rectifying that situation in the Holy Family Parish.
Consequently, under the guidance of Mother Peter Flynn, the foundations of today’s school were established, initially with the opening on the 15th September 1930 of a Preparatory School with twelve pupils and a Commercial College with 30 pupils on the 6th October. Classes were conducted in the convent but increased demand for post-primary education necessitated extensions to the building. The foundation stone for the new wing of the grammar school was laid by Dr Mageean on the 26 May 1933 - this stone can still be seen on the outer library wall adjacent to the chapel. The grammar school, officially recognised in 1934, continued to flourish throughout the 1930s. However, the outbreak of WWII, from 1939-45, adversely affected the college which lay within “the arc from the Whitewell Road to the Crumlin Road”, the area bombed by German bombers during the Belfast Blitz in spring 1941. Attendance dwindled to single numbers as children were evacuated to the countryside and the Sisters had to leave for the west of the city every night.
In the Post-War years, the introduction of free compulsory secondary education in 1947, resulted in an ever increasing enrolment which required further building programmes. During her term as principal from 1942 to 1963, Mother Peter O’Hagan, oversaw astutely the development of the college to meet the needs of the pupils, now almost 600, and the ever widening curriculum.
- Fairbourne, purchased from Mr Stuart in 1946, was renamed St Joseph’s and housed the Preparatory School of 150-200 pupils until it closed in June 1977.
- St Mary’s building was opened in 1953.
- The Lodge building (previously Ormisdale), which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the site of a private school for the daughters of the wealthy, was purchased in 1957 from the Christian Brothers and renamed St Catherine’s. It was in use until 1995.
- The Assembly Hall, which is still the main College Hall, was completed in 1963.
In the last three decades of the 20th century, pupil numbers continued to grow until they reached the 1000 mark by the early 1990s. During much of this period, from 1963 until her retirement in 1998, Sister Jacqueline O’Reilly served three terms as Principal. It was a time of both great change in education and huge upheaval in Belfast. Once more the tenacity of the Dominican Sisters was evident in their resolve to enhance facilities and ensure that pupils were prepared for the challenges of life after school. Improvements and extensions to the premises were constantly undertaken by the Sisters.
- St Oran’s House, on Fortwilliam Park, was acquired in 1965 and subsequently two nearby houses were purchased in 1970 and 1991 to accommodate the ever expanding sixth form in what was then known as St Colmcille’s.
- The College Chapel of the Holy Rosary was completed in 1966 and continues to provide pupils with a sacred place to pray. It is an ideal background for liturgical events throughout the year.
- Substantial refurbishments were carried out in St Joseph’s building in the early 1990s.
In spite of the improvements and the hard work of all principals and staff, to meet the challenges of the new century and the needs of the pupils, a modern, purpose-built building was required. This necessitated the demolition of St Oran’s, St Catherine’s and finally St Colmcille’s around the turn of the century. St Joseph’s, a listed building, remains on the site. On the 22nd June 1998, the Dominican Sisters left the Convent (Walton) and moved to their current home, Iona House, on Fortwilliam Park, marking the end of an era. Walton, however, continues to remain a valuable link between the past and the present.
A New Millennium, a New School and a New Chapter in the History of Dominican College
Although the drafting and redrafting of plans had been on-going throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the news that the Dominican community had long been anticipating, did not come until the 9th February 2000 when the Minister for Education granted £13.1 million pounds for the college building programme. It fell to Sister Rosaire Boden, previously principal from 1980-1988, and her stalwart vice-principals, Margaret McKenna and Malachi Lowry to oversee and manage the various stages of the construction. Phase 1 involved the refurbishment of Walton into what is now the administration block, staff room and sixth form centre adjoining the College Chapel and the modern, revamped learning environment of the Sixth Form Library.
Phase 2, the construction of the new three-storey building began in July 2001. This phase which included the Science laboratories, classrooms, ICT and Technology suites, Art rooms and the wonderfully lit atrium was completed by autumn 2002. In the presence of staff and pupils, Bishop Donal McKeown blessed this new wing. At this stage, Walton linked with the new three-storey building which in turn led into the existing St Mary’s, which was now the home of Home Economics and Modern Languages. Subsequently, the wonderful Sports Hall was added with state-of-the-art facilities, which provided pupils with a wider spectrum of sporting opportunities.
In Phases 3 and 4, the Music Department, Servery, Lecture Theatre, the new Aquinas Concert and Assembly Hall and last but not least Siena Restaurant were completed by the summer of 2005. The college now spanned the full area of the site, incorporating the past with the new and preserving the chapel as an integral part of the structure.
Friday the 6th October 2006, when the new grammar school was officially opened by Bishop Walsh, marked the culmination of decades of dedicated work and foresight of successive principals. In his address to Sister Rosaire, guests, staff and pupils, Bishop Walsh noted the special contribution made by the Dominican Sisters to Catholic education in north Belfast. Photographic evidence confirms that this was a day of great celebration, with every pupil and staff member present. Press coverage of the opening of Dominican College in 1930, described it as “A Beautifully Situated Establishment with a High Purpose” - the same statement can be applied to the Dominican College of the 21st century.
Friday the 6th October 2006, was a memorable day for another reason. It marked the end of a very important era and the passing on of the management of the school from the Dominican Sisters, to lay management, notably to the capable hands of the newly appointed Principal, Sally McGahan, who officially took over the role in December 2006. Sister Rosaire was the last Dominican Sister involved in teaching in Belfast but the Dominican Sisters knew that the pupils and staff were in safe hands and that the ethos of the 1930 school would be protected and nurtured. Cardinal Newman once said, “to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often”. Dominican College has changed in many respects since 1930 but the ethos and traditions of the Dominican Sisters prevail. In every room in the 21st century “state of the art building” the words “Dedicated to Truth and Respect, Committed to realizing the potential of all” are clear for all to see.
The educational aim of Dominican College continues to be “the pursuit of Truth in all its forms, intellectual, spiritual and moral”.