Tribute to former Foyle College head

Hugh Wishart Gillespie BA, who died on August 27, was the former headmaster of Foyle College.

Wednesday, 12th September 2018, 5:04 pm
Updated Thursday, 13th September 2018, 9:58 am
Hugh Gillespie.

He was born on March 6, 1931, in Castlefinn, County Donegal, the oldest son and secondchild of Arthur Elliott Gillespie and his wife Rachel, who was always known as Ella.

Not long after he was born his father, who was principal of the National School at Castlefinn, was appointed headmaster of Killyrammer Primary School, at Kilraughts, near Ballymoney. Hugh moved with his parents and his sister Hazel to North Antrim, settling on a farm called Druckendult, near the Garry Bog. The family quickly grew, and within a few years, Hugh and Hazel were joined by Patricia, Elliott, Noel and Lorna.

Hugh attended Killyrammer Primary School where he was an industrious and studious pupil, progressing to Dalriada School in Ballymoney and quickly showing aptitude, particularly in the arts and literature. At Dalriada, Hugh came under the influence of Mr. Edmund Gordon, Head of English, who inspired in him a love of literature and drama - the works of Shakespeare in particular - and of classical music. He also led groups on walking tours in Ireland and further afield, including to Stratford and the Lake District, and fuelled Hugh’s love of outdoor pursuits and an interest in the natural environment.

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In 1948 Hugh left Dalriada School and enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast for a general arts degree, becoming the first member of his family to attend university.

Enthusiastically involved in all that university life had to offer, Hugh particularly enjoyed singing in the university choir and attending concerts in the Ulster Hall. He continued to play rugby for Ballymoney RFC with occasional appearances for the QUB team. At Queen’s, he came under the influence of Professor E. Estyn Evans, the noted geographer, historian and ethnographer who inspired in Hugh a lifelong interest in geology, physical and human geography, and early human history, and led him to choose the teaching of geography as his chosen vocation.

After graduating from Queen’s and spending a few months travelling in Europe, Hugh secured his first job as a junior master at Friend’s School Lisburn in 1953, teaching Geography and English.

He was to spend 20 happy and formative years at Friend’s, honing his skills as a teacher and doing almost every other job on offer, both official and unofficial – master in charge of rugby, coach to junior hockey and cricket teams, producer of plays and musicals, careers master, senior master, editor of the school magazine, organiser of the staff Christmas party and staff outings, swimming coach (in spite of being a very poor swimmer himself), and mentor and friend to many.

He made lifelong friendships with fellow members of staff and many of his early pupils, and was instrumental in the establishment and growth of the Geography Department, with many of his pupils going on to study geography or geology at university and to excel in the field.

Hugh married Valerie Robinson, the daughter of family friends Rev. and Mrs. F. A. Robinson of Kilraughts, Ballymoney, in 1958. Hugh and Valerie were devoted to each other, enjoying 59 years of married life together. They settled in Lisburn where Hugh was actively involved in community life, being a stalwart parishioner at Lisburn Cathedral where he was, variously, Peoples’ Churchwarden, Rector’s Churchwarden, Glebe Warden and General Synod representative. Hugh played rugby as a fearless wing forward for Lisburn Rugby Club, was a keen golfer, took up the clarinet, and learnt to be a silversmith in classes at the Technical College in Belfast.

After 20 happy years at Friend’s, Hugh was encouraged by his colleagues and peers to seek a headmaster’s position, and he was duly appointed to be headmaster of Foyle College, Londonderry in succession to Stewart Connolly in 1973. Hugh and his family (which now comprised sons Stephen, Shaun and David) moved to Londonderry at the height of the Troubles. Although an inauspicious time to move, they received a warm welcome from both sides of the community and settled in their house at Talbot Park which became a happy and vibrant family home.

The turmoil caused by the Troubles, and its demographic consequences, presented a crisis for Foyle College, and not long after Hugh’s arrival, the Governors concluded that the only hope for survival lay in amalgamation with Londonderry High School.

This necessitated the passage of an Act of Parliament in connection with which Hugh travelled to London in 1976 to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee.

The Act was duly passed, and the amalgamation went live in September, 1976.

The amalgamation presented Hugh with the greatest challenge of his career - how to knit together into a cohesive whole two sets of pupils, staff, Boards of Governors and communities of former pupils for most of whom the amalgamation was a hugely disruptive, transformative and (for many) unwelcome event.

There were numerous practical challenges too – how to operate a school on split sites, how to resolve timetable clashes, how to resolve personal tensions - and to all of these Hugh applied a combination of meticulous attention to detail, a strong ability to relate to people on a personal level, a steady sense of fairness, and a great capacity for hard work.

Through his leadership, personality and unwavering dedication, a new school emerged with its own unique, liberal, friendly and inclusive identity, and the culture and character of Foyle College today owes much to him.

Hugh retained a connection with the teaching of geography by acting as moderator and chief examiner for O Level and A Level Geography in Northern Ireland, representing the Northern Irish examinations board at national examiners’ conferences in England.

In addition to his work, he sustained a broad range of interests, including photography, gardening, playing the clarinet in the Londonderry Amateur Operatic Society orchestra, supporting the North West Music Society and the Londonderry Feis, leading parties on the Mourne Wall Walk, exploring Inishowen with his family and school walking parties, building and sailing a Mirror dinghy, running the school photography club, creating multiple and varied pieces of silver work, and renewing an interest in painting.

He was an active and encouraging parent, fully involved in the lives and development of his sons, and a well-liked member of the congregation of St. Peter’s Church, where he and his sons sang in the church choir.

Hugh was loyally and faithfully supported in everything he did by his wife Valerie who, besides pursuing her own teaching career and being a dedicated and loving mother and daughter, was a model headmaster’s wife, entertaining visiting dignitaries at Talbot Park, attending numerous school and civic events with Hugh and often deputising on his behalf or running and hosting events and receptions in her own right.

Hugh Gillespie retired at the age of 63 after 21 years at Foyle College, and after a few years moved back to the Greater Lisburn area to be closer to family and friends.

The couple moved to Carneagh, outside Hillsborough, in 1997.

Hugh became an active parishioner at Hillsborough Parish Church and threw himself into community activities, joining and eventually chairing the local horticultural society and art club. He derived great happiness from his membership of the Lisburn Probus Club and was a frequent and popular speaker at Probus lunches on a diverse range of subjects.

His popularity was marked by his election to be chairman and by his being honoured with life membership of the club.

In retirement, Hugh remained a committed supporter of Foyle College, retaining a close interest in the school and serving as President of the Old Boys’ Association in 2001 to 2002. He also retained an involvement with education by serving on and eventually chairing the Derry Diocesan Catholic Education Committee in which capacity he developed many strong and enduring friendships.

The other focus in Hugh and Valerie’s life at this time, beyond their family and friends, was their apartment in Portaferry which brought them great happiness but, for Hugh, no small administrative burden, as he became secretary and then chairman of the local residents’ association.

The last few years of Hugh’s life were clouded by the sudden and tragic death of his son Shaun in November, 2011, an event which tested Hugh’s reserves of faith and resilience to their limits but which he withstood, providing staunch support to Valerie and his family at this very difficult time.

His and Valerie’s health both suffered as a result, and the primary focus of Hugh’s remaining years was the care and support of Valerie, on whom Shaun’s death took a terrible toll.

The former headmaster and family donated a baby grand piano to Foyle College in recent years in memory of his son Shaun, who was a past pupil and deputy head boy there in 1982-3. Shaun, later a graduate of Queen’s University, became a consultant psychiatrist and a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

In the midst of declining health and many worries, Hugh managed to retain his innate sense of humour, invariably finding something to laugh at in the bleakest of circumstances, and retaining a ready smile for all visitors.

Hugh died peacefully in the Laganvale Nursing Home in Moira on Monday, August 27, with his sons and son-in-law by his side.

He is survived by his wife Valerie, his sons Stephen and David, their spouses Stephen Jones and Helen Gillespie, his six grandchildren - Sybil, Maeve, Esther, Margot, James and Simon - his sisters Hazel, Patricia and Lorna, and his brother Noel.

A memorial service will be held in Hillsborough Parish Church on September 28 at 2pm.