Former Foyle College head led active life in community

Hugh Gillespie.
Hugh Gillespie.

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

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, then Dalriada.

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. He continued to play rugby for Ballymoney RFC with occasional appearances for the QUB team.

Hugh secured his first job as a junior master at Friends’ School Lisburn in 1953, teaching Geography and English. 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 learned to be a silversmith in classes at the Technical College in Belfast.

After 20 happy years at Friends’, 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.

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.

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.

But 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.

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, 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 .

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 last few years of Hugh’s life were clouded by the sudden and tragic death of his son Shaun in November, 2011 which took a terrible toll on Valerie. 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.