A personal reflection on the life of the late Miss Daphne Bell MBE by Dr Joe McKee Principal, City of Belfast School of Music.
The musical community in Ireland has lost a larger than life character with the death of Daphne Bell. Known universally to thousands of young musicians and their nervously deferential parents as "Miss Bell", Daphne Bell was a lifelong and tireless champion of high standards in music. Born in Dublin on July 11, 1926, the daughter of a leading auctioneer in the city, she quickly acquired her parents' love of things of beauty, not least silver. Her elegant home in Stranmillis, overlooking the Botanic Gardens, was a treasury of fine furniture, interesting paintings and numerous other objets d'art.
She followed her heart into music, however, realising that her gifts lay in teaching rather than performance. In her early career she taught in Armagh Girls High School and Friends School, Lisburn, before joining the staff at Ashfield Girls School in Belfast in the mid 1950s. Her years at Ashfield were amongst the happiest in her life and her experiences there were to stand her in good stead when she moved to Stranmillis College as a lecturer in Music in 1966, retiring as a Senior Lecturer in 1984.
In the 70s and 80s when initial teacher training was more hands-on and less academic, Miss Bell was an inspiring and colourful role model for her students. Those unfortunate individuals who arrived at Miss Bell's room without their descant recorders quickly learned that rather than being excused class they were expected to play along silently on rulers which were kept for the purpose. Miss Bell never gladly suffered fools.
Remembered by generations of Stranmillis staff and students for her big hats and theatrical cloaks, Daphne Bell cut an imposing figure, but her greatest grass roots legacy is the Ulster College of Music. She set it up as a privately funded centre of excellence for instrumental teaching in Northern Ireland. In its heyday the UCM attracted teachers of the highest calibre, described by its founder as visiting professors, who achieved very creditable results with a host of highly talented young musicians. In the 1970s, in particular, the Ulster College of Music was producing regular players for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.
The Ulster Junior Orchestra, another Bell spin-off from the UCM, did exceptional work in summer residences. For this, top UK musicians of the standing of Sydney Sutcliffe, Jack Brymer and others were persuaded to travel to Northern Ireland to create a fully professional environment to nurture local talent. All of this was achieved on a shoe-string, and at a difficult time when very few visitors were coming to Ulster, the majority of the participants simply being swept along by Daphne Bell's vision and irrepressible energy. As well as calling on the support of influential friends such as Dame Ruth Railton and Lord King, Bell had that special gift of being able to persuade large numbers of volunteers to work tirelessly for a common goal.
Individuals with big personalities do great things, but they can also create waves which have the potential to sink the ship. In her retirement, Daphne Bell found control of her beloved Ulster College slipping away from her, a situation which caused her great personal anguish. She had no immediate family, so her last years were enlivened by a small number of close friends whose visits kept her abreast of local music gossip.
Daphne Bell was a big-hearted generous woman who gave selflessly of her time and talents. She will be greatly missed by numerous professional musicians who owe everything to her early advice and guidance, but by many thousands of others who were simply lucky enough to be touched by her warm humanity.