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1964 – St. Joseph’s H.S. Golden Jubilee – 2014

August 18, 2014

By Christine Keighery

In the second of our series of reflections marking the upcoming Golden Jubilee anniversary of St. Joseph’s High School in Crossmaglen, The Examiner hears from past pupil Dymphna Largey (nee McElroy) who not only spent 6 years at the school herself, but whose husband and four daughters are all proud past pupils of St Joseph’s too – an example of the huge part the school has played in the histories of local families throughout the area over the last 50 years.

Dymphna joined the school in 1971, seven years after it first opened its doors, and left in 1977, having attained her CSE qualifications. The mother of four has very fond memories of her time at the Intermediate school, as it was then, recalling a safe and welcoming family atmosphere where the potential of every pupil was nurtured and encouraged without exception.

“There was just a lovely atmosphere at St. Joseph’s,” says Dymphna.

“You definitely got the sense that teachers were trying to get the best out of every pupil and nurture their strengths. It wasn’t something that was said – it was just done. The teaching staff recognised individual potential and encouraged everyone to do their best.

“I particularly remember my needlework teacher, Mrs Lee, who tried to encourage me to progress to Newry Tech to complete a CSE in needlework and to possibly go further to gain a teaching qualification in it.

“As was the case for a lot of us back then, I was innocent and naive and a lot of my decisions were based on what my friends were doing so I didn’t follow her advice.  Instead I took the secretarial path to the Civil Service in Belfast.”

The established career paths for girls coming from Intermediate education in the seventies were Teaching, Nursing and Secretarial and Dymphna appreciatively remembers the strong motivation and support from all the teaching staff at St.Joseph’s in their efforts to help the students realise their career options.  In particular, she cites former Vice Principal Bridgie McMahon as a huge driving force behind the female students, encouraging them to break out of their comfort zones and grasp opportunities they may otherwise have dismissed.

“Bridgie McMahon was a great encouragement to us girls. A group of us had gone to do the Civil Service exams and I remember we were all very nervous.  I felt somewhat overwhelmed having travelled to Belfast for the first time in my life, at the height of the Troubles, for an interview and to take the test for Civil Service.

“When we came back, Bridgie bolstered us all, urging us to accept the jobs if we were offered them.  Not only did she want us to spread our wings in a different city, on a practical level she was also well aware that unemployment was rife at the time and that we needed to seize good opportunities when they arose.

“I got called to the Civil Service on the 12th December 1977. I’d only left school in June 1977, so it was all a bit daunting but, remembering Bridgie’s advice and support, I accepted the offer and spent ten very happy years there.

“It was all thanks to the school really and especially to Bridgie for making sure we went, because it was a scary time with the Troubles raging.  Our parents were worried about us going to Belfast, which is ironic that coming from south Armagh, we saw Belfast as a dangerous place and a bit of a war zone!”

Having attended St. Joseph’s during one of the worst periods of the Troubles Dymphna explains that school and education continued largely unaffected by what was happening locally and nationally.

“We were not really aware of ever feeling unsafe or under threat from incidents that happened in the vicinity of the school.  It was something we were all used to so we all carried on regardless,” she says.

“I do recall one evening the bus that brought us home couldn’t get up to the school because there was a hijacked van at the top of the Dundalk Road.  We all had to walk home that evening, some of us five or six miles.

“There were shooting incidents where we knew the drill,  we just lay on the floor and then when the danger had passed we carried on with the lesson. As we were all local to the area we knew what was going on and how to protect ourselves so it was our natural instinct and, in some ways it brought us all even closer as a community.

“There was never any political angle or affiliation in the school,” insists Dymphna,

“People outside of Crossmaglen probably thought we were exposed to that but we never were. We were just there to be educated regardless of the political landscape at the time.”

For Dymphna, there are many memorable teachers who stand out for their commitment and dedication, their teaching methods and the invaluable relationships they forged with their students.

She describes Typing and Accounts teacher Tommy Early as a “fantastic teacher who was excellent at teaching Accounts and who gave every encouragement to his pupils.”

While Geography teacher Mr Cummings is remembered as “ahead of his time.”

“Mr Cummings was so well organised that he had his notes all typed up and photocopied to hand them out to us.

“He instilled such respect that his class was so well behaved and interested in getting on with their work. George Doherty the Art teacher was excellent too as was Mrs Duffy who taught crafts.”

“There was a respect for all the teachers in St. Joseph’s though,” says Dymphna,

“I think we all knew we were valued and our strengths were nurtured so discipline wasn’t really a big problem back then. Of course, students were naturally more obedient at the time and while there may have been some high jinks from pupils it was all good natured with no malice towards fellow pupils or teachers.”

With such strong family ties to St. Joseph’s, Dymphna feels a special connection to the school and commends the staff over the years for the excellent standards they have set in the education of much the local population over five decades.

“St. Joseph’s has been at the heart of the community here for 50 years now and it is heartening from a parent’s perspective to see that the ethos of all inclusiveness and education for all still remains to this day.

“As past pupils of the school, both my husband and I have watched our own four girls flourish to reach their full potential under the expert guidance and support of the teaching staff.

“There are so much more pressures within education now as everything is much more career oriented and academically driven but I can see from my daughters’ experiences that the ethos of getting the best out of every child is still thriving at St. Joseph’s.”

Dymphna has high praise for current Principal John Jones, describing his knowledge of each child and his familiarity with students and their families as “amazing.”

“My youngest daughter received her A-level results last week and I really was impressed with Mr Jones handling of all the students on results day at the school. He knows every pupil so well and their family connections and he knew the results of most of the pupils he spoke to.

“He really has an interest in every child and definitely maintains and implements the whole ethos of nurturing each child to the best of their individual ability.

“Mr Jones will celebrate a C grade from a pupil who strived hard to get it and achieve their personal best as much as he will the A grades.

“It is very fitting that he is the Principal leading the school in its Golden Jubilee year as he is much loved and respected by students, staff and parents.”

As the 50th Anniversary approaches, Dymphna feels it is an important milestone for both the school and the local community who have watched St. Joseph’s grow and develop into a centre of educational excellence in south Armagh.

“I really feel the school has come so far and will become the school of first choice in the area,  especially now the building itself is to be updated and modernised with the long awaited new build.  I’m delighted that myself and my family have been a part of St. Joseph’s throughout the years and we have all benefited immensely from the quality of teaching and education carried out within our highly regarded local high school.”

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