A School with a Difference

John Heenan

Twenty-five percent of those killed during the thirty years of troubles in Northern Ireland lived within four miles of the Mount Gilbert Community College. Situated in the Greater Shankill area of Belfast the college’s community is still racked by violent sectarian clashes. Many of its students have been traumatised by politically motivated violence.

As if that were not enough, the area has, over recent decades, faced economic decline and loss of employment. Eight out of every ten families are dependent upon welfare. One in every four people is reported to have health problems and the misuse of drugs and alcohol among the young is rife.

The day I visited Mount Gilbert Community College a nearby street was littered with stones and bricks. The Education Board official who accompanied me commented that there must have been a shindy during the weekend.

I was overwhelmed by the security. The high fence, the security cameras and the single entrance with its electronic locks. We were met by a security guard who took us to sign the visitor arrival and departure register before escorting us to the principal’s office.

Once in his office my surprise at the security gave way to admiration for a gentle and caring leader who hurt for his divided community. John Crossan is committed to helping bring the two communities together and offer his students hope for a better future. Sadly, extremists on both sides often misinterpret his good intentions.

John Crossan is an inspiring principal who has overcome tremendous challenges to win the respect of his community and international recognition for Mount Gilbert Community College. A lesser principal may have abandoned the college believing it to be adrift in a sea of insurmountable problems.

The college came to the attention of international media through the initiative in an information technology class and a student leader Margaret Gibney. It all started with a simple class project. The teacher, Philip Hutton, asked his students to write to world leaders requesting a special message for peace. It resulted in a wall of letters that become known as the Wall of Peace acclaimed by no lesser persons than Tony Blair, President Clinton and Mother Teresa.

It is said that the only place where Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, David Trimble the Pope and the Queen can be seen together is on Mount Gilbert’s Wall of Peace.

The wall of letters led to Margaret Gibney became an ambassador for peace and travelling the world to promote peace and reconciliation.

The Wall of Peace became an inspiration for student poems. Many, including Margaret Gibney’s The White Dove were set to music. Margaret wrote her poem when she was thirteen years old. During her life she had known only one year of peace and had lost her best friend in a Shankill bombing.

Mount Gilbert’s next venture was the formation of a cross-community choir involving thirty students aged 12 – 16 years from Mount Gilbert, St. Gabriel’s and St Gemma’s Colleges. The choir has become highly acclaimed, travelled widely, and won many awards. Recently it won two major awards in London.

Mount Gilbert Community College, despite all its disadvantages, has shown that one troubled school, under inspired leadership, can make a difference in its community.

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