From the files of the DIB…

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2010), Volume 18

77_small_1268936338O’FARRELL,Sr Genevieve (1923–2001), headmistress, was born Mary O’Farrell on 22March 1923 in Tullamore, Co. Offaly, fifth child and only daughter ofWilliam O’Farrell, farm manager, and his wife Catherine. Educatedlocally by the Sisters of Mercy, she was a bright but shy student. Herdecision to enter the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paulsurprised people, since she was not notably pious and the life of thatorder was known to be especially rigorous. She was admitted as aseminary sister on 9 March 1942 and donned the habit the followingyear. To her disappointment she was sent for teacher training; herpreference was to work directly with the poor and she had an aversionto teaching. Her first placement was in a boys’ orphanage, where shewas given the name ‘Sr Genevieve’. From here she was sent in 1950 toteach at St Mary’s primary school in Lanark, Scotland, a country shegrew to love and often returned to for holidays.
In January 1956 shewas sent to teach at St Vincent’s primary school off the Falls Road,Belfast, and in 1958 was appointed vice-principal of St Louise’s, a newsecondary school for girls on the Falls Road. Although not appointedprincipal until 1963, she soon became the most influential figure inthe school. A vocal opponent of the 11-plus system, she refused toaccept the valuation of her school as an institution for academicfailures. Her priorities were discipline, qualifications andconfidence-building; the obstacles she faced were poor funding and thestudents’ family backgrounds of high unemployment and low expectations.From the start her achievements were considerable. She persuaded anever-increasing number of girls to stay on past the school-leaving ageof fifteen, and through a system of ‘courtesy points’ instilledself-confidence and manners. One of her first acts was to design auniform, including beret and gloves, which had to be worn to and fromschool; she was known to patrol the streets to ensure this.
Aformidable figure, Sr Genevieve cultivated an aura of aloofness andauthority, helped by her tall, striking appearance. A former student,Mary Costello, fictionalised her in a novel as Sr Bonaventure: ‘stern,courageous, intelligent; and for a nun, unconventional, an odd-bod. Shewas also the only nun with sex appeal I’d ever met . . . But she washard as yesterday’s baps . . . my nerve-endings would contract at thesound of her resonant, Free State voice’. Another description was‘Margaret Thatcher with a spiritual dimension’. Nonetheless sheinspired affection, as well as respect, by championing staff andstudents, and constantly fighting the prejudices of the educationauthorities and the Catholic Church towards working-class girls.
Withthe outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 came a new role: keeping theschool a haven amid chaos. Aware that her students’ lives were nowabnormal—many family members were in jail, on the run or dead—sheinsisted on maintaining standards and refused to make allowances.Whatever the family trauma or civic upset, students were expected inschool on time. If buses were cancelled, they were advised to get upearly and walk. At assembly, prayers were offered up for all victims ofthe Troubles.
Sr Genevieve took on the British Army, refusing toallow them to search the school, and on one occasion successfullydemanded that a soldier who snatched a girl’s beret make a publicapology. Nevertheless, she stated publicly that the most dangerousaspect of life in the Troubles was the paramilitaries’ grip oncommunities. The school was close to Milltown cemetery, where many IRAfunerals took place. Sr Genevieve refused to close the school on theseoccasions, relenting only for the funeral of Bobby Sands. Her stanceagainst paramilitaries earned her the title of ‘best man on the FallsRoad’ and did her little harm within the community, but her cooperationwith British authorities and her acceptance of an OBE in 1978 provokedcriticism. Her achievements, however, silenced most critics. By 1979 StLouise’s Comprehensive College was the largest girls’ school in westernEurope, with 2,400 students, and after Sr Genevieve’s retirement in1988 it was one of five schools out of 573 to win an award of £50,000from the Jerwood Foundation.
On retirement Sr Genevieve served onnumerous public boards and began visiting paramilitary prisoners, whomshe encouraged to study for Open University courses. Among the loyalistprisoners she befriended were two of the ‘Shankill butchers’, notoriousfor their gruesome sectarian murders; she insisted that as they hadrenounced violence they deserved compassion. Her visits continued untilshe suffered a severe stroke in May 1994. She died on 29 December 2001at the Daughters of Charity’s home in Balmoral Avenue, Belfast. HI
Bridget Hourican was formerly an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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