Belfast Royal Academy remembers alumni after 230 years

Former archbishop of Armagh and primate of All Ireland Lord Eames attended the secondary school

Whether it is in politics, in the arts, or on the Ireland rugby team, you do not have to look very far to find a Belfast Royal Academy pupil making an impact on life on this island and further afield.

The oldest school in the city is celebrating its 230th anniversary with the help of pupils and eminent alumni.

Belfast Royal Academy, based on Cliftonville Road in north Belfast since 1880, was founded by Rev Dr James Crombie in 1785 as Belfast Academy, in Academy Street. In 1888, Queen Victoria granted the school its royal charter.

At the end of May a bronze plaque commemorating the school’s foundation was unveiled at St Anne’s Cathedral, opposite the location of its original building.


"It was a radical age, and a time of auspicious beginnings," said headmaster Moore Dickson. "In 1785 the first edition of the [London] Times was published, under the less catchy title the Daily Universal Register; the dollar was chosen as the currency of the United States; Napoleon became a lieutenant in the French artillery; the first balloon crossed the English Channel; and the Belfast Academy was founded."


Former archbishop of Armagh and primate of All Ireland Lord Eames attended the secondary school and later became co-chairman, along with Denis Bradley, of the Consultative Group on the Past in Northern Ireland.

The intellectually formidable Irish politician Conor Cruise O'Brien taught history at the school just before the outbreak of the second World War, and during that time married Christine Foster, the daughter of the then headmaster, Alex Foster.

Other alumni are current British Labour MP Kate Hoey; Stormont MLAs Nelson McCausland and Basil McCrea; late gentleman thief Peter Scott, known internationally as "the king of the cat burglars"; former Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby; and the late Jack Kyle, doctor and rugby international.

Lisburn man Iain Henderson (23), of Ulster and Ireland's back row, told The Irish Times he has very fond memories of his time at the academy, and its preparatory school, Ben Madigan, at the foot of Cave Hill.

“I was on the Firsts at school and they have always been very supportive and wished me well,” he says.

Henderson shares a house with teammate Stuart Olding, another former pupil.

“Stuart was the year below me and our fathers also went to Ben Madigan and BRA, so we have that close connection,” Henderson says.


Of the its 1,400 pupils, about 55 per cent are Protestant and 25 per cent Catholic, with the remaining 20 per cent of other religious traditions or none.

While the North’s education department is discouraging the use of admissions tests on equity grounds, BRA continues to operate one through the Association of Quality Education. The school also seeks a voluntary contribution from parents.

On the issue of diversity, Moore Dickson said: “Queen’s University academic Dr Joanne Hughes, at the Centre for Shared Education, has coined the phrase ‘super-mixed’ to describe schools such as ourselves which have significant natural integration.”