The McMillan family of Creggan will conclude a remarkable connection with Thornhill College this summer. Every year since 1960 a McMillan family member has studied at the all girls’ school but when granddaughter, Grainne Baker, collects her exam results this August, it will be the first break in attendance by the family in 52 years.
The partnership has been astoundingly successful, as it would be tough for other broods to achieve as many academic qualifications as the McMillans.
While there is an argument that the family saved the best student to last in Oxford bound Grainne, the academic record of the 11 siblings will certainly be difficult to surpass.
Being taught at Thornhill College was obviously key in the development of seven of the eight sisters who attended. Proof of just how inspiring they found the experience is the fact that nine of the eleven siblings went on to have teaching careers.
In a twist of fate the McMillan’s remarkable journey through academia started with a missed opportunity.
Mother Winnie was a high achiever at Rosemount Girls’ School and Thornhill offered her a place. Her eldest daughter Kathleen recalled: “She couldn’t attend due to the economic circumstances in her own family.This was before the Education Act of 1947.” Despite the introduction of free education things were still tough when Minnie, who passed away in 2005 was educating her own children.
Cora McMillan recalled: “Education was very important to my mother and fatherJim. We grew up in 46 Dunmore Gardens. Creggan was blighted by the worst of the troubles - we used to wake at night to hear and see the tracer bullets, then we got up early and climbed over the barricades and past the soldiers who searched our bags to get the Swilly bus to school. Creggan was a no go area. Then there was the fact that there was 11 of us in a terraced house so it was a bit of a squeeze at times,” she laughed. “I still remember my first week at Thornhill. I went to the sixth form centre to visit Kathleen and Deirdre. going up those big back stairs in the old building. I was thankful they built a new sixth form centre while I was there.”
Kathleen who later became vice-principal of St. Joseph’s, Westway, and sister Deirdre began Thornhill on the same day.
“I had gone to St. Mary’s but changed at the end of first year,” explains Kathleen.
That was the start of an educational partnership between sisters that would last. Cora and Kathleen later taught together at St. Mary’s, Creggan, with Kathleen staying there for 28 years.
However not all the family stayed in Creggan. As if attempting to prove the adage ‘An education is easy carried’ they have “scattered around the world,” according to Kathleen.
“We still all meet up once a year, we’re very lucky, even though my mother and father are gone we all have each other.”
The girls’ father was a clerk of works for the Road Service. “I still have all his certificates from The Belfast Tech,” smiled Kathleen. “Since we could walk and talk the importance of a good education was drummed into us. When we grew up people around us left school aged 15, that wasn’t even entertained in our house. Our brother Jim hated school but Daddy used to take him in and hand him over to a teacher to stop his truancy.”
Eventually Jim junior won and was allowed to change schools. “The change in him and his work was astronomical,” recalls Kathleen.
Jim went on to become a mechanic at Milanda, his brother Joe a health and safety officer and Niall attended Manchester Met before becoming a PE Teacher. He formerly taught in St. John’s PS Creggan. All of the girls went on to teach though some in later life. Grainne studied Business Law before teaching at an International School in Saudi Arabia. Marion studied Chemistry before reaching the post of vice-principal at St. Mary’s, Hull.
Deirdre also became a vice-principal at an adult education centre in Hull. Kathleen too reached the same postion at St. Joseph’s and still lives in the Creggan parish where, though retired, she still works at the youth club. Una studied at St. Mary’s, London before qualifying as a swimming teacher, teaching other instructors thanks to her qualifications from Sally Hill, Birmingham. She now lives in Dublin.
Her son Aidan O’Keeffe is a former league of Ireland star striker having won the League and Setanta Cup Double in 2007. Eileen became a primary school teacher, holding posts in Blackrock Dublin, St. Eugene’s PS and Rosemount PS.
Cora became a teacher in St. Mary’s Secondary, Creggan as did sister Noreen for one year. Noreen has perhaps travelled more than the rest of her clan. Having attained her Geology degree at Hull University, the mother of two attended Leicester University for her MA. A former Society of Geologist: ‘Young Scientist of the Year’ award winner for her contribution to exploration, Noreen, thanks to a chance meeting in Alasaka, attended the University of Western Australia. There she received her PhD before spending some time working the Australian mines, before travelling to China to work. She now has an honourary Chair at the University of Salzburg.
“Mammy always said Noreen was the lucky one, everything is an advantage to her.”
After the sisters, five of Winnie’s grandchildren, enrolled at Thornhill. “I taught every one of the McMillans who came here,” said Thornhill teacher Pat McLucas. “I never got to meet Una but the family were wonderful, lovely people. I used to say to them ‘Are you another one off the McMillan carousel?’”
The latest ‘version,’ Grainne is doing her level best to record as many qualifications as all her predecessors combined. Having attained 14 A* A-Levels thanks to her ability to teach herself Latin and Greek, Grainne is now studying A-Level Greek, Latin, History, French and Maths, as well as a GCSE in ancient Hebrew and As in further Maths, to add to the A* AS Level Irish she received in lower Sixth.
“I picked up a Latin textbook when they were clearing out my granny’s house in Creggan,” said Grainne. “I liked it so I started studying it. I really like languages and it makes it easier to go to school in the morning.”
Mother, Cora added: “Thornhill have been magnificent to us and Grainne, she is a happy, dedicated student.”
But then thanks to the herculean efforts of Winnie and Jim McMillan, it would seem they all are.