School’s out for Paul

Paul O'Hea principal of Nazareth House Primary School pictured at the school on Wednesday afternoon. He is retiring after 27 years' service. DER2516GS024
Paul O'Hea principal of Nazareth House Primary School pictured at the school on Wednesday afternoon. He is retiring after 27 years' service. DER2516GS024

His claim to fame is that he’s the only principal in Derry, and perhaps Ireland, who can build a giant igloo with 1,377 empty milk cartons.

Paul O’Hea bids farewell to Nazareth House P.S. next month after 26 years in a school he says has that “something special.”

Paul O'Hea principal of Nazareth House Primary School pictured with P7 pupils at the school on Wednesday afternoon. He is retiring after 27 years' service. DER2516GS023

Paul O'Hea principal of Nazareth House Primary School pictured with P7 pupils at the school on Wednesday afternoon. He is retiring after 27 years' service. DER2516GS023

But the decision to retire has been a difficult one for the Derry man.

“It’s time for me, and time for the school,” he said. “I came to Nazareth House in September 1990 as vice-principal and became principal in 2005. Now I have two children in my primary seven class - Adam and Michael, whose parents I taught back in 1990.

“I was always going to go within the year, but I kept going back and forth thinking about it. It was an awful decision to make and the closer I got to making it, the harder it was to tell people. And when I did, for some of them it was a shock, it came a bit out of the blue.

“Next Thursday will be my last day with the children in the school but I’ll try and get cleared up by the end of July.”

His three decades at Nazareth House P.S. have been marked with many happy moments including the fantastic music element that has made the school famous.

“I remember being at the Whitla Hall when the school were in the final of the UTV school choir of the year,” he said. “There they all were, getting off the bus in Belfast in their blue jumpers, and I felt so proud that it was my school.

“One of my lasting memories of Nazareth House will be the huge generosity of our school community and the ethos of caring that came from the Sisters of Nazareth. It is just so humbling to think of the things that have been done over the years, even as recently as the Foyle Hospice School Olympics where we did ‘Bob a Job.’ Overnight we collected the guts of £1,000.

“When we did the Sri Lankan fundraiser for the tsunami we tried to buy a boat but we ended up with three boats.

“The weans were coming into school and emptying their piggy banks to help. It was stunning. I’m getting goose bumps even now just thinking about it. Then when we had the money for our defibrillator stolen, the reaction we had from the community, you can’t even put it into words. It was so special.”

It was with regret that the school bid farewell to the Sisters of Nazareth when they moved out and sold the Bishop Street residential home and chapel three years ago.

“When we had the chapel we had a class at Mass every single day,” said Mr. O’Hea. “Religion and Catholicism have been to the fore in this school. The sacramental programme has not really changed over the years and it is really special. Of all the sacraments I enjoy the first confession the most, because the youngsters do everything from start to finish. It just does your heart good.

“We don’t have our own chapel anymore. The hardest part of that to replace was that the youngsters don’t get to see the care provided for older people. That’s something you can’t teach. Our youngsters are so kind to younger pupils and the older people in particular.”

The Derry principal says the biggest compliment he has been paid is when former pupils of Nazareth House PS choose to send their own children to the school.

“You say to yourself that you must have been doing something right,” he said. “I know I am biased but there is something special about this school. There is an atmosphere and ethos. I’ve been lucky that the staff here have really bought into that, they work hard but they enjoy their work.

“Carmel and Nuala in the school office are worth their weight in gold, I’ve been really lucky.

“I always say when you come to Nazareth House you are here for life, we have a lot of staff who have been with us a long time.”

Next week marks the last days of the primary seven pupils in the school, culminating with the annual leavers’ Mass.

Nazareth House’s loss will be the O’Hea family’s gain as Paul says he intends spending more time with his grandchildren Ciaran, Joseph and Sienna.

“I play golf as well,” he said. “And if I want to see more of my wife Margaret I’ll have to play more golf because she loves it, maybe I’ll start caddying for her?”

With his successor to be named in the near future Paul O’Hea says he’ll be handing over the school’s bell to the new principal telling them that they are blessed with a good school, great youngsters and fantastic families.”

“I’ve loved every minute,” he said.