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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 June, 2004, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
Holy Cross head reflects on dispute

By Mark Simpson
BBC Ireland correspondent

A principal who was thrust into the international media spotlight by a loyalist protest outside her Belfast school is about to retire. Holy Cross Girls Primary School head Anne Tanney speaks about how her school had weathered the storm.

If you ever bump into Anne Tanney in north Belfast, don't use the phrase "There is no such thing such as bad publicity".

She is the best-known teacher in Northern Ireland, the headmistress of the most-photographed school in the UK and her face has been seen in newspapers across the world - but for all the wrong reasons.

Anne Tanney
Anne Tanney is retiring after 36 years of teaching

People point at her in shops and whisper: "There's that woman from the school where the Catholic kids faced that big protest."

Mrs Tanney is bemused by it all.

Three years ago, she was an ordinary headmistress in an ordinary school, heading for retirement.

Then came the loyalist protest, and suddenly Holy Cross girls school was leading news bulletins across the globe.

"When I retire, and things go back to normal, I'm sure people will hardly remember who I am," she says with a hopeful smile.

And in spite of the traumatic events at the school in the autumn of 2001, she believes an important lesson has been learned.

"I think that it showed that schools and children should never be targeted. And it may have made people stop and think about what is happening to our society and that we have to work together - and we have to live together."

The three-month protest was sparked by a local dispute between Catholic and Protestant residents.

Amid tight security, children were escorted to Holy Cross school
Holy Cross school was the pawn in the middle.

The Protestants claimed that Catholics were attacking their homes. The protest was their way of highlighting their concerns.

Holy Cross is a victim of bad geography - a Catholic school in a Protestant area. The dispute ended after both sides agreed to a package of enhanced security and social measures for this troubled part of north Belfast.

Another possible solution - closing the school - was ruled out, much to Mrs Tanney's relief.

She's been teaching there for 36 years - including nine as vice-principal and 17 as principal.

The 12 weeks during the protest were the toughest.

"There were times when I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. "However, I don't want to think about that... " she says, nervously.

I coped by focussing on the children. I used to bite my lip, trying not to cry in front of the children
Anne Tanney
Every day she kept hoping: "This will be the last day," but on it went. So how did she cope?

"I coped by focussing on the children," she says. Around 100 of them needed counselling. There were a lot of tears, but not from Mrs Tanney - well, not in public.

"I used to bite my lip, trying not to cry in front of the children," she remembers.

And like most things Mrs Tanney did, she was successful.

What helped was a large batch of rag dolls, paid for by donations from America during the time of the protest.

Mrs Tanney used the money to buy 250 of them - one for everyone in the school. In many ways, these dolls became the equivalent of a comfort blanket.

The number of pupils at the school has dropped in the past three years, but, remarkably, none of the staff has left.

Although there is now calm inside and outside the school, things are not completely back to normal. Cross-community ventures with a Protestant school across the road from Holy Cross have yet to resume.

Emotions are too raw - in both communities - for those bridges to be rebuilt.

The dolls became 'comfort blankets' for the children
Maybe one day, but it'll be too late for Mrs Tanney, who leaves at the end of this month.

She knew it was time to go when she realised that she had taught not just the mothers of some of the pupils at the school, but the grandmothers.

Leaving Holy Cross is going to be difficult. For her, it has been more than a job, and the staff would not be surprised if she arrived back at some stage in a voluntary capacity.

Retirement means she will now have more time to concentrate on her neglected hobby - painting.

She is also looking forward to doing some international travelling. If you spot her at an airport... remember not to point.

Clashes at Belfast school protest
03 Sep 01 |  Northern Ireland
Peaceful school run for pupils
26 Nov 01 |  Northern Ireland


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