Vital to the ‘war effort’ Clooney is key to education infrastructure

Historically the site of a military base, Clooney Barracks, off Limavady Road, was the ‘home’ of American Navy, and played a key role in the Allied Forces’ battle plans in World War II.

As such it was a vital cog in the machine which ultimately saw the defeat of Hitler’s forces in Europe, and helped mark Londonderry as a key port and base for the Allied command and troops.

Now though, as the site is being cleared in preparation for the commencement of work on the new Foyle and Londonderry College, there have been calls for the importance of the development not to be lost among the red tape and the need to justify spending in trying economic circumstances.

Blaming Sinn Fein’s “procrastination” for the delays in developing the Clooney site, Tom Elliott, MLA said: “The situation in the controlled education sector in the city of Londonderry is quite frankly intolerable. Clearance work continues on the Clooney site but no progress on development of the new schools. It is the pupils from the City and wider area that are being disadvantaged by the Sinn Fein Minister’s procrastination.

He continued: “Ebrington Primary is in a very poor state and is in urgent need of a new build. The delay in constructing the new Foyle and Londonderry College has meant a knock on effect on the expansion of the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster. This will result with a loss of jobs, loss to the economy and a loss to development of Higher Education opportunities for our students. This project has been discussed for years and progress is intolerably slow.”

Meanwhile Pat Ramsey, MLA, said: “It is imperative that every effort is made to progress the work on the Clooney site for the benefit of the young people of the Waterside as soon as possible. As well as the obvious need in the area, the continued delay is also affecting the ability of the University of Ulster to expand into the Foyle and Londonderry College site. I have raised the issue with the Minister a number of times and I will continue to urge him to prioritise the education facilities in the Waterside area going forward.”

DUP Alderman April Garfield-Kidd, said she would encourage any development on the Clooney site which would forward the new-build in favour of Foyle and Londonderry College, and that works should be undertaken as soon as possible.

“This work needs to be done as soon as possible, especially when you consider the development in light of the news that the University of Ulster is purchasing more land in the Belfast area. Does this fact not obviously move ahead the expression of interest in relation to the development of Foyle and Londonderry?” she said.

Mrs Garfield-Kidd went on: “Limavady Road is one of the main arterial routes into and out of the city on the Waterside, and the development of the new school on the Clooney site would clean this area up.

“The residents of Limavady Road are fed up with the eyesore that this site has become, despite the ongoing clearance works, and it would be a great relief to many people living adjacent to it to see the building work completed and aesthetic work carried out on the grounds to enhance the visual amenity of the Limavady Road.”

Mrs Garfield-Kidd said the long-term benefits for development were “there to be gained” adding that it was also vital to develop the site so that it would result in improved facilities for the teaching and ancillary staff, as well as ensuring the provision of education for all children currently attending Foyle and Londonderry College now and in the future.

“It is also important to remember that Ebrington Primary School will relocate to this site as part of the overall new build. As it stands Ebrington is one of the oldest premises in the city’s portfolio of school buildings, and a s such it is and should be considered a priority for new build and treated as the emergency it is,” she said.

Foyle MLA Raymond McCartney said: “Successive Sinn Féin Ministers have shown their commitment to delivering a first-class schools estate and the massive amount of investment which has taken place in Derry over recent years is evidence of that.

“Obviously, we are in constrained financial times as a result of the British Government cuts to the Executive’s budget and the Education Department has been particularly badly affected. Therefore, the Minister is, quite rightly, taking time to consider how these limited funds can best be prioritised in order to secure the maximum educational benefits for all children and young people.”

Clooney as a

military base

US Naval communications in Northern Ireland began out of necessity when the US Naval Operating Base at Londonderry became a centre of military activity at the beginning of World War II. Allied communications centred around a radio facility that was established as an integral part of the Naval Operating Base on 3 February 1942.  In 1943 the US Navy acquired use of the land upon which the Clooney and Rossdowney compounds were later situated and on 30 July 1943, the base personnel were delighted when Bob Hope and actress Frances Langford visited them

The US Naval Radio Station (NAVRADSTA), Londonderry, was established as a separate activity from the US Naval Operating Base on July 10, 1944. Thus, this date is considered the actual commencement date of what was to ultimately become US NAVCOMMSTA Londonderry. One month later, on 15 August 1944, the US Naval Operating Base was de-commissioned, leaving the NAVRADSTA, and its sailors, as the only remaining US military activity in Londonderry. 

On November 7, 1950, the NAVRADSTA at Londonderry was re-designated as a US Naval Radio Facility (NAVRADFAC).  It was later designated a US Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMMSTA) on July 10, 1961.

US NAVCOMMSTA Londonderry was disestablished on September 30, 1977, ending a 35-year history of US Naval communications in Londonderry and ending what had been a very long and close relationship of US Navy sailors with the Londonderry community.  

At the time of its closing, US NAVCOMMSTA Londonderry had been the oldest US naval facility in Europe. No other US military service organization served in Londonderry longer than the US Navy. While the US Army and the US Marines served in Londonderry for approximately three years, the US Navy proudly served for over 35 years.

The link with the city has continued long after the Base closed, as many of the personnel married local girls.

One of those who took the plunge and married a ‘local girl’ was Jerry Keenan who still has relatives living here.

He writes: “In 1966 I married a local Derry girl and we had four kids. The oldest son is my step-son. Our daughter, Karen (Keenan) McBride still lives in Derry and was married, but now divorced, and my two grandchildren still live there, too. My granddaughter is now 23 and my grandson will be 20 next month. Another daughter, Audrey, was born in Derry but died in Gaeta, Italy in 1968 and is buried in City Cemetery in Creggan along with her grandfather.

“Our youngest son enlisted in the US Navy in London when I was stationed there in 1988 and served four years during the Gulf War, before getting out and living in San Diego for 10 years or so. He returned to Derry several years ago and married a Derry girl too.

“I met my second wife in Derry, too, but she was serving in the Navy at the time as well and, although Irish descent also, she was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. We have three kids, too. Our two daughters were born in London and the youngest now lives in Texas with her boyfriend, a former Marine wounded in Afghanistan. Our son still lives with us and will be 20 this Friday. I know – this makes him three years younger than his niece (my granddaughter) and only three weeks older than his nephew – my grandson.

Marriage

He continued: “My oldest girl from this marriage took off for Derry back in 2006 to visit with her siblings there because she hadn’t seen them since around 1986 or 87 when they came to London from Derry for a couple of weeks.

“Of course, on her way home from Derry she got caught at Heathrow during that bomb scare when those terrorists tried to take down 10 aircraft destined for the States. She was there and was delayed in her return for nearly 13 hours. In the summer of 2007, my whole Derry family, all six of them, including my ex-son-in-law, visited us for three weeks.

“In September 2010 my youngest son from that marriage came here for two weeks with his then fiancé. He proposed to her in front of Tiffany’s on 5th Avenue in Manhattan on September 11, 2010, nine years to the day after 9/11.

Tiffany’s

“Of course, we all pointed that out to him. Tiffany’s was chosen because my daughter-in-law’s favorite movie is ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. I have photos of that, too, of course, down on one knee and the whole bit at just about noon right on 5th Ave., probably the busiest street in the city. Of course, they stopped traffic and everyone on the sidewalk gave them a wide berth – you should have heard the cheers and applause,” he said, overjoyed at the memory.

“We missed the organization’s reunion in Derry this past July because we were there in May/June. That’s when my son got married. The wedding was in her hometown of Omagh, reception was in Strabane where we stayed the night and back to Derry the next day. We were there for two weeks,” he said.

“I left Derry back in 1976 and hadn’t been back again until last year for my son’s wedding. I have to say the changes were incredible! But because of the dates between the wedding and the reunion, we couldn’t stay for both, so my wife and I missed the reunion. As I mentioned, she, too, is an alumni of the base. She served there from 1975-1977.”

If any Sentinel readers are interested, Jerry is the Base Historian, maintaining the official website (http://navcommsta-londonderry.freeservers.com/) that has provided the historical information for this article.

Disestablished

Once disestablished in 1977, the site was taken over by the Ministry of Defence and used mainly as a base for families of serving soldiers.

When they vacated, the site was acquired in 2009 by Foyle College, in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Western Education and Library Board, as the site for the new Foyle and Ebrington Primary School.

The Clooney site, with the portion identified for Foyle College being renamed the ‘Springham Campus’ after the founder of the original school in 1617, will compliment the historical aspect of the site. A delegation from the US Navy Alumni visited during the summer of 2011 and were assured that Foyle were considering a permanent feature being created, once the College was built, commemorating their association with the former base.

The schools’ design team have developed plans well beyond the current development stage and outline perspectives are available of how they will look.

Site clearance begins this week in preparation for the new builds although both have been delayed by the current review requested by the Department of Education, of the complete education estate in Northern Ireland.

The chairman of governors of Foyle College, Robin Young, this week confirmed that many meetings have taken place since last summer with in an attempt to move the project forward.

On his meeting with the Minister of Education, John O’Dowd, at Stormont last August he further commented: “We were supported by representatives of all the major political parties in the city, all voicing the same message, that the builds must happen quickly and that they were a major component of the city wide regeneration.

“The Minister also visited the College in October and saw for himself the excellent quality of education delivered here in Foyle. I have again written to Minister O’Dowd, requesting that the current review of education provision for the local area be completed as a matter of urgency, so allowing him to take the decision that all in this City are demanding.”

Robin Young called on the local politicians to again lobby on behalf of both schools to urge for a speedy resolution on a local basis and an early announcement of funding.