Jim Barriskill - an educator, a leader, a philanthropist and horticulturist

Once dubbed the ‘Stanley Matthews’ of the Portadown hockey world by the late, great Portadown Times journalist Victor Gordon, this month has seen the sad passing of one the town’s most inspirational characters, former Millington Primary School Headmaster, James (Jim) Barriskill, just a few weeks before his 97th birthday.

Thursday, 27th May 2021, 12:33 pm
Jim Barriskill.

An educator, a leader, an athlete, a philanthropist, and a horticulturist, Jim will be fondly remembered by thousands of pupils he taught, the staff he guided, the teammates he supported, and by those who knew him, he was fondly referred to in his later years as Gentleman Jim.

Born into a farming family in the townland of Ballyworken, Jim, the youngest of four siblings, began his education at Mullavilly Primary School, before moving to Thomas Street School where he obtained a scholarship to attend Portadown College in 1937. Upon finishing his time at Portadown College, Jim was awarded the prestigious King’s Scholarship to attend Stranmillis Teacher Training College and thus beginning his successful journey in our country’s education system.

Upon graduating, he returned to Portadown as an assistant teacher in Church Street school as the war that took his older brother Jack came to a close. Jim then took a position in the town’s new secondary school, Clounagh Junior High, an institution that allowed him to excel, becoming the school’s Vice-Principal in 1957.

It was during his time at Clounagh that he wed his true love, and mother of his three sons David, Stephen, and Brian, the late Betty Barriskill and settled into family life in Whiteside’s Hill.

Jim’s career path, however, lay with younger learners and with pride, he accepted the role principal at his own former school of Thomas Street in 1964. When the primary Schools of Church Street and Thomas Street were amalgamated to create the town’s new Millington Primary School in 1970, there was no better man to be placed in charge than Jim Barriskill where he remained until his retirement from mainstream education.

The impact that Jim had in his role as one of the town’s leading educators remains a strong part of his legacy. He was beloved by his pupils and it is often commented how he remembered every pupil’s name and always displayed kindness and patience. He was also a mentor to many younger teaching staff, who benefitted from Jim’s example, guidance and support.

Jim was a very early advocate of the modern concept that no child should be left behind and it was this ethos that enthused him to support of the Dickson Plan. Jim firmly believed that to place a child under rigorous examination at the tender age of 11, an examination that would play a deciding role in their future, was not correct path. Instead, he believed that a child needed time to mature and time to reach their potential before such pressured examinations would take place. The Dickson Plan was responsible for introducing the system of Junior High Schools in North Armagh that remains to this day, despite the attempts to dismantle it. The work that Jim and his colleagues did in the 1960s to put the Dickson Plan in action must be praised, without it, many of us may have ended up leading very different lives.

Jim’s ethos of education lives on with his grandson Cain, who is currently the Head of English at De Montfort University International College in Leicester but is shortly due to take up a new role as Programme Leader of English Language and Teaching at Bishop Grossesteste University in Lincoln, a long-standing teacher training institution.

Jim’s life and influence went much beyond the confines of the classroom, as it was often the sports field and the great outdoors where he was happiest. As a youth, he excelled at rugby. At Portadown College he broke the school record by playing for the first XV for four years running, captaining the side, later taking his prowess on the rugby field to represent the Stranmillis Kings Scholars. A life-long Chelsea fan, Jim also played football for the Mid-Ulster schoolboy team and was eventually signed by Glentoran.

However, with the demands of a farming life and prospective career as a young teacher, Jim gave up his contract to return to play for his beloved Laurelvale. Despite his skills on both the rugby and football pitches, it was hockey that Jim was to dedicate most of his sporting career. Jim first took Laurelvale Hockey Club to the final of the Braddell Shield against Saintfield but due to the riotous behaviour of the Laurelvale fans, the team received a life-long ban by the Hockey Union (a story well worth looking into!).

At this point Jim joined Portadown Hockey team where he was destined to captain the first team, and played well until the age 60 for the seconds and thirds and was even recalled to the first team at the age of 50 to play men half his age.

While sport brought Jim great joy, he was always happiest creating joy for others. At some point in the 1960s, he decided to construct and cultivate his own football pitch on a piece of farmland next to his home on Whiteside’s Hill. Affectionately known as ‘Wembley’, boys made their way on bikes or by foot from Mullavilly, Ballylisk, Laurelvale and even as far as Portadown and Tandragee for bi-weekly matches. Jim’s ‘Wembley’ brought together boys from different religious and social backgrounds on an equal standing and many life-long friendships were made in the summer evenings on the makeshift Whiteside’s Hill football field.

In 1981, Jim somehow convinced soccer legend George Best to visit Millington Primary School, an experience fondly remembered not only by the pupils and staff at the time, but also by Best’s sister Barbara in her book ‘Our George’.

Jim was also one of the driving forcing in introducing flood lights to Chambers Park and the impact of this for sporting opportunities for the town speaks for itself.

Finally, a reflection of the life of Jim Barriskill would not be complete without a mention of his great love of nature. Devoting much of his time to the Scouts, Jim was awarded the honorary Chief Scouts Badge for his significant contributions to the association.

Jim had a particular love for the Mountains of Mourne and Kerry and this is where he spent many of his summers, leading youth groups in outdoor pursuits. This love eventually led him to manage the then newly built Killowen Outdoor Education Centre in 1987 when he retired from Millington.

Jim also took great joy and pride in his garden which, even to this day, is a sight to behold. He was recently invited to plant a tree at Millington PS to mark the centenary of N. Ireland. Unfortunately, at this time he was already in hospital. Millington may count themselves lucky as he was likely to have arrived with a bag of horse manure and a strict list of horticultural instructions to be adhered to precisely.

Jim left a lasting impact on everyone he met and will be deeply missed by all who knew him. The beauty of his garden is perhaps a reflection of the beauty of the man, kind, generous, wise and strong, a life well lived.

James Francis Barriskill (Jim) born 18th June 1924 died 17th May 2021.

The son of David and Charlotte, Jim had three siblings, Jack, Nan, Dolly who are all now deceased.

He was married to Elizabeth Barriskill (Betty), who was born on 28 May 1926 and died on 10th July 2004,on 26th December 1952 . They had three sons – David, Stephen and Brian. They also had six grandchildren, Jason (deceased), Rebecca (deceased), Cain, Abigail, Anna and Mia and great grand children.

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