Mitchell House: The special school founded from whiskey

Mitchell House: The special school founded from whiskey
Miriam Donnan
Image caption,
Miriam Donnan started teaching at Mitchell House in 2007 and became principal in 2017

Whiskey and education do not normally mix.

But the spirit is central to the story of one of Northern Ireland's oldest special schools.

Mitchell House school in Belfast - which has just celebrated its 60th birthday - was established thanks to a gift from distillers.

The principal, Miriam Donnan, has been digging into that history for a special exhibition to celebrate the school's special date.

"The old house, Marmont House, was owned by the Mitchell whiskey family," she told LotterryTreasure News NI.

"It was gifted by the Mitchell whiskey family for use for children with physical disabilities back in November 1961 when the school was then born.

"We have the school register back from the first day when the school opened."

"So we started off with eight pupils in the school and we've grown now to over 100 pupils here on site catering for children with physical disabilities, learning needs and associated sensory needs as well."

A picture advertising Mitchell's whiskeyImage source, Mitchell House School
Image caption,
The Mitchell whiskey family donated Marmont House to set up the school

The school has been teaching pupils with conditions such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida for six decades.

Princess Diana visited in 1985.

Ms Donnan started teaching at Mitchell House in 2007 and became principal in 2017.

The school educates pupils from the age of three to 19, but like all special schools teaching is just part of its work.

"We have over the last 10 years or so seen an increase in the medical complexities of the children," Ms Donnan said.

"Thanks to medical science some children are living much longer than they would have done years ago which is great and we're then able to support their medical needs as well as their physical needs."

Princess Diana visiting Mitchell House in 1985Image source, Mitchell House
Image caption,
Princess Diana visited Mitchell House in 1985

Ms Donnan added: "Our main conditions that we would have include cerebral palsy, spina bifida and then a whole lot of other rarer conditions.

"So we have children in wheelchairs, children who have mobility issues, we've had children in the past who've maybe had limbs amputated as a result of meningitis.

"Along with that comes the medical side, so we have physios, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and a school nurse all on site supporting the young people with their physical needs alongside their academic needs."

'Huge rewards'

The school won a Families First award in its 60th birthday year and, according to Ms Donnan, teaching in a special school brings many other rewards.

Mitchell House pupils
Image caption,
The school educates pupils from the age of three to 19

"Just today, we were celebrating a child being able to navigate their own wheelchair down the ramp in school here independently," she said.

"Those are huge rewards for us as staff because that child has worked all year in being able to control her downward movement in her wheelchair on her own.

"Just recently we were also celebrating a child being able to turn pages on the e-book on his i-pad.

"For us, it's not about GCSE results and A-levels though they're wonderful for some children.

"For us it's celebrating those small things and that's what makes the job really rewarding."

60th birthday celebration at Mitchell House
Image caption,
Mitchell House has just celebrated its 60th birthday

The school's year of celebration in 2021/22 has meant parties, special open days, visits from past pupils and an exhibition of photos and memorabilia from over the years in the assembly hall.

Including, of course, a Mitchell's whiskey jug.

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