Belfast Royal Academy aims to prepare pupils for their future lives along whatever path they choose and over the centuries, the School has helped shape the minds of many prominent and interesting characters. Whether it is in politics, in the arts, in the world of science, or indeed even on the Ireland rugby team, you do not have to look very far to find an Academy pupil making an impact on life on this island and further afield. Below is just a brief selection of some of the numerous notable alumni who have moved on to successful careers in a wide variety of different sectors.
Sir Henry Pottinger negotiated the Treaty of Nanking by which Hong Kong was ceded to Britain. He was the first Governor of Hong Kong then later The Governor of Cape Colony and Governor of Madras.
After school, Sir Donald Currie entered the shipping office of a relative in Greenock before moving to the Cunard Steamship Company where he later become Head of the cargo department and set up offices across Europe. In 1862 he founded The Castle Shipping Company, which later become the famous Union Castle Line and set up the first sailing ships between Liverpool and Calcutta on a regular basis.
Sir Hugh McCalmont Cairns studied Classics at Trinity College Dublin after school, before being called to the Bar to start his legal career. In 1852 he entered Parliament as a member for Belfast and became a QC in 1858. He was a senior Conservative in the House of Lords then went on to be appointed Solicitor-General and was knighted in 1858. In 1868 he was made Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain.
Joseph Gillis Biggar was a prominent Irish nationalist politician and colleague of C S Parnell. He was MP for West Cavan and devised the tactic of parliamentary obstruction in the pursuance of Home Rule. He once had the future King Edward VII removed from the House of Commons.
Robert Young was the famous architect who founded Young and MacKenzie. He designed the Anderson and McAuley building, Robinson and Cleavers, the Scottish Provident building and the main Crombie Building of BRA.
James Bryce became Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford University. He was a Liberal MP for Tower Hamlets and later Aberdeen. He became Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and was also Chief Secretary of Ireland and the British Ambassador to Washington (1907-13).
Jack McCleery was one of the world’s first aircraft carrier pilots during World War 1. After school he joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1916 and was posted to the new Aircraft carrier HMS Furious where he flew a vast array of different planes. He witnessed much of the First World War conflict and took part in many major missions across Europe. He was promoted to Captain in the RAF and also acted as CO of F Squadron after the war. During World War 2 he was OC in the Home Guard in Holywood, County Down before retiring in 1969.
Major General Sir Eric Girdwood KBE, CB, CMG was a soldier in the Boer War and World War 1. He was mentioned in dispatches nine times. He won the Croix de Guerre, the Legion of Honour and the order of the Nile.
Sir Francis Evans was a soldier, civil servant and diplomat. He served in World War 2, then became a civil servant. He was Ambassador to Israel, then Ambassador to Argentina and was Chairman of the Northern Ireland Development Council 1962-66.
Colin Middleton MBE was a Northern Irish landscape painter, printmaker and educator and was one of the great landscape and figure painters of the 20th Century. After leaving the Academy he attended the Belfast College of Art, receiving the Royal Dublin Society's Taylor Scholarship in 1932. His work was first hung in the Royal Hibernian Academy for the first time in 1938 and continued to annually until 1954. In 1970 he became a full member of the RHA.
Mercy Hunter was an Artist and President of the Royal Ulster Academy (1976-77). She received the MBE in 1970 for her services to art and education and was best known for calligraphy and for creating costume designs for theatre and ballet productions.
John Cole, a renowned journalist who began his career with the Belfast Telegraph and later became Deputy Editor of both The Guardian and The Observer. He was the BBC Political Editor (1981-1992) and led the way for broadcasters with regional accents. Perhaps his greatest distinction was the creation of a puppet representing him in the popular satirical TV programme, Spitting Image.
Jack Kyle was a celebrated rugby union player. He played for Ulster, Ireland, the British and Irish Lions and the Barbarians during the 1940s and 50s. He is best known for leading Ireland to a Grand Slam in the 1948 Five Nations Championship. He is a member of the International Rugby Hall of Fame and in 2002, was named as Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player. He studied medicine at Queen’s University in Belfast and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement in 2007 by the Irish Journal of Medical Science and Royal Academy of Medicine in Ireland.
James Stirling was a Physicist and His work in theoretical particle physics resulted in more than 300 research papers and led to his involvement in the MSTW collaboration studying the “Patron” structure of the proton with the Large Hadron Collider. His research career included stints in the United States and leadership roles at Cambridge and Durham universities. In 2018, he received Imperial College’s highest honour for his outstanding contributions to physics.
Lord Robin Eames an Anglican Bishop and peer. He studied Law at Queen’s University before taking a Ph.D. in ecclesiastical law and history. He went on to take a three year course in the divinity school of Trinity College Dublin before returning to become a curate in Bangor. He held various positions as Rector and then Bishop before being elected Archbishop of Armagh from 1986 to 2006 and Primate of All Ireland.
Sportswoman and politician and was Northern Ireland high jump champion in 1966. She worked as an educational adviser for Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Queen’s Park Rangers and was Labour MP for Vauxhall (1989-2019), Minister of Sport (1999-2001) and became a Life Peer in 2020.
Author and peace builder. His debut, the critically acclaimed memoir, Paper Boy, reflected his experiences growing up on the Shankill Road during the early days of the troubles. His three subsequent books followed his development and involvement in projects aimed at supporting young people to reject sectarianism and violence. In 2019 he published his first work of fiction Belfast Gate which deals with the lasting impact of the troubles on modern day Belfast.
Having left university with a BA in Jewellery Design and a Masters degree in Fashion Accessories, she has worked for famous brands such as Gucci and Michael Kors. Between January 2018 and March 2021 she was Creative Designer of Kate Spade, New York. Her collections have consistently received huge critical acclaim.
BBC journalist and broadcaster. Studied philosophy at Queen’s University before reading theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and was also awarded Ph.D. from Queen’s. He initially worked as a university lecturer before being ordained as a Presbyterian Minister and then serving in churches in New York and Belfast. He resigned from ministry before beginning his career as a journalist with the BBC. He is now presenter of Talkback, the daily radio phone-in show on BBC Radio Ulster and is presenter of Sunday on BBC Radio 4.
Diplomat and university administrator. She joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1983 and was Director for Global Issues from 2001 to 2002. She became Chief Executive of the British Equality and Human Rights Commission (2007-09) and was High Commissioner to the Republic of South Africa (2009-13). In 2014 she was appointed Vice Provost (International) at University College, London.
The first woman to be appointed Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2009. In 2020 she was appointed as the Independent Chair on an Inter Departmental Working Group, looking into allegations of historical child abuse. Subsequently she served on the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and the Garda Policing Authority.
The first woman to become Director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Northern Ireland in 2016. She was also formerly Chief Economist at Danske Bank and is also a member of the Employers’ Forum at Queen’s University, Belfast.
After graduation she was appointed to Cleaver, Rankin and Fulton before joining the litigation department of McCann Fitzgerald, a famous Dublin law firm. Karyn became an equity partner in 2005, specialising in complex commercial litigation and is also a member of the firm’s Policy Committee.
Studied her BA in Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge University, where she subsequently took an MPhil in Linguistics, followed by a PhD in French Linguistics. She was appointed to Queen’s University in 1989 and was Head of the School of Modern Languages from 2011 to 2016. She is now Professor of French Linguistics at Queen’s and Priority Leadership Fellow in Modern Languages with the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Broadcaster and journalist. Graduated with an MA from the University of Dundee. She began her career in broadcasting with Macmillan Media in 1997 and also worked as a researcher for CNN and as a newsreader on Downtown Radio. She joined UTV in 2000 as a news and sports presenter. A freelance journalist since 2009, she now works with BBC Northern Ireland and has been a presenter of BBC’s Songs of Praise since 2014.
Professional Irish Rugby Union player who plays for and captains Ulster and also plays nationally for and has captained Ireland. He excelled at rugby thoughout his time at school and guided them to the final of the Schools’ Cup in 2010. He has twice been selected to tour with the British and Irish Lions (2017 to New Zealand and 2021 to South Africa).
Psychologist, author and broadcaster. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge (Trinity College) and is now Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University. He was awarded the Spearman Medal by the British Psychological Society and the Mouton d'Or for his outstanding work in semiotics. He is a Fellow of the B.P.S., the Royal Society of Medicine and the Royal Society of Arts, and the author of twenty-six books - several of which have won or been shortlisted for national and international prizes. He has also presented a number of psychology-related television series on BBC1, ITV and Channel 4. A major Hollywood Studio has recently optioned one of his books ‘On the Ropes: Boxing as a Way of Life’ to be made into a film.