Portora Royal School, more properly called Enniskillen Royal School, traces its foundation to a decree by James I of England (James VI of Scotland) that was issued in 1608. His wish was that 'there shall be a free school at least in each county, appointed for the education of youth in learning and religion.' It had been intended that such a school should be built in the county town. At the time of the proclamation County Fermanagh had no town to which the description 'county' could be applied, in fact it could be said that the county had no settlements to which the description 'town' could be applied. It was decided that the school should be established at Lisgoole, a few miles from what is now the town of Enniskillen, at which the county town was to be established. For reasons lost in the mists of antiquity, (the mists of Lough Erne?) the original school was established in 1618 at Ballybalfour, some 15 miles from Enniskillen. The first Headmaster to be appointed was the Reverend George Middleton of whom little is known.
The Reverend Richard Burke succeeded Middleton as headmaster in 1626, at which time 'the number of scholars in the said school were three score or there abouts, all except three being native Irish'. It was at the end of the headmastership of Burke or during the period before the appointment of the Reverend Thomas Dunbarre MA as third headmaster that the school was moved to Enniskillen, which was considered to be a more convenient location, the town having been established by Captain William Cole. This move appears to have been accomplished by about 1661 with the school occupying grounds 'on the northern side of the church by the lough. The establishment of the Royal School within Enniskillen is attested in manuscripts held in the British Museum (Sloane, No. 202) which give account of 'Publique Schooles' within the Province of Ulster in 1673 and state that 'In the Diosese of Clogher there is a free school at Enniskillen endowed to the yearly value 120Ł p ann., whereof Mr Thomas Dunbarre is Master'.
Following Mr Dunbarre as Headmaster was George Bennis, MA, a scholar of Trinity College Dublin, appointed in 1692, then to be succeeded in 1700 by John Dennis MD, also a scholar of TCD. During the Headmastership of Mr Dennis, from 1803 to 1806, Henry Francis Lyte, the author of 'Abide With Me' was a pupil of the school. The connection with Trinity was continued when in 1714 Mr Charles Grattan was appointed as Headmaster. It was under this Headmaster that Mr John Cole, later to be created Baron Mount-Florence of Florencecourt, received his education, and also Margetson Armar who was eventually to own the Castle Coole estate as well as the Blessington estate at Fivemiletown.
Mr Grattan was Headmaster until succeeded in 1746 by the Reverend William Dunkin who had previously been Latin master at St. Patrick’s School of St. Michael-le Pole, Dublin He was reputed by Dean Swift to be “the best English as well as Latin Poet in this Kingdom of Ireland”.
The popularity of The Royal School at Enniskillen as a place of academic excellence increased so much under the headmasterships of both Grattan and Dunkin that that the next Headmaster, the Reverend Mark Noble, appointed in 1761 and incidentally also a Scholar of TCD, found that the accommodation for his pupils was becoming rather cramped. Due consideration was given to a new site for the school; the best available site appeared to be on Portora Hill, overlooking the town. In 1778 a new school was built on the crest of the hill. The original square block building, which gave accommodation for 60 to 70 pupils, can be seen as the central portion of the familiar façade of Portora, close examination will reveal even today the position of its original central entrance. Portora as we know it was established.
The, by now almost traditional, link with TCD was reinforced when John Stocke was appointed Headmaster in 1795 to be followed by another TCD scholar, Robert Burrrowes in 1798, who was, in his turn and after his resignation in 1819, succeeded by two further TCD scholars, Andrew O’Beirne in 1820 and John Greham in 1836.
The year 1857 saw the appointment of the Reverend William Steele as Headmaster. It is to William Steele that we owe much of the reputation that was to become that of Portora during the late 19th and for most of the 20th Centuries. He it was who popularised “Portora” as the name of the School.
Just as the School in Enniskillen town had become too small to accommodate the number of pupils attracted to it so it was with the 1778 building atop Portora Hill. Extra wings had already been constructed on each side of the main building in 1838. The east wing intended as a School Infirmary whilst the west wing afforded further classroom accommodation and dormitories. These additions were still found to be insufficient to meet with the demands of the increasing numbers of pupils. In 1859 William Steele connected these wings to the main building and at his own expense had constructed further classroom and dormitory accommodation.
The improved travel facilities afforded by the spreading railway network attracted even more pupils to the school from all over Ireland. William Steele conceived the idea of opening a separate school within Enniskillen, solely for dayboys, thus leaving Portora House for the ever-increasing numbers of boarders. A house was taken in Wellington Place, regarded by many as a rather select area of Enniskillen; a Master was placed in charge. This arrangement did not meet with the approval of the towns people who pointed out at an especially convened meeting that they held that the School existed for Enniskillen: that its boys had the right of a free education in the school endowed for them; and that if any pupils had to go outside then these should be the boarders who were there as a matter of courtesy and not of right. The meeting killed the new school, which was soon afterwards closed.
During the period 1862/4 William Steele had further classroom accommodation built to the west of the main school. This comprised of three classrooms on the ground floor with a spacious room above which was used for the lower school. This building today houses The Modern Language department and the assembly hall that perpetuates his name as the Steele Hall. The number of pupils continued to rise, numbering 50 dayboys and 150 boarders, some of whom were accommodated in houses in Willoughby Place. It was under this Headmaster that the famous, and some would say infamous, Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde was a boarder; he attended the school during the period 1864 to 1872, subsequently to attend TCD and then Magdalen at Oxford.
A personal tragedy occurred to Mr Steele in 1866 when his son, Frederick, was drowned in a boating accident. Although his personal life was badly affected the school continued to prosper and in recognition of his successful management of Portora he was awarded, in 1878 by Trinity College, the degrees of LL.B and LL.D even though he already held the higher degree of D.D, which he had obtained in 1874. He never fully recovered from the shock of his son’s unfortunate death, an event that clouded the rest of his life and doubtless led to the 1880’s being difficult years for Portora. The number of pupils, both of dayboys and boarders, seriously declined: 18 dayboys and no boarders The discipline of the boys also declined and the internal structure of the school started to show signs of neglect. The annual allowance for assistant masters was reduced.
The Commissioners of Education noted great improvements for 1890 compared to the previous year; there were now 59 boarders and 29 dayboys. Dr Steele attributed this to the appointment of Dr W B Lindesay as Assistant Master. Dr Steele retired from his position as Head Master in 1891 and was succeeded by Dr Lindesay after his formal appointment by the newly formed Fermanagh Protestant Board of Education. Dr Lindesay’s tenure was a short one; he resigned in 1894 to be succeeded by Mr Richard Biggs, from Galway Grammar School who saw the century out, dying of a heart attack in 1904.
The difficulties of the 1880s where not wholly centred on falling numbers but were also characterised by a feeling that the endowments of the school were not sufficiently enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Community. After much consideration by the Commissioners for Education there were formed The Fermanagh Roman Catholic Board of Education, which was eventually to found a school for their co-religionists, and The Fermanagh Protestant Board of Education which to this day remains as the governing body of Portora.
Portora has often been referred to as the 'Eton of Ireland', however under the successor to Richard Biggs as Headmaster, Alastaire McDonnell seemed to have had Rugby more to the fore. The school XV became legendary under the captaincy of 'Dickie' Lloyd and seven of the team went on to play for Ireland. This attention to sporting activities appeared to have been to the detriment of academic interests and was unfavourably reported on by members of the Intermediate Education Board who visited the school in 1910.
1910 – 1954
The story of Portora seems to have been one of greatly fluctuating numbers, on the appointment of Mr Reginald Burgess as successor to Alastaire McDonnell in 1915 the number of pupils had fallen to 54, of which number 40 were boarders. Burgess increased the number of pupils to 75 in his first year and at the time of his tragic death by drowning in 1917 the number had risen to a total of 98, of which 78 were boarders. It was Burgess who started a preparatory department; this was later to become the Gloucester House Preparatory School.
We now enter a period when Portora was to flourish again; the Reverend RG Seale was appointed as successor to Mr Burgess. By 1928 the number of pupils in the Upper School had risen to about 100 boarders and 50 dayboys, with 15 boarders in the preparatory department. The playwright Samuel Beckett was a pupil at the School during the period 1920 – 1923. A house system was instituted in 1919, pupils were placed in the Houses, Ulster, Munster, Leinster or Connacht irrespective of which part of Ireland they came. There is today no preparatory school, however the name Gloucester House survives as the name of the Pastoral House for pupils of Form 1 (or Year 8 as we now call it) before they enter one of the 'provincial' Houses in their second year. In the later years of Portora as a boarding school, until the late 1980s, there were small numbers of girl boarders, these were assigned to 'Head's House.'
In the 1930’s with the greatly increased numbers of boarders social differences between boarders and dayboys started to become apparent. Boarders were largely the sons of minor Church of Ireland clergy, bank managers and the like, more senior clergy and business men tended to send their sons to England. The dayboys were the sons of shopkeepers, policemen, small farmers, the petit bourgeois class. Their clothes, manners, local accent and vocabulary marked them off from the boarders. The school authorities did little to discourage the aloof attitudes of the boarders towards the dayboys, or "day dogs" as they were often called. The facilities provided for dayboys were often of inferior standard to those for the boarders and it was generally felt that the school could do without them. Despite his antipathy towards the dayboys Mr Seale ranks among one of Portora’s Great Headmasters, his name being perpetuated in the Seale Room, formerly the Senior Library.
Seale was succeeded in 1936 by Mr Ian MB Stuart. He inherited a school with 173 pupils of whom about 100 were boarders. Up to this time the school had no Chapel and when such was required improvisations were made in the dining hall. Mr Stuart converted the gymnasium into a place of worship and furnished it with a second-hand pulpit and a harmonium, prayers were said and hymns sung there every day. It was this headmaster who initiated the use of 'Abide with me' as the school hymn; it having been written by an Old Portoran. 'Floreat Portora', whose refrain was based on 'Floreat Etona' continued to be sung until the 1960s but is now never heard and few of the present pupils will even know of its existence. The tenure of Mr Stuart lasted until the appointment in 1945 of Douglas Graham, an Old Portoran and graduate of TCD.
Douglas Graham took over a school with 147 boarders and 116 dayboys, he reorganised the teaching side of the school, drawing on the experience he had gained as a teacher at Eton. It is from his time that rowing became one of the sports at which Portora was to show some prowess: Portora competed at Henley during his time. He left Portora and its 176 boarders and 175 dayboys in 1954 to be followed by the Reverend PH Rogers.
1954 - Present Day
The period of the Headship of the Reverend Rogers brings us from the realms of history almost to the realms of current affairs, several of the staff members at Portora today were themselves pupils at the school during his time. Under the Reverend Rogers, in 1956, the two storied 'Tuition Block' was opened, to be followed in 1960 by a new physics laboratory which was dedicated to Henry S. Scales who was the Senior Science Master during the period 1925 to 1960. The numbers of pupils attending the school continued to rise and in 1964 the boarding accommodation was extended. By 1967 the numbers had risen to 302 Dayboys and 232 Boarders. In 1972 a new Technology Department was opened. During this period Portora had its greatest number of pupils.
The Reverend Rogers was succeeded in 1973 by TJ Garrett who was himself followed in 1978 by Dr AR Acheson.
The year 1979 saw a break from the tradition of the previous 361 years when a small number of girls were accepted as pupils. The pastoral house system was extended to include Head’s House to which the girls were assigned.
The number of girl pupils increased from the original 9 boarders and 2 daygirls of 1979 to a maximum of 31 girls in 1984. Of these 14 were boarders. After this the number of girls attending the school decreased until in 1991 there were only 4 girl boarders and in 1992 one solitary daygirl.
Dr Acheson was succeeded by RL Bennett in 1983. The following ten years were difficult for Portora; boarding was rapidly becoming a thing of the past and the decline in the number of boarders was only slightly improved by a small numbers of pupils from Hong Kong and Singapore. In 1993 the boarding department closed and Portora became a day school.
During the headmastership of Mr Bennett and with Mark Scott, an Old Portoran, as Estates Manager much improvement was made to the fabric and facilities of the school as well as to the grounds The second phase extension to the Technology Department was completed in 1990: extensive improvements to the basements in the main building were carried out in 1993 and the Henry Francis Lyte Music Rooms and Sixth Form Common Rooms were opened. The rugby pitches were relayed and an all weather running track and sports field established. Also during this period much tree planting was undertaken.
1994 saw the construction of a new library where formerly had been dormitories. The library was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Noel Galbraith an Old Portoran who bequeathed money to the School. Further improvements were carried out and in 1996 a new suite of laboratories for the Biology and Chemistry departments was opened: the Art department was modernised and furnished with extensive facilities for photography, pottery and computer work: a whole school computer network was established.
Still remembered by many, Liberty Hall was demolished in 1997 It was originally built as classrooms during the 1850’s and served at some time as the school hospital. In its place, there now stands the third phase extension to the Technology Department and a new Information Technology and Computer Suite, these were opened in 2000. The millennium year also saw the opening of a new Physics Laboratory to replace the laboratory built in 1960, the original dedication to Henry Scales is continued here. The Royal Jubilee Year of 2002 saw the laying of the Jubilee Quadrangle, a paved area bordered by the Tuition Block, the new Science Laboratories and the Art Department, its centre a white stem birch has been planted, Its silver bark will be a future shining inspiration to our pupils.
At the beginning of the academic year 2002 –2003 Mr J Neill Morton, MA, BSc, DASE was appointed as successor to Mr Bennett and took up his appointment as the Headmaster of a school of 480 pupils. The next couple of years saw the revival of the Portora Pipe Band and the introduction of a new range of studies: “Performing Arts” and “Moving Image” becoming two areas of study being offered to pupils of year 13 in September 2004. Changes were made to the pastoral system during the academic year 2004 – 2005, when a pastoral house for boys in Year 9 was instituted and given the name Belmore House; pupils moving to Ulster, Munster, Leinster or Connacht in Year 10. Further changes in the house system were instituted in 2007 when pastoral responsibility was transfered to Heads of Year and the house system retained solely for competitive purposes. As we can look around we can see parts of the School built during the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, have we the imagination to envisage what the 21st Century will bring?
The year 2008 will be the Quatercentenary of the founding proclamation by King James. Plans are being made to commemorate this occasion jointly with the other Royal Schools.
The other Royal Schools that were established under the same proclamation are in Armagh, Cavan, Dungannon and Raphoe in Co. Donegal.