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Forty years on Fivemiletown is still in swim about pool

By Allan Preston

Published 03/12/2015

The swimming pool at Fivemiletown, yesterday
The swimming pool at Fivemiletown, yesterday
Dr John Burrell and Dame Mary Peters at the reopening of Fivemiletown swimming pool
The pool at Fivemiletown, which proved a hit with local youngsters
Builders during the construction of the pool at Fivemiletown
Foundations are laid during the construction of the pool at Fivemiletown

A swimming pool built in the aftermath of a drowning tragedy has been reopened in the village of Fivemiletown nearly four decades after first being completed.

Dame Mary Peters originally opened the facility in 1976, and was back yesterday to welcome pupils for swimming lessons.

John Burrell was vice-principal of Fivemiletown College when he came up with the idea of a pool in the village as far back as 1961.

He said building it was his proudest accomplishment outside teaching.

"I was convinced that Fivemiletown needed a swimming pool after a drowning tragedy in the Round Lake" he explained.

With Fivemiletown far away from the sea, Mr Burrell said he was frustrated that the only way to provide swimming lessons was to drive pupils over 50 miles to Londonderry.

Deciding to take matters into his own hands, he said: "I started to build - without any official financial support - a 20-metre heated swimming pool."

But the project proved difficult to get off the ground, with funding challenges and even the Prime Minister getting in the way.

He recalls the local community pitched in for the early stages of building: "A man from Brookeborough came with a digger and the soil was taken to a hollow at the edge of the playing field. Parents brought their tractors in to help too."

Pupils also got involved in the work, grabbing shovels and pickaxes to clear the ground.

In 1976 the outdoor pool was completed at a cost of £7,000.

Dame Mary, who had won her Olympic gold medal in Munich four years earlier, was there for the opening.

While an open air pool, Mr Burrell had managed to convince the Southern Education Library Board to front the cash needed for a roof, but things stalled.

"Mrs Thatcher put a moratorium on public spending and the plans were shelved. That was a killer blow," he said. "But I thought: 'I'm going to finish the job I started.'"

His determination kept him going and by 1995 he had finally managed to secure the £150,000 needed for the new roof through various grants.

In November 2014 a leak was discovered and the pool had to be shut down for repairs.

A year later, it has now reopned.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, he said: "It's really been worth all this effort down the years for the whole community.

"I saw some of the former pupils again at the opening and their enthusiasm is amazing. Mary Peters is down to see it for the third time and she and I think along the same lines, we go ahead and do things."

He added that as well as the benefit of swimming lessons for generations of school pupils, the pool was also a valuable lesson in persistence.

"I've always said to pupils 'If it is meant to be, it is up to me'."

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