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Royal Belfast Academical Institution
RBAI, Belfast, October 2010 (02).JPG
Quaerere Verum
(To Seek the Truth)
College Square East
Belfast, Northern Ireland, BT1 6DL, United Kingdom
Coordinates 54°35′49″N 05°56′11″W / 54.59694°N 5.93639°W / 54.59694; -5.93639
Type Voluntary grammar school
Established 1810; 212 years ago (1810)
Founder William Drennan
Chairman of the board of governors Colin Gowdy
Principal J. Williamson
Age 11 to 18
Number of students 1060 (approx.)
Houses      Dill
Colour(s) Black and gold          
Newspaper Sea Horse
Yearbook School News
Former pupils Instonians

The Royal Belfast Academical Institution is an independent grammar school in Belfast, Northern Ireland. With the support of Belfast's leading reformers and democrats, it opened its doors in 1814. Until 1849, when it was superseded by what today is Queen's University, the institution pioneered Belfast's first programme of collegiate education. Locally referred to as Inst, the modern school educates boys from ages 11 to 18. It is one of the eight Northern Irish schools represented on the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The school occupies an 18-acre site in the centre of the city on which its first buildings were erected.


Academical Institute, Belfast, Co. Antrim (25461208942)
View of the Institute, circa 1910

The first demands for the school which would become "Inst" came from a group of Belfast merchants, and professional gentlemen. They insisted that the existing Belfast Academy under William Bruce did not offer a "complete, uniform, and extensive system of education." They hoped that a new school would give more access to the ‘higher' branches of learning as well as to those which would fit youths for a practical commercial career. The foundation stone of Inst. was laid, in pouring rain, on 3 July 1810 by George Augustus Chichester, 2nd Marquess of Donegall. Donegall owned much of the land in the Belfast area and granted the school a lease for the grounds at an annual rent of £22–5s–1d. The eminent English architect John Soane, who designed the new Bank of England in 1788, offered to draw up plans in 1809.

Building began in 1810. Money was collected to pay for the buildings by encouraging rich merchants and businessmen to subscribe one hundred guineas each for the privilege of being able to nominate one boy to receive free education at Inst. The roof of the main building was completed during the winter of 1811. The Institution was formally opened at 1:00pm on 1 February 1814. William Drennan announced that the aim was to ‘diffuse useful knowledge, particularly among the middling orders of society, as a necessity, not a luxury of life.' He also referred to the particularly noble and rural setting of the school – in front a fair and flourishing town, and backed by a sublime and thought-inspiring mountain. Until the middle of the 19th century, the RBAI was both a school and a university, a dual function which the Belfast Academy never had.


For the first three years boys normally follow a common curriculum: in the fourth year the curriculum is still general but certain options are introduced, and at the end of the fifth, boys sit the examination for the Northern Ireland GCSE. Subjects studied at AS/A2 level in the VIth Form include English, Modern History, Geography, Economics, French, German, Spanish, Greek, Latin, PE, Business Studies, Technology, Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics, Politics, Chemistry, Biology, Music and Art.


House House Colour
Jones Yellow
Kelvin Green
Larmor White
Pirrie Blue
Stevenson Brown
Dill Red

Old Instonians

The school has an "old boys" club known casually as Instonians and formally as the Belfast Old Instonians Association (BOIA). At present the Rugby, Golf and Cricket section of the club are open for all to join, whilst the Hockey club is still open to past members of the school only. Originally set up as an "old boys" only club, the sports club was opened up to the public in response to the notable flow of Instonians to Great Britain for further education, many of whom did not return to Northern Ireland. This led to fears that the club would die out as current members grew older but were replaced by less and less 'new blood',


Royal Belfast Academical Institution has a preparatory department called Inchmarlo, founded in 1907 and now set in a 6-acre (24,000 m2) site on Cranmore Park, off the Malone Road in South Belfast. Inchmarlo House was the former home of Sir William Crawford, a Director of the York Street Flax Spinning Mill. It employs 11 full-time staff and caters for boys aged between 4 and 11 whose standard uniform consists of traditional school-caps, shorts, knee-high socks, school-blazers and leather satchels. It constantly attains impressive results in the 'eleven-plus exam11-plus' examination with 75% of pupils gaining an 'A' grade. Of those, approximately 99% (around 40) transfer to the main school every year. The Headmaster of Inchmarlo Preparatory School is Andy Smyth, and his Vice Principal is Malcolm Guy.


See also: Category:People educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution
  • John Miller Andrews, second Prime Minister of Northern Ireland
  • Thomas Andrews, chief designer at Harland and Wolff shipyards and RMS Titanic architect
  • Peter Barron, former editor of BBC Newsnight, Google's head of external relations for Europe, Middle East and Africa
  • Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, former Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and former Chairman of the Board of Governors, RBAI
  • Wesley Burrowes, playwright and screenwriter
  • Sir Samuel Ferguson, Irish poet, barrister, antiquarian, artist and public servant. Elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1882.
  • Ryan Caldwell, Irish rugby international, Ulster Rugby player
  • Lord Carswell of Killeen, Law Lord and former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland
  • Colonel Tim Collins, Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq during Operation Telic (2001)
  • Sir Henry Kenneth Cowan, nutritionist and Chief Medical Officer of Health to Scotland
  • Sir Donald Currie, shipping magnate and founder of the Currie Cup rugby union competition held in South Africa
  • William Huston Dodd, judge of the High Court of Justice in Ireland 1907–24
  • Joseph R. Fisher, barrister, editor of the Belfast Newsletter, author, and Unionist commissioner on the Irish Boundary Commission.
  • William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, physicist. (The school's Kelvin house is named after him)
  • Lord Laird, Ulster Unionist life peer
  • Sir Joseph Larmor, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Cambridge University, 1903–33 (the school's Larmor house is named after him)
  • Michael Longley, poet
  • Lord Lowry, former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland
  • Robert Wilson Lynd, Northern Irish author
  • Denis MacEoin, controversial novelist
  • Derek Mahon, poet
  • Bowman Malcolm (1854–1933), railway civil and mechanical engineer
  • Brian Mawhinney, a member of the Cabinet until 1997 and a Member of Parliament until 2005, currently Chairman of the Football League
  • R. B. McDowell, fellow of Trinity College Dublin, historian of 18th-century Ireland
  • Kenneth Montgomery, principal conductor, Ulster Orchestra
  • Dermott Monteith, the Ireland Cricket Team's all-time leading wicket taker
  • Jim Neilly, BBC boxing and rugby commentator
  • Sammy Nelson, former Arsenal and Northern Ireland footballer
  • Stephen Nolan, BBC radio and television presenter
  • Lembit Öpik, former Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire
  • Christopher Salmon Patterson (1823–1893), judge of the Supreme Court of Canada
  • William Pirrie, Viscount Pirrie, Chairman of Harland and Wolff 1895–1924. (Pirrie House is named in his memory)
  • Mark Pollock, blind international rower, entrepreneur and explorer
  • Paul Rankin, television chef and former owner of a chain of restaurants in Belfast
  • Forrest Reid, Ulster novelist and literary critic
  • William D. Richardson, Director of the UCL Wolfson Institute
  • Maj Gen Jeremy Rowan CB, OBE, QHS, FRCP, Director General Army Medical Services 2014-2016
  • Christopher Rowden Hill, photographer
  • Brigadier John Alexander Sinton VC, OBE, FRS, MB, DL (1884–1956), doctor, malariologist and recipient of the Victoria Cross
  • Paul Smith, founder of Celador; creator of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (gameshow); executive producer of Slumdog Millionaire (film)
  • Leonard Steinberg, Baron Steinberg, life peer and businessman
  • Dawson Stelfox, the leader of the 1993 Irish Expedition to Mount Everest and the first Northern Irishman to reach the summit
  • Albert Stewart, Irish rugby international who died in World War I
  • Ian Stewart, Northern Ireland International Footballer
  • Robin Thompson, captain British and Irish Lions rugby team 1955, South Africa
  • Air Vice Marshal Sir William Tyrrell, Irish Rugby international, member of first official British Isles Rugby team in 1910, decorated military officer, and surgeon to King George VI of the United Kingdom

Sports and societies

There are numerous clubs and societies, a school orchestra, choir and band, a contingent of the Combined Cadet Force, Scouts and Explorer Scouts (74th) and a community service group.


The school offers a wide selection of sports, with rugby union being the most dominant. Inst have won the Ulster Schools Cup outright 32 times along with 4 shared titles, winning the cup most recently in 2017 against Methodist College Belfast. Rugby and hockey are played in the winter; athletics, cricket (played at Osborne Park) and lawn tennis occupy the summer months; badminton, fencing, rowing, squash and swimming (including water polo and life-saving) take place throughout the year. Teams representing the school take part not only in matches and activities within the province, but also in events open to all schools in the United Kingdom.

The school hockey teams have achieved many successes. The 1st XI consistently feature in the finals of all three competitions they enter (The Irish Schools Tournament, The McCullough Cup and the Burney Cup). In 2016 four Instonians played Olympic hockey, three for Ireland and one for Great Britain. In recent times other school sports have also been more frequently making headlines. Inst is one of only four schools in Northern Ireland to participate in competitive rowing. In 2005 the first ever Inst crew travelled to the Henley Royal Regatta in England. It regularly participates in various regattas throughout Ireland and abroad.

In swimming the school teams regularly go to competitions within Ireland and abroad. In 2005, 3 of the team qualified for the Irish International Schools Squad. In the same year the senior team came 3rd in the Bath Cup competition held in London. Recently the team picked up a number of medals in the Irish Schools, held in the NAC in Dublin on the 4 February 2006. Again one swimmer qualified for the International Schools Squad, while the senior relay team became Irish champions in both the medley and freestyle relays, breaking both Irish Schools records in the process. On 12 May 2006 the senior team again won the Bath Cup competition, in a new record time. In February 2007, the team again performed well in the Irish Schools, gaining numerous medals and retaining both senior relay titles. The team narrowly missed out on the 2007 Bath Cup title, being beaten by 0.4 seconds in a thrilling race which was down to the wire. However, the team did shave a huge 3 seconds off the record that they themselves had set the year before, and also took the Otter title and record for the 4x50 medley relay.

In March 2008, they won the Bath Cup again, in a new record time. They also broke the Otter Medley title, with two members winning both titles for a second time. Water polo teams have competed in various events and tours, the most recent to the Netherlands in 2006. In January 2007 the team came runners-up in the Irish Schools Water Polo Championships. Numerous players have gone on to gain representative and international honours. Football is played at Inst with 3 senior teams regularly competing in league and cup competitions, although it is not played below fifth form. The school hosts a number of students who represent their country in various sports. Also since 2010 the swimming team has won the Bath Cup three times, the Otter Medley Cup twice and the Otter Challenge Cup four times, the most recent being winning all three trophies in 2017.


The music separtment is overseen by Philip Bolton,

Musical groups include the choir, which won the UTV Choir of the Year competition in 1999, the orchestra, the jazz band led by past pupil David Howell, and the string group. Other notable figures in the music department are:

  • Ann Reid, a violin performer and concert pianist, who tutors both of these instruments in the school; and
  • Antoinette McMichael, part-time teacher at Inchmarlo Preparatory school. She is the director of music in the preparatory department.

The music performed is of all varieties and styles. Among public performances and television recordings, the music department have two major concerts a year in November and March, along with the annual Carol Service. In 2010, the Easter concert took place on 29 April in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, to mark the 200th anniversary of the school. In the bicentenary year, Philip Bolton chose to compose a new arrangement of the school song which was much more instrumental.


The school sponsors 74th Belfast (RBAI) Scout Group which opened on 12 February 1926. The first Group Scoutmaster was William (Billy) Greer who led the group for 38 years. One of the first patrol leaders, Wilfred M Brennan, became Chief Commissioner for Northern Ireland. In 1929, the group was so large it contained three troops.

War time saw a former assistant scoutmaster, John Haire, killed when his Hurricane fighter was shot down on May 6, 1940. His family donated an annual prize for scouting activity. By 1945, 205 out of 430 former members had served in the armed forces or in the merchant navy. A memorial cairn was built on Bessy Bell near Baronscourt in County Tyrone to commemorate the 18 old boys who were killed in the warr. There is a memorial plaque in Baronscourt Parish Church.

In 1940, JH Grummit became school principal and later became the group's first county commissioner. In 1947, three Sea Scout Patrols were formed. The Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme was started in the early 1960s.

Ronnie Hiscocks led the group from 1965 to 1992. September 1970 saw the formation of the new venture unit for boys aged 16 and older. In 1987, the 100th Gold Duke of Edinburgh's Award was presented to a member of 74th with many of these scouts going on to claim the Queen's Scout Award. The sea and land sections combined in 1971. That same year saw the group travelled to the continent for the first time, to Kandersteg in Switzerland.

In 1992, Martin Keane took over the group and the boys got to experience Martin's love for mountaineering at home and abroad. 1995 saw a long record of consecutive summer camps come to an end.

In 1997, David Scott became the group's fourth leader. 2005 saw the group travel outside Europe for the first time, to Canada. In 2008, the group partnered with Habitat for Humanity NI to go to Argentina to build homes for the poor. Trips to Mozambique, Cambodia and Ethiopia followed. In 2011, a number of scouts met Prince Edward and Scott became Belfast County Commissioner. In 2012, a contingent of Scouts attended President Obama's visit to Belfast's Waterfront Hall. 2015 saw the group become a registered charity. 2016 saw a number of 90th anniversary celebrations.

The group continued to maintain high participation with 85 young people in the scout troop (ages 10.5 to 14), the explorer unit (14 to 18) and the scout network (18 to 25) in 2017.


The school's debating society, more properly known as the Royal Academical Debating Society, is the oldest continuously extant body of its kind in Ireland and is currently overseen by Lynn Gordon and Chris Leathley. The society meets regularly at both junior and senior level and aims to develop initiative, confidence, and an appreciation of the culture of both debate and civilised argument. Two internal competitions are run within Inst. There is an inter-souse debating competition (current champions are Larmor), and the Gawin Orr Public Speaking Competition which are both held annually. The society also holds an annual dinner at which members celebrate past successes and wish leaving members well.

The inaugural RBAI Invitational Debating Tournament was held in 2007 and has continued on an annual basis since then. Inst have won this tournament on three occasions (2007, 2009 & 2010) whilst St Malachy's were the victors in 2008. In 2008, an Inst team won the first Debating Matters Competition to be held in Northern Ireland and the following year, Michael Frazer won Best Individual Speaker. School debating teams have recently been some of the most successful in the province, reaching the final of the Northern Ireland Schools Debating Championship on five occasions (1998, 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2014), and have won the competition twice, defeating Thornhill College, Derry in 2007 and Bangor Grammar School in 2011 in the final at Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

Royal Belfast Academical Institution has successfully competed in many European debating competitions. In 2009, the Inst team won the NI European Youth Parliament Competition and went on to represent Northern Ireland in the UK finals held in Durham. In March 2010, Inst also participated in the All-Ireland European Council Debates held annually at Dublin Castle. Representing Germany, the RBAI team were awarded 2nd place out of the 28 teams from across Ireland who competed, with RBAI also winning the TE Utley Memorial Award with an essay on the future of Britain in geopolitics. Inst also regularly participate in the European Council Debates held in Stormont.

Combined Cadet Force

The Combined Cadet Force (CCF) is overseen by Major Wallace having both RAF and Army sections. The Army section is the current holder of the Northern Ireland Cadet Military skills trophy for Team and individual skills.

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