Move to Gaelscoil nua ends 20 years of prefabs and bitter dispute

The students and teachers of Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn are delighted to be finally moving into their very first bricks and mortar school, after spending more than two decades in prefabs in an overflow carpark of Brian Dillons GAA club, writes Jess Casey.

Move to Gaelscoil nua ends 20 years of prefabs and bitter dispute

The students and teachers of Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn are delighted to be finally moving into their very first bricks and mortar school, after spending more than two decades in prefabs in an overflow carpark of Brian Dillons GAA club, writes Jess Casey.

“IT IS brilliant, but it’s bedlam.”

That’s how school principal Deaglán Ó Deargáin describes the process of clearing out the assorted, forgotten layers of debris and detritus that have been collecting in cupboards and classrooms at Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn since 1998.

Boxes and bags are scattered in corners throughout the school in Mayfield as students and staff pack up in preparation for their big move.

Originally founded in 1993 as Cork city’s first multi-denominational gaelscoil, the school has been comprised of a jigsaw of prefabs based in an overflow car park of the nearby Brian Dillons’ GAA club for the last 22 years. After the mid-term break, they will officially move into their first bricks and mortar school building.

“The whole place is like Lego in the way it has been put together, in that you see what’s there, you see what’s needed and you try to put it right, try to fix it,” Mr Ó Deargáin explains.

The move to the scoil nua really does bring to a close the final chapter in a lengthy, complex, and at times bitter, dispute.

With the initial plans for the school building first unveiled in 2002, the much-awaited development has been arduous, besieged with a series of set-backs unfolding across the last two decades.

At the heart of much of the dispute was a site of green space, roughly measuring two acres on the 10-plus acres of the ‘Tank Field’ on the northside of the city.

Questions and concerns over the zoning, transfer, and ownership of this section of land led to protests at city hall, planning objections, council chamber arguments and eventually a trial before Cork Circuit Court taken by some local residents seeking “a declaration of the existing right to saunter and wander” on the fields.

At times, relations were tense between those who opposed the construction of the school on the site, which they argued was the only remaining flat public green space on the northside.

“This particular school could be used as an example for everybody as to what should not happen [when it comes to planning setbacks],” Mr Ó Deargáin said.

Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn. Picture: Dan Linehan
Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn. Picture: Dan Linehan

“I came here in the year 2000 and in my first week I told students that they would be in their new school by the time they were in fourth class; They were in second class at the time.”

Now those students are in their late 20s. The majority of the school’s staff members have spent most of their careers teaching in prefabs: “The vast majority of people here have never worked in a proper building, it’s just something else.”

The school’s most senior member of staff has worked at Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn for 26 years: “Her whole teaching career up to this point has been based in prefabricated buildings.”

While the school has made the best of its temporary surroundings, there have been some challenges with teaching in prefabs.

The biggest of which has been the constant battling with maintaining the temperature — an additional worry for already busy staff members.

“It’s storage heating so that means the night before on any given day you have to check the weather and if its going to be cold you’ve to turn up the heating; if its going to be hot you’ve to turn it down. It adds a whole other layer to being organised, you have to be on top of things.

If the heating is up too high, you will absolutely roast in these places. Its like a greenhouse really, its just ridiculous but then if you’ve the heating down too low you’ll freeze.

Now it’s on to a new kind of challenge: “We’ve a fabulous atmosphere, we’ve all the parents working together and its lovely. Our school is renowned really for how we work together, possibly because of the fact we have been in prefabricated buildings, to an extent, in that everybody had to pull their weight, everyone had to help out.”

“We’re going to have to bring that attitude with us, can we bring that atmosphere with us into the new school? I think we can and we will be able to do so.”

“The idea [for the site] at the very beginning, when I heard the idea straight away, I thought it was a very,very good idea and nothing has happened between this and then to change my mind.”

Save the Tank Field Campaign protest by local residents, at the Tank Field, Cork, in 2018. The dispute over building a new school in the Tank Field has been ongoing since 2005. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Save the Tank Field Campaign protest by local residents, at the Tank Field, Cork, in 2018. The dispute over building a new school in the Tank Field has been ongoing since 2005. Picture: Jim Coughlan

“The idea was always excellent; you have two football fields, push them closer together and then build the school at the top, and you have two football fields and a school. It sounds very simplistic but when you look at it, everything makes sense.”

“With regards to the local people, I hope that they will be on board, I’m sure that they will be on board. This school is going to be a school for the community. It’s a school that we would hope that the local community will be able to utilise for their own events as well.”

“We’re open to sitting down with anybody who may want to use it on a Friday evening for a band, or for Taekwondo or for dancing, etc. That would be fabulous, to see the school being utilised in the way it was laid out to be used.”

    TIMELINE:

    March 2005: Cork City councillors agree unanimously to sell the land at the Tank Field to the Department of Education at an agreed price, but subject to planning. When the issue comes before councillors again, they agree unanimously to realign sports pitches for the GAA club to ensure that no amenity land is lost.

    2006: A planning application is lodged. However, work cannot begin until the site is rezoned.

    July 2007: Councillors vote 15 to 13 to rezone the site to allow the school building proceed but as a two-thirds majority is needed, rezoning is not granted. The decision goes to An Bord Pleanála.

    March 2008: An Bord Pleanála overturns this decision, granting planning permission.

    September 2009: It is confirmed a new planning application will need to be sought. This is after it emerges that GAA goalposts that were to be moved would have been directly under overhead power lines, causing a health and safety risk.

    2010: Revised planning application is submitted.

    2012: The case involving some residents of Mayfield and Montenotte against Cork City Council opens at a special sitting of Cork Circuit Court. Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin describes it as an emotive case for all parties but ultimately gives the project the green light.

    December 2012: The project is listed as one of the works included in the €370m schools capital programme, with construction expected to begin the following year.

    2017: The Department of Education confirms that it still intends to build on the site but that it has to complete the acquisition of the site from the city council before work can begin.

    September 2018: Construction begins on the 16-classroom school.

On Monday, February 24 students will listen to the bell ring one last time in their old school before they say ‘slán go fóill’ to their prefabs and march out together to their new classrooms. Their new school is bright, airy, and spacious with a library and hall as well as resource rooms for the school’s 350-plus students.

The day will see a celebration with their teachers, parents, and guardians. John Spillane, who previously taught Irish classes to parents at the school, will also perform.

In this archive image from 2007, students from Gaelscoil An Ghoirt Alainn campaign for a new school at the Tank Field. Picture: Des Barry
In this archive image from 2007, students from Gaelscoil An Ghoirt Alainn campaign for a new school at the Tank Field. Picture: Des Barry

“Everybody is delighted, it is absolutely lovely,” Mr Ó Deargáin said.

“The students do realise [how long the process has taken]. Its been such an ordeal really. Sixth class weren’t actually sure that they would actually get to see it finished so I said to them ‘I’ll bring ye over first to take a look’.”

“I wasn’t expecting to see the emotion in their faces that I saw when they were brought up to the school. I knew it was important to everybody but I had sort of taken it for granted a bit. But they were just delighted. It was something I haven’t seen in a very long time.”

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