Documenting the abandoned school houses of Ireland

Gaigue National School, Co Longford (d.1900).

Cork-based archaeologist and photographer Enda O’Flaherty has a keen interest in the desolate beauty of abandoned spaces and the memories these places often hold.

Recently he combined his love of photography with his professional discipline, and documented the architectural features and cultural significance of the many abandoned school houses dotted across the rural Ireland.

The eerie, tumbling, and empty ruins of tiny one- and two-roomed school houses dot many parts of the Irish countryside, particularly in areas where emigration was the only option for future prosperity.

For hundreds of thousands who emigrated from Ireland at an early age, their days spent in these diminutive school houses often represented the last formal education they received before seeking a brighter future abroad.

Although many of these buildings are now empty or even approaching a point of collapse, the physical structures are cognitive stimuli for those who attended, and hold a wealth of memory and associations that shaped their understanding of the world around them at an early age. From these small rural school houses, the children of Ireland took what they had learned and went out to find fortune and to explore the greater world.

Ballymackeehola National School, Co Mayo (d. 1895).
Ballymackeehola National School, Co Mayo (d. 1895).

Enda O’Flaherty’s blog features some wonderful and evocative shots of these buildings, almost capturing a ghost-like presence of those who passed through their doors in the decades gone by. What makes this blog special is that he has combined stunning imagery with documentary research, and has found original hand-written scripts from many of these schools dating from the 1930s.

In 1937, the Irish Folklore Commission, in collaboration with the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, initiated a revolutionary scheme in which schoolchildren were encouraged to collect and document folklore and local history from the eldest or most knowledgeable members of their household.

Over a period of 18 months some 100,000 children in 5,000 primary schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were encouraged to collect folklore material in their home districts. These first-hand stories, poems, recipes, phrases and local folklores were all written down by the school children who attended these schools in the 1930s, and represent a wealth of local first-hand knowledge that dates as far back as the mid-19th century. Many of the school houses featured in O’Flaherty’s blog have complementary documents of stories from their locality, which are included in each blog post.

A sheep in the classroom of Bunnadden National School, Ballynaraw, Co Sligo (d. 1883).
A sheep in the classroom of Bunnadden National School, Ballynaraw, Co Sligo (d. 1883).

Many of the school houses are recorded in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, based on their architectural merit alone. However, many are absent from this record, and though they may lack aesthetic appeal, they are undoubtedly culturally important as a common and shared focal point within local communities through the years.

Enda is currently cataloguing and combining his research and photography into a new book expected by the end of the year. It will feature extracts of the school-children’s own handwritten records held by the Irish Folklore Commission since the 1930s, historical photography, stories and tales from each school, and a photographic study of the schools as they stand today.

His work is also on Facebook under Disused school-houses, notes and photographs.

O’Flaherty asks that if you or someone you know once attended one of these now abandoned school houses, to contact him to share any anecdotes about the school, locality or local characters.


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