Learning valuable lessons from the past

Archaeologist Enda Flaherty has been documenting abandoned schoolhouses, thus providing a snapshot of those forgotten places where many of our predecessors were taught, says Dan MacCarthy.

Learning valuable lessons from the past

Archaeologist Enda Flaherty has been documenting abandoned schoolhouses, thus providing a snapshot of those forgotten places where many of our predecessors were taught, says Dan MacCarthy.

They are the places that are seared into our subconscious like nothing bar our homes.

They are the places we went five days a week, dragged from the bosom of our family at a very young age, to sit regimented and have thousands of years of learning poured into us.

How much did we absorb? They are the places where we met lifelong friends, where our imaginations were nurtured, where lifelong skills were drilled into us, often by rote.

They were our almost-homes where we learned reading, riting and rithmetic. The finer points of the modh coinniolach were teased out for us or poems about Timbuktu indicated a fabulous world of somewhere else.

Most of these schoolrooms are still intact but many more are derelict, now just sad reminders of our huge population. Where do all these people and their families go?

Well the usual suspects: emigration, old age and death.

The ruined schools are everywhere: up a boreen, around a forgotten corner, over a hill, on an island, in the middle of a bog. All once had devoted teachers and attentive ears.

Archaeologist Enda O’Flaherty has been documenting these structures for some time and has now had the fruits of labours published in a handsome book by Collins Press.

Only some of the schools are recorded in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

Local authorities used different criteria to decide whether a school should be included or not. So what is included in Co Clare may not be included in Co Kilkenny. They are afforded varying degrees of protection on architectural merit only, says O’Flaherty.

On a visit to Slievereagh National School, Ballyvourney, Co Cork, we take a look at one such time capsule. When the N22 linking Cork to Killarney was built in the 1980s, the stretch of road which led to this school was cut off thus isolating the school and pushing it back in time. The school had long since closed by then but this was another distancing measure.

The windows are boarded up and a lot of slates are blown off the roof. A desk has half-collapsed through the floor.

“Nature is creeping in through every available opening, with nesting birds now being the main occupants of the collapsing structure", writes O’Flaherty of Slievereagh School.

There are two classrooms with matching fireplaces. The hallway is tiled, and numbered castiron hooks for coats are lined up on a wooden board. There is a few inches of cowdung in the middle of one of the classes.

Various objects protrude among the detritus and ferns: an old rocking horse, a milkchurn coated in lichen, a galvanised bucket. Some of the wainscotting is still in place and an iron ventilation system in the corner would have allowed good circulation of air when the fire was lighting.

There is a palpable sense of the past here, where children learned and teachers taught.

A one-room schoolhouse is defined as one classroom where a single teacher taught academic basics to several grade levels of elementary-age boys and girls. The one-room schoolhouse is to be found in many countries both in Europe and overseas, but is characteristic of rural areas with sparse populations, for example Ireland, Shetland, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Canada and Australia.

Many of the schools date from the mid-19th century when the national school system was established. Prior to this, formal education was denied to Catholics and “this was particularly true during the 18th century when Catholics were forbidden to be educated under the Penal Laws from 1695 to 1782”, writes O’Flaherty.

Catholic children were educated in ‘hedge schools’, usually taught by an educated person from the vicinity, or a travelling schoolmaster.

The First Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry, published in 1825, showed how education was used as method of social control.

The prescient commission declared that “the origin of most of the sectarian violence that plagued Ireland was caused by educating Catholic and Protestant children separately and recommended that in future public money should be given only to schools where Catholic and Protestant pupils were taught together”. Plus ça change.

The recommendation was a resounding success and schools sprang up everywhere with the aim of providing education to that sector of society formerly denied it. Between 1833 and 1849 the number of schools increased from about 800 to about 4,300. A phenomenal success. And by 1900 there were almost 8,700 national schools in the country with around 746,000 pupils enrolled.

Emigration had an enormous impact on the schools and where once village populations thrived, now villages were deserted in their droves with no children to attend the schools. Again, plus ça change. Between 1966 and 1973, the number of one- and two-teacher schools was reduced by about 1,100.

The stories of the schools are the stories of our past. At Coolmountain National School near Dunmanway Co Cork the one-room, corrugated asbestos structure is nearly completely overgrown. It was a rebuilt school from a much older school but itself ceased as a school in 1969. Local man Jerome Kiely started school there in 1949 . He says the building was heated by a means of a small cast-iron stove and the students themselves brought in the fuel.

A lovely story from the Farranfore–Valentia Harbour line in Co Kerry recalls the time when schools did not have clocks, and the schoolchildren of Bunglash National School would know the time when the steam-powered locomotive chugged daily along the tracks and sounded its whistle as it passed over Curraheen level crossing at 10.15am.

When O’Flaherty visited the school he found some old textbooks and a cassette by Saint Saens, Carnival of the Animals, which is still on the primary school arts curriculum, One of the more dramatic schools was Gola Island National School, Co Donegal. Dramatic, not for its renowned thespians, but for its geographical location where the sea almost comes up to the door.

A name plaque over the door has weathered away — a metaphor for the process. Such diminutive schools were fixtures on the landscape in about 40 of our islands. A few schools had a mere handful of students; Inishmurray in Co Sligo and Island Eddy, Co Galway.

The schools produced some famous people of course. John James Doherty, attended Knockastolar National School in Co Donegal and was fluent in Irish German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Latin and Greek. He put theses skills to good use in Bletchley Park in World War II where he helped decode Nazi messages for the war effort.

O’Flaherty has photographed over 240 of the ruined schools, researched their histories and interviewed some of the former students who attended them.

He walked down those overgrown boreens, kayaked to islands, tramped through woods and across bogs. In some of them old schoolbooks could still be found. Others have old desks with inkwells and blackboards.

In many cases nature has wrought her fury and caved in the roofs, ruptured the floors and burst the plasterwork or sent trees growing in one window and out the other.

In writing about buildings that were once integral to our communities O’Flaherty has done for schools what Tarquin Blake did for our mansions, churches and castles.

Deserted Schoolhouses of Ireland, Enda O’Flaherty, Collins Press,€25.

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