Impact of trailblazing educator 'Mary O' on generations of Cork women

Impact of trailblazing educator 'Mary O' on generations of Cork women

Mary O'Donovan at her 98th birthday party at Isaac's restaurant on MacCurtain Street Cork. Picture: Howard Crowdy

From a quick glance at the tributes paid to the woman affectionately known as ‘Mary O’, it is clear how much of an impact this trailblazing educator had on generations of Cork women.

Mary O’Donovan, 98, late of Bishopstown, and co-founder of Scoil Mhuire on Wellington Road, was laid to rest this week.

Together with fellow Cork woman Kathleen Cahill, and at the age of just 28, Ms O’Donovan founded the school for girls in Cork city in 1951. It was a time when exciting changes to learning were afoot, but girls still weren’t expected to strive for much when it came to their education.

In 2019, in an interview with this newspaper, Ms O’Donovan said one reason for the poor opportunities for girls at the time was down to the lack of universal free education, which wasn’t introduced until 1967. “If there was money in the family, it went to the boys,” she said.

Ms O'Donovan was a lay Dominican, and Scoil Mhuire today stands as a Catholic voluntary secondary school. Following the success of the senior school, Scoil Mhuire Junior School opened in 1954. 

Mary O’Donovan matriculated at the age of 15 and entered University College Cork (UCC) in 1941 at the age of 16. She graduated with a BA in French and English in 1944, followed by a Higher Diploma in Education in 1946 and an MA in 1947. In 2012, she was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Education from UCC. 

Her father was Prof James O’Donovan, a well-regarded GP in Cork city. “She had a brilliant brain,” the current principal of Scoil Mhuire Regina Butler said.

It would have come from home. Her father was a very brilliant person, and they had a very nurturing life themselves where education was valued, and they were encouraged to do their best." 

This core value of always doing your best followed through to the school's founding mission statement, which vows to develop the full potential of every individual student girl in a caring atmosphere of mutual respect. 

 Current principal of Scoil Mhuire Regina Butler with Mary O'Donovan: 'She had a brilliant brain.' Picture: Howard Crowdy
Current principal of Scoil Mhuire Regina Butler with Mary O'Donovan: 'She had a brilliant brain.' Picture: Howard Crowdy

This, while maintaining a balance between academic achievement and the development of moral integrity through the nurturing of an enquiring mind and spirituality of each girl. 

Ms Butler said: "We look at the mission statement time and again and we just cannot improve on it because it is powerful. A hallmark of the school is the confidence it creates, and all of that was part of their mission for women to find their rightful place in society and to use that in a caring way."

Ms O'Donovan truly believed in bringing out every student's best, according to Ms  Butler. 

“Third level wasn’t the big thing for Ms O’Donovan, it was that everybody would achieve their individual potential. Just do your best and see what comes from that and be an active member of society. 

It wasn’t that you pursue very detailed studies or anything like that, but rather that you used your voice for good. That’s the ethos she set in the school.” 

“For the year and a half, two years, she was in her nursing home just before she died, she was being attended to by people of different nationalities, and she learnt to say ‘thank you’ in each of their languages. That was just the type of person she was. She would have always been very polite, very understanding.”

Ms O’Donovan had a great sense of humour, never raised her voice, and was always very practical and down to earth. 

"She did an awful lot of quiet good, what you would call social work in the background for pupils. She wasn’t at all fussy, just getting on with life and doing the best, always.”

Kind tributes to Mary O’Donovan, compiled for this newspaper by Scoil Mhuire’s current head girl Aoife Nixon, paint a loving picture of an educational architect who built “a community that fostered lifelong friendships and a love of learning”.

They describe her as a visionary; a determined and caring lady who placed value not only in education, but in friendships, loyalty, and respect, and someone "who epitomised what a beautiful soul should be".

Aoife said: “It is clear to me, having read all the kind words written about this great lady, and then look around me in the corridors of the school, it is very evident that her legacy lives on in the school today.”

Prof Máire Mulcahy started in Scoil Mhuire in 1951, among the school’s first students. She went on to become a professor of zoology at UCC and the university’s vice president between 1989 and 1994.

“Scoil Mhuire was different because the education that we got was much more comprehensive than the school syllabus. It was very enjoyable. You learnt Latin by speaking Latin, and Mary brought everything to life.”

“There was a lot about building self-reliance and independence and responsibility, without us really realising what was happening at the time. Looking back, you really realise how different and how special it was.”

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