The Deserted School Houses of Ireland book was published by The Collins Press this past week September 17, 2018. You can order a copy (signed, unsigned or with a personal note) using the order form below (€20.99 + P&P) or from the SHOP page. It is also available in all good bookshops and from the usual online outlets.
I would like to extend to you this open invitation to the official launch of my book ‘The Deserted School Houses of Ireland’ which takes place at Nano Nagle Place, Douglas Street, Cork City on Friday March 8th 6.00-7.00pm. The book will be officially launched on the night by historian/author/researcher/curator Mr. Damian Shiels.
The event has been kindly sponsored by 9 White Deer Brewery, Ballyvourney, with light refreshments being served.
Feel free to follow the on-going disused school houses project on social media, and to keep an eye-out for some new work in 2019
Christmas, ‘Mummering’, The Wren and The Schools’ Collection of the Folklore Commission
Over the past few years, this blog has frequently made reference to ‘The Schools Collection’ (Bailiúchán na Scol) of the Irish Folklore Commission; a collection of primary school copybooks gathered under the direction of the Irish Folklore Commission between 1937-39. This is a most valuable, beautiful and fascinating resource, and nowadays a digitised copy of the original texts can be accessed online.
The aim of the project was to catalogue, index, and conserve information on Irish traditions from across the country. This collecting scheme was initiated by the Irish Folklore Commission, under the direction of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Séan Ó Súilleabháin, and was heavily dependent on the co-operation of the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. Over the duration of the project, more than 50,000 sixth-class schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. Topics covered under the scheme included those of supernatural lore, festivals, hidden treasures, diseases, cures and herbs, local crafts and customs, famous local people, information regarding holy wells, fairy forts, local fairs, games played by children, legends, riddles and proverbs and topographical information, to list but a few. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.
Material was written first into the children’s homework copybooks, and then re-written into the larger official notebooks that had been distributed for the scheme. The completed official notebooks were bound, paginated and numbered, according to parish, barony, county and province. Approximately 740,000 pages (288,000 pages in the pupils’ original exercise books; 451,000 pages in 1,128 bound volumes) of folklore and local tradition were compiled.
Among the traditions and festivals recorded in this archive are those associated with Christmas time. A great variety of practises are recorded, some still familiar to us now, and some no longer common. The Yuletide practise of ‘mummering’ is less common and widespread now than in 1930’s Ireland, and there are hundreds of references to this Christmas tradition in the Schools Collection. ‘Mummering’ is a Christmas-time house (and public house)-visiting tradition involving local community groups who dress in disguise and visit homes within their community or neighbouring communities during the 12 days of Christmas. If the mummers were welcomed into a house (again, or pub), they often performed a variety of informal dances, musical recitations or told jokes. However, the hosts had to guess the mummers’ true identities before offering them food or drink. Judging by the number of references to the practice recorded in the Schools’ Collection, the tradition seems to have been especially popular in Co. Donegal and Co. Louth in the 1930s, though it was a nationwide custom. The tradition continues into the present day. If you would like to witness this spectacle, I suggest visiting the town of Dingle in Co. Kerry on December 26th where mummering is somewhat conflated with the largely similar traditions associated with Hunting the Wren. You will also be able to find the practise in other parts of Ireland on this day, and in far-flung places like Newfoundland where the long-banned tradition is now making a comeback.
In Ireland, the tradition, with it’s pagan associations came under the scrutiny of the Church in many areas through the 20th century. The parish priest of Bannow in Co. Wexford had the following to say about the practise in the late 1920s;
“It has come to my notice, that a blackguard mummering set has risen in our midst, contrary to the laws of our Church, with a variety of foolish tricks and silly manoeuvrings, in order to obtain food, drink and money by false purposes . . .”
The priest was ignored and mummering went on. A few years later, however, his church, bolstered by the passing of a Dance Halls Act, got its hands on the running of all dances in Ireland’s rural parishes – and the might of the law was four-square behind the clergy in prosecuting those who engaged in the sinful and unIrish mumming, which didn’t contribute a penny piece to the coffers of the church either.
According to Diarmuid O Muirithe writing in The Irish Times in 2000, The Wexford Mummers were arrested for dancing on the street in 1935. As late as 1947, the local paper reported, “Patrick Fanning of Raheen, Taghmon, was fined £1 for a breach of the Dance Halls Act. Of the seventy people found watching mummers in a loft, fifty three had paid two shillings to play cards for chickens. Sergeant McEvoy prosecuted. For the defence it was stated that Mr Fanning’s grandfather allowed mumming in the loft in days gone by.
Although on the wane for some decades, perhaps it is time to resuscitate this once-widespread tradition?
Tryhill National School, Trihill East townland, Co. Galway
NGR: 178847, 249237
Nineteenth-Century two-storey National Schools are relatively unusual in Ireland, particularly in a rural setting. They often date to the early part of the 19th Century, before the construction of ‘to-plan’ school houses began to be overseen by the OPW, after the the National School Act of 1831. There are exceptions to this of course, such as Clenor and Carraig National School, Co. Cork built in 1884, or Killymarly National School in Co. Monaghan, built c.1850. But these are few and far between.
Tryhill National School in Trihill townland in Co. Galway is perhaps on of the best preserved disused two-storey National Schools in a rural setting that I’ve encountered over the past few years – this despite the fact that a gaping hole has been knocked into the rear of the property where a staircase once allowed access to the two classrooms on the upper floor. The building is situated next to the island on the river Shiven in an area known as Islandcase, located to the south of the town of Ballygar in East Galway, and the surrounding landscape is predominantly low-lying and wet with areas of bogland and wet pasture throughout.
The building comprises a detached, five-bay, two-storey school, built c.1830, but now derelict. Georgian in period, it includes a fine pitched slate roof which still serves its purpose well and which still retains its cast-iron rainwater goods.
One of the most attractive features of the building is the segmental-headed fanlight over the entrance which in turn retains its original double-leaf timber-ledged and braced door. A stone plaque is still located over the front door and reads; ‘Tryhill National School’; a crude stone cross is included underneath the plaque. The building is set back from road in open ground with a random rubble stone boundary wall to the front, and hedges to side and rear which mark the area of the associated playground. This playground was once divided into boys and girls sections by a high wall.
Inside, recent alterations to the stairwell and exterior wall not withstanding, many of the details of the former school still remain. The painted wooden ceiling over the former stairwell remains vibrant, and the wood paneling that separated the first floor classrooms seems nearly as fine as the day it was installed.
Rathmullan National School, Bearvaish Townland, Co. Sligo
(dated Late-19th/early-20th century)
NGR: 166696, 312385
The townland of Bearvaish is located in Co. Sligo, about 6km from Ballymote in the southeast of the county. The surrounding landscape comprises undulating grasslands and areas of bog and wetland. Farming in this quiet landscape is largely pastoral; many of the farms are small holdings, passed down through several generations since the reorganisation of land ownership through the Land Commission during the early part of the 20th century. Before the work of the Land Commission, farmland was generally held in large estates owned and leased to tenants by a local landlord frequently of Anglo-Irish decent who had often held these lands in deed for several hundred years. These landed gentry often maintained a demesne and estate house in the vicinity of their holding, and many of these survive today in varying states of preservation (see the photography of Tarquin Blake).
There are layers of history to this rural landscape that are sometimes not immediately evident. Within the unremarkable townland of Bearvaish there is a Barrow of likely Bronze Age date, situated adjacent to the Owenmore River which is crossed by a late 18th century bridge. Immediately adjacent and hidden behind the hedgerows is the old Rathmullan National School which dates to the turn of the 20th century.
The Needlework of the Pupils of the National Model Female Schools
The images below are photographs of a beautiful National Model School needlework workbook that were kindly passed on to me in recent weeks by Loletta Hale. This first edition of this workbook was published in Dublin by the Hibernia Press Office in 1835 (reprinted in 1853 and 1861). The copy featured here was purchased at Whitney Antiques in the UK last year. It is one of possibly only a handful of surviving copies. You can see the dates 1846 and 1854 embroidered on two pieces of needlework, and this workbook was probably in use around these years.
In 1834, three years after the establishment of the national system of primary education in Ireland, the first Model School was opened in Upper Merrion Street, Dublin. Model Schools were teacher-training institutions under the auspices of the Commissioners of the Board of National Education, the administrative body of the national system. Each Model School maintained at least one national school where student teachers could practice their skills and gain experience in teaching.
These training institutions were numerically insignificant, never exceeding thirty as opposed to the thousands of ordinary national schools. It was originally intended that only male students would be trained for the office of teacher at the Model Schools. Female student teachers were not accepted until 1842.
The book contains simple directions in needlework and cutting out intended for the use of the National Female Schools of Ireland. Needlework and the specimens of work were added to the book, mounted on green stock paper as issued. Published to assist teachers in, and patrons of the National Female Schools of Ireland, “for the improvement of the poor”, the work includes “simple directions for plain and fancy works” giving directions for the various techniques of needlework.
This copy of the workbook retains actual mounted specimens including; a sampler, a fully realised miniature shirt (or smock) for a boy, and “gathering and fastening-in gathers” for sleeves, button-holes, and seaming. The Model Schools promoted the education of the poor in Ireland. They often taught knitting, as did orphanages and workhouses, with the aim of providing the poor with a skill for gainful employment.
Cross National School, Cross South Townland, Co. Roscommon
NGR: 164621, 298618
The town of Ballaghaderreen is located in northwest Co. Roscommon, close to the borders of both Mayo and Sligo. Prior to 1898 the town and parish of Ballaghaderreen and Edmonstown were in fact part of Co. Mayo until its transfer to Co. Roscommon under the Local Government Act 1898. Like many smaller market towns in the midlands, Ballaghaderreen was a hub of activity in the rural landscape at the turn of the 20th century. Key to this was the fact that the town was served by the Midland Great Western Railway. The station at Ballaghaderreen opened in 1874 and served the region for almost 90 years. But like so many of the regional railway lines and stations, Ballaghaderreen Station finally closed along with the Kilfree Junction branch line in 1963.
The town is rich in vernacular architecture, largely dating to the 19th century. In 1837 Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland described it as ‘a thriving market town in the west’. This was no surprise as at the beginning of the 19th century Ballaghaderreen had been re-designed by Charles Strickland, an agent for Lord Dillon of Ballaghaderreen. The modern character of the market town is still visible today, and the town has an well organised streetcape. The street and place names reflect many of Strickland’s efforts to formalise the layout of Ballaghaderreen. Strickland was responsible for the building of a market place called The Shambles with 16 lock-up stores. Strickland was also instrumental opening the railway line for the town, allowing merchants to transport their goods.
En route to Kilfree junction, the train stopped at Edmondstown Station, just a few kilometres to the northeast of Ballaghaderreen, and not far from the Edmondstown Demesne. In 1786 William Wilson referred to Edmondstown Demesne as the fine seat of Mr. Costello – the Costello’s being settled in Roscommon and Mayo from at least the early 16th century.
Like Ballaghaderreen, the landscape of Edmondstown is dotted with handsome vernacular buildings dating to the late 18th and 19th century, including a small school house in the townland of Cross South.
Brockagh National School, Brockagh Lower Townland, Co. Leitrim
NGR: 201431, 337272
The little village of Glenfarne is located in north County Leitrim, surrounded by rolling drumlins and boggy lakelands that are so characteristic of this part of the country. The soil quality is poor, the lands are often damp and unproductive, and in recent decades, much of the landscape has been planted with vast expanses of commercial forestry in an effort to put the landscape to some commercial purpose. Leitrim is the least populous county in Ireland – often the butt of the joke in regional banter and rib-poking. But I don’t think anyone there really cares about that. In reality the county offers wonderful lakeside isolation, with forest-covered hills over-looking small hamlets, vernacular houses and ruinous clachains. It is a peaceful landscape, and though it can be harsh during a long winter of short evenings, in summer the still lakes glisten in the sunshine without the disturbance of excessive tourism.
The village of Glenfarne is probably best known as the site of the original “Ballroom of Romance”, which inspired a short story by William Trevor and was subsequently turned into a movie by the BBC. The story itself is a little grim; set in rural Ireland in the 1950s, the lead protagonist Bridie has been attending the local dance hall for years in the hope of finding a good husband who can help work her family’s farm. Now surrounded by younger prettier women at the dances, she comes to the realisation that all the good men of her generation have emigrated or have been spoken for; and her only remaining hope for marriage is with the alcoholic and unreliable Bowser Egan.
The story of The Ballroom of Romance is set in a landscape of rural decline and emigration – common themes of rural Ireland that are particularly strong in Co. Leitrim through the 20th century. Glenfarne was once serviced by the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway line from Eniskillen to Sligo. The line opened in January 1880 and finally closed on 1 October 1957. A sawmill and creamery operated adjacent to the railway line, and a tourist hotel was located in the adjacent townland of Sranagross. And just to the south of the railway in the townland of Brockagh was the the old two-roomed school house – Brockagh National School, built in 1885, but now empty and abandoned. Continue reading Brockagh National School, Brockagh Lower Townland, Co. Leitrim→
Glensaul National School, Greenaun townland, Co. Mayo (Dated mid-20th Century) NGR: 105539, 265891
The townland of Greenaun is located to the southwest of the village of Tourmakeady on the shores of Lough Mask in Co. Mayo. The Partry Mountain range lies to the west of the lake, and from there a number of mountain streams tumble and flow down the hillsides and enter Lough Mask below. On the opposite side of the lake to Greenaun, the towns of Ballinrobe and The Neale are located on the relatively-productive flat-lands. In between these two areas Lough Mask glistens like a shimmering silver mirage on a bright day, and lights up the surrounding landscape with the most brilliant light. The Place-name ‘Greeneaun’ translates as solarium; a fort commanding a prospect’. From the elevated position on the west of Lough Mask and looking east with the mountains behind you, the landscape seems open, with panoramic views across the glistening water body and the wild lands of this part of Co. Mayo.
Historically, a large portion of the southern part of the parish of Tourmakeady was formerly part of Co. Galway. However, in 1898 the entire parish was transferred to Co Mayo. Like much of this area around North-Galway/South-Mayo, the wider region was predominately Irish speaking until recent decades. Today, the Gaelic speaking areas in Co. Mayo have been reduced to just three clusters; Erris, Achill Island and Tourmakeady. There are 1,000 people living in the parish of Tourmakeady of which approximately 400 are daily Irish speakers.
The mountainous landscape was dotted with small farmsteads through the 19th and earlier parts of the 20th century. But the area was devastated during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century and never fully recovered from this tragic event. Like the Irish language, the population dwindled in the years and decades that followed. At the turn of the 20th century, many one-roomed schools were still in use in the area, but as the century progressed, many were closed or consolidated as people left the area and emigrated abroad. Some of these school buildings still remain on the landscape in varying ruinous states, though the population that required them is now gone. Below are some other examples from the immediate area around Tourmakeady:
The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning (contd…)
School house designs supplied by the OPW toward the end of the 19th century vary in form but maintain the same basic features; an entrance porch, a cloakroom, the classroom, tall sash windows, an open fireplace and high ceilings, wainscoting on the lower parts of the internal walls, a raised wooden floor, ventilation features etc. The architectural drawings were supplied and distributed by the OPW to locations around the country, and for this reason you can often find identical school buildings at opposite ends of the country. There were a variety of designs available through the decades, and it is often possible to date the construction of a school house to within a few years based on the form of the building.
Many of the school houses that were built ‘to-plan’ were extended and modified and many remain in use today. Often a modern school building will have an original 19th-century construction at its core. It is interesting that the many of the principle features of the early schools have been retained such as high ceilings and windows. These features reflect the ecclesiastical and monastic origins of school house design that persist to this very day. They also reflect the continuing control that Churches had on the school system.
Although there were architecturally elaborate school buildings (most often patronised by a local land owner), they more frequently comprised functional structures, usually lacking architectural ornamentation, and built to serve a small local population. Continue reading The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 3→