Bunglash (Bun Glaise) National School, Bunglash South townland, Co. Kerry
NGR: 69192, 87189
On the 12 September 1893 the Great Southern and Western Railway opened a branch-line off the existing Tralee-Mallow main line which would connect the village of Farranfore in County Kerry with Valentia Harbour on the southern shore of Dingle Bay. At that time it was the most westerly railway line in Europe and passed through some of Ireland’s most spectacular scenery as it climbed through Kerry’s mountainous countryside. It served as the main transport system for the Iveragh Peninsula for 75 years with the last train departing Killorglin on 30 January 1960.
So for sixty-seven odd years, a steam-powered locomotive chugged daily along the Farranfore to Valentia Harbour line, passing just north of the glacial lake Lough Carragh, and stopping at the Glenbeigh station. Glenbeigh Station was located at the foot of Seefin Mountain, and the surrounding landscape at the turn of the 20th century was beautiful, wild and remote. There were few distractions intruding from the outside world, and the coming and going of the steam train served to punctuate the day. In surrounding the hills and mountains, schools did not have clocks, and the whistle of train in the quite landscape as it passed over Curraheen level crossing at 10.15 am let the local school children know that it was am sos (break-time).
Milleen National School, Milleenduff Townland, Séipéal na Carraige (Rockchapel), Co. Cork
NGR: 122001, 119413
The village of Roundwood in Co. Wicklow claim that at 238 m OD, their’s is the highest village in Ireland. However in recent years, the village of Meelin in Co. Cork has erected a braggadocious signpost at the edge of their humble home stating ‘Welcome to Meelin – Ireland’s Highest Village’. The brazen folk of this tiny north-Cork hamlet claim that their little settlement, located just south of the Mullaghareirk Mountains, is 15 m higher than their Wicklow rivals. If you investigate the issue online, you might find various reasons why one village believes the other’s claim to the title of the most elevated settlement is illegitimate. In all honesty, the argument could probably be settled in minutes by pulling out an Ordnance Survey Map… but what’s the fun in that?
The plucky village of Meelin is located in northwest Cork. It is one of a handful of small villages located north of Newmarket near the Cork-Kerry-Limerick border. It is unlikely that your travels would ever take you through this area; much of the land close to the village is planted with coniferous trees, mainly of lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce. The area is sparsely populated though the woodlands are filled with ruined cottages and farmsteads which remind you that there was a time when the lands here were farmed rather than planted with commercial forests.
It is here amongst the plantations just north of the village of Rockchapel that you will find the now disused Old Milleen National School in the townland of Milleenduff. The building is hidden from view by mature evergreens, with the Caher River flowing just to the south. On a bright day, sunlight flashes through moving branches of the surrounding woodlands onto the south-facing gabled entrance with it’s centrally placed name and date plaque. The planted woodlands have largely consumed the surrounding vernacular farming landscape that existed to the east here when the school was in use.
The rural landscape is not static, and has changed quite a bit over the recent decades. Although the hills, mountains, rivers and lakes don’t move much, the way that people interact with the landscape, and the character of the environment is dynamic and fluid. Rural towns and villages that were once important market places and a hub of rural activity, fade into a mere collective nostalgia for times gone by, as young people gravitate to cities and the landscape empties. I’m from County Galway and anytime I would have travelled to Dublin in the past, it was a straight burn along the N6 through Ballinasloe, Athlone, and on to the myriad of bottlenecks as you approached the capital. In more recent years the M6 means that I rarely see any of these towns anymore.
Before motorised transport and the railway, distance was largely the determining factor when choosing a route from west to east. Travelling from Galway to Dublin by carriage or on foot, it was likely that you would take a route through Loughrea, Killmor and Eyrecourt, crossing the River Shannon at Bangher in Co. Offaly; all the while passing near or along a much more ancient route, An Slighe Mhór.
But this is not the case today when the motorway saves you from having to negotiate town and village streets as you travel. The reason I mention it is to explain why, that in the three or so years that I’ve been photographing these old school houses, I had not passed by Coolagh in the parish of Abbeygormacan near Killoran (along the former road to Dublin) , and noticed the old school house there. The building is located on the northern side of the N65 about 3 km beyond Gurtymadden Cross when travelling east.
St. Josephs National School, Letter townland, Islandeady, Co. Mayo
(Dated late 19th century)
NGR: 107056, 289784
It’s late evening near Westport in Co. Mayo after an unusually dark day in late July. The sky has been overcast all afternoon and the air is damp but warm. When I think about Irish summers in the west of Ireland this is undoubtedly the weather I think of; June can (sometimes) bring long hot days but once the Atlantic Ocean has warmed up then the air becomes heavy with moisture. June had been exceptionally warm and dry this year, but now the grassy drumlins around this part of Mayo are fresh after a recent rain shower.
I’ve taken a spin out from Westport toward Castlebar. About halfway along this route there’s a boggy rural spot hidden amongst the drumlins called Islandeady. A friend of a friend had let me know that there’s and old school house located out here and so with an hour or two to spare before sunset I went out to take a quick look.
The parish of Islandeady still contains four (small) working national schools; Cloggernagh, Cornanool, Cougala and Leitir. But the school house at Leitir replaced an earlier school building that still stands, and it is this structure that I’m interested in. Today it’s modern successor has just 6 girls and 4 boys on the coming years enrollment, and I wonder if it’s likely to stay open for much longer.
Inishkea (south) Island National School, Inishkea south, Co. Mayo
NGR: 55721, 321451
For two months I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to make my way out to the Inishkea Islands off the west coast of Co. Mayo. There is no ferry service or regular connection between the mainland and the two islands. Located out beyond Blacksod Bay, nobody lives there anymore; in fact the islands have been empty of human life since 1934, with the only inhabitants these days being flocks of free-roaming sheep and a thriving seal colony. I’d been out to Blacksod on the Mullet peninsula twice in April and May only for my possible lift to Inishkea failing to materialise. But late one Friday evening I got a phone call to tell me that a boat would be leaving in the morning from Termon Pier, and if I could get there I’d be able to hitch a lift out to the empty islets – they couldn’t say when exactly I might be coming back. Nonetheless, I took the chance and left for Blacksod early the next morning.
After several disappointing attempts to get to Inishkea over the preceding months, the straight burn across the Bangor stretch toward Belmullet was familiar. I made it to the pier, and to their word, Geraghty’s boat was, thankfully waiting there. Pulling out into Blacksod Bay the sun sparkled on the calm seas, and the north side of Achill Island and Slievemore Mountain was a hazy shadow on the horizon. The islands were only about 45 minutes out to sea though I could have watched the passing coastline of Achill in the glistening silver waves for hours.
The Inishkea Islands have been empty of a permanent population for about 85 years, and in that time they have lain almost untouched. Visitors are infrequent by all accounts, though the skipper tells me that one man has been living on the north island for two years without contact, electricity or even a boat. The skipper delivers him a food package once a month. Although this sounded intriguing I knew that in reality it must be tough – but I hadn’t seen the islands yet.
Pulling into ‘the anchorage’ at Porteenbeg on the sheltered eastern side of the island we passed the diminutive Rusheen Island where could been seen the remains of an old whaling station. Ahead on the shore were a line crumbling empty stone houses lined up like a deserted street overlooking a white deserted beach The pier was arranged for livestock arrivals rather than people, and I began to wonder that perhaps maybe this place was perfect, so perfect that even though I might go ahead and photograph the abandoned school house on Inishkea south, I might not post about it on this Blog for fear it might encourage any more visitors to this perfectly empty place, this empty island with it’s white beach that was almost blinding in the strong sunlight. The sea was clear and turquoise, calm and sheltered on the eastern side of the island, even though I could sea waves crash silently on the western shore in the distance: that coastline being exposed to the Atlantic. Continue reading Inishkea (south) Island National School, Inishkea south, Co. Mayo→
The wilds of County Mayo are spectacular. Along the rugged west coast the skyline is marked by the Partry and Nephin Beag ranges. On Achill Island, the northern slopes of Croaghaun mountain plummet from 600 m OD to the sea below, while on it’s southern side it shelters one of the most beautiful beaches in Ireland, Keem. To the southeast of here is Clew Bay with its plethora of low drumlin islands, while inland the landscape is dotted with rivers, lakes, bogland and the occasional turlough.
Lough Mask is located to the south of Co. Mayo. Along the lakes western shore is the village of Tuar Mhic Éadaigh, and if you ever get the chance, I would recommend the trip from here to Westport across the hilly and barren emptiness of Aughagower. The landscape comprises blanket peat that is unproductive, there are few homes though there are the crumbling ruins of many vernacular houses long deserted. Wild and ragged mountain sheep roam the narrow roads.
It is just south of this area that you’ll find the little hamlet of Finny. On high land, it affords spectacular views of a narrow part of Lough Mask. Almost directly across from Dead Island on the lake, and along the R300 road, is Old Finny National School. The building is disused now, and being so off the beaten track, it probably has very few inquisitive visitors.
Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo
NGR: 06162, 07203
For as long as I’ve been undertaking this disused school houses project, the diversity of the Irish landscape has not failed to routinely take my breath away. Every region, every road, every little village, every hill, island, or woodland has a unique character shaped initially by the physical landscape, and then by the people who have lived in that landscape through the centuries. Even in areas that seem empty now, the hills and boglands bear the scars of past settlement; redundant field patterns, abandoned tillage plots, collapsing vernacular houses and old mills. Layers of settlement are written on the landscape, abandoned, and left to future interpretation.
The theme of rural depopulation is reoccurring within this project, and each time I leave my house to head up the country to photograph some old school that is no longer in use, I am invariably going to end up in some empty place where few tourists visit, and where the local population has declined. By and large, I will be driving to somewhere in what were known at the close of the 19th century as ‘The Congested Districts’; the poorest parts of Ireland with the poorest quality land, predominantly located on the west coast.
To alleviate poverty and congested living conditions in the west and parts of the north-west of Ireland, the Congested Districts Board for Ireland was established in 1891. Various political machinations were at play at the time, largely in an effort to deter a desire for home rule, but the basic role of the Congested Districts Board was to alleviate poverty by paying for public works, such as building piers for small ports on the west coast, to assist fishing, modernising farming methods or sponsoring local factories to give employment and stop emigration from Ireland. The efforts largely failed, and the impact of the Congested Districts Board was minimal. In time, the rural landscape would empty.
Many folk lament the decline of rural Irish lifeways; the changing demographics, the inevitable fate of the small farmer and the uncertain future of the land. In these desolate spots, I can spend days rambling through the ruins of defunct livelihoods. Vast expanses of unproductive farmerland on hillsides and bogs have been planted with commercial forest, and in these unnatural woodlands you will find the ghosts of past farmsteads. Across places like northwest Mayo, the remnants of vernacular settlement are swallowed by forestry. Cottages tumble and collapse, schools are closed and left to the same outcome.
Achill Beg National School, Achill Beg Island, Co. Mayo
NGR: 071712, 292437
If you were to include just about every rocky outcrop of notable size, then you could count at least five-hundred-or-so off-shore islands off the coast of Ireland. However, only a handful of these islands have maintained a population through history, and even fewer-still have retained permanent residents into the present day. Through the early and high medieval period many of the smaller islands off the west coast attracted monastic settlers. Off the west coast, monastic settlements can be found on Skellig Michael, St. Macdara’s Island, Scattery Island and Inishmurray to name just a few, with the early monks being drawn to the isolation offered by these punishing out-posts.
However, our period of interest is the 19th and 20th century, and the experiences of those who lived and were educated on these islands at that time. Examining the early mapping sources like the First Edition 6 Inch map (1834-1842), and First Edition 25 Inch map (1890-1911), it can be seen that up until the mid 20th century, there were some forty national schools located on islands off the coast of Ireland. Life on many of these islands could be harsh at the best of times, and by the 1950s, settlers on many of the smaller islands were encouraged to leave and settle on the mainland. The evacuation of the off-shore islands left many of the smaller islands desolate and empty, and consequently, the majority of the forty national schools once located on them were closed.
For the past couple of months I’ve been slowly making my way out to many of these island school houses. Some have unfortunately been completely destroyed by the elements such as the school house once located on the eastern shore of Scattery Island, Co. Clare. Others have been restored as holiday homes like the example on Dursey Island, Co. Cork. And some, such as the example featured here from Achill Beg, have been sitting vacant and abandoned since the island was evacuated in the mid-20th century.
Gola Island National School, Gola Island, Co. Donegal
(Dated (1846), 1880-1900)
NGR: 177221, 426202
Northwest Donegal is possibly about as rural as you can get on the island of Ireland, and the islands off the Donegal coast are probably about as isolated a spot as you will find. Many do not have permanent populations, and if you’re ever looking for somewhere to go to get away from it all, then this is the place for you.
Gola (in Irish Gabhla or Oileán Ghabhla) is a small island located off the coast of Gweedore. The island measures 424 statute Acres in area with mildly hilly terrain. It is a haven for artists, birdwatchers, photographers and walkers, and the cliffs on the north side of the island attract many rock climbers. Near the Island’s lake, bird life abounds; cormorants, razorbills, guillemots as well as gannets and kittiwakes can be admired. Although many Irish people may not realise it, they may be familiar with Gola Island through song; Gola is the birthplace of renowned Irish writer, Seán ‘ac Fhionnlaoich, and the island has also been immortalised in the traditional children’s song Báidín Fhéilimí (Féilimí’s Little Boat)
For centuries, a couple of hundred people eked out a living on Gola from fishing and subsistence farming. But by the 1950s, the island could no longer compete with the economic opportunities offered by the mainland. Gradually, Gola’s families stripped their houses, boarded their boats and sailed away to the mainland. The closure of the island’s national school in the mid-1960s marked the beginning of the end.
Since the 1960s onward the trend on most of the off-shore islands has been a decreasing population. In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, many of the smaller islands were forcefully evacuated by the Irish Government as continuous bad weather meant that islanders were unable to travel to the mainland for several consecutive months. The most recent census taken during 2016 showed 15 permanent residents on Gola, although the return of permanent settlement to the island is a recent phenomenon, with the island being largely un-populated since the late 1960s.
In 2005 the island was connected to mains electricity for the first time, and from being totally deserted over 30 years ago Gola now has electricity and water and the future looks far more positive. However, the population remains small and somewhat seasonal.
The old school house on Gola has been closed since 1966. Located on the shore, it is in a most precarious position, with coastal erosion threatening to erase the structure from the landscape. Stormy weather in recent years means the sea now comes right up to the door at high tide. It is weather beaten, the roof has collapsed, and in all likelihood, it will be completely washed away in the coming years. Continue reading Gola Island National School, Gola Island, Co. Donegal→
I got a call last week to take a trip up to North Donegal at short notice. Despite the 1002 Km round trip I really didn’t mind going; we were headed for Mulroy Bay and Rosguill, and I knew that I was a relative stones-throw from Gweedore and Bloody Foreland. This was of interest to me as a few months back I’d be contacted by Sile Ui Ghallchoir, who had gone to school on the now deserted Gola Island in Gweedore Bay. Since then I had been eager to get some shots of the the school house there that had been closed since 1966. The sea was slowly reclaiming the land that the school was built on, and it would not be long until it was washed away.
And so I packed my bags and left the next morning for the north. We made our way from Ramelton toward the coast early the following evening, taking in what I already knew was some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Crossing through Glenveagh National Park, you couldn’t help but be struck by the wonderfully barren mountainous landscape; reminiscent of many parts of Connemara and West Kerry, but with a far greater feeling that you are a long way from anywhere (a six hour drive from Cork can give you that impression at least).
The plan was to coax a lift from a fishing boat in Bunbeg and make my way out to the island. With a few hours to spare before I could hitch the lift I had arranged, I ambled around the village of Bunbeg. Just outside the little hamlet in the townland of Knockastolar, I happened accidentally upon another school house lying empty. Painted in the Green and Yellow of Donegal and perched above the road from Bunbeg to Dungloe at a Y-junction, it looked like a late 19th-century style school house with a later extension perhaps. The original section of the building was identical to the old school house on Whiddy Island off Bantry Bay in Co. Cork (dated 1887), with an entrance to porch to the side. A hole in the door allowed me to get in to take a few quick photos.