Often the easiest way to identify whether a derelict building was once a school house or not is by the presence of windows that are not characteristic of a domestic structure. Light, and allowing light into the building were practical necessities before the arrival of artificial luminescence from the electric bulb. For reading and writing, high windows allowed the optimum amount of light into the room throughout the day. Even today, it is recognised that maximising the amount of natural light in a school building is beneficial to the learning environment.
The form, style and placement of windows vary greatly from school to school, though many early school houses reflect an ecclesiastical genesis, with high pointed windows similar to those found in a church sometimes being present. Some can be ornate and intricate, with features such as switch-line tracery. An example of this from Tubrid National School, Co. Tipperary is shown below:
When considering the ecclesiastical appearance of these windows it is worth baring in mind that during the medieval and early modern period, in many places a monastic life was often the only avenue to literacy, and so for a long time, church and the learning environment were one.
The presence of unnecessarily ornate architectural features often indicate a wealthy patronage of the school, sometimes by the church, but also sometimes by the more progressive landlords who understood the significance and importance of education. In these cases, great effort was often made to create a place of learning with stimulating and intriguing architecture. Such buildings often also reflected well on the local patronising landlord as a display of their wealth and progressive nature. Below, the national school at Kilfinnane, Co. Limerick breaks from the ‘to-plan’ norm of national schools built at the turn of the 20th century. This former school retains many of its original features and materials such as the limestone plaque dated to 1908, copings and boundary walls, and of course, the ornate windows at the gable.
In contrast, many other schools dating to this time that were built locally ‘to-plan’ following designs commissioned by the Office of Public Works, lack architectural originality, with windows often flat-headed and plain. This was perhaps a ‘one size fits all’ effort by the OPW that was simple and cost effective. Sash windows were the most common form of glazing, set into deep window opes like the example below from Sonnagh National School, Co. Galway.
Below, the morning light shines through the windows of Shanvaghera National School, Co. Mayo, and creates a beautiful scene of light in a now desolate environment.
If you or someone you know attended one of these national schools, please do get in touch and share any stories, anecdotes, photographs, or any other memories you may have.