Gortnabinny National School, Gortnabinny townland, Co. Kerry
NGR: 091541, 063374
It’s a Sunday evening in late July in south Co. Kerry. The summer air is warm but heavy, and the sky is overcast though there are occasional bursts of sunlight through gaps in the temperamental cloud cover. This kind of weather is disappointingly common in Ireland at this time of year, with sporadic heavy showers of rain in between the dry spells. I’ve arrived at Gortnabinny townland, located about 10 km south of the town of Kenmare; a rural spot at the gateway to the Beara Peninsula.
The surrounding landscape is hilly; the ferns are a lush green colour, and in the damp, heavy warmth of the evening, the dense greenery and woodlands seem tropical. Earlier this day I had met Simon Linnell in Kenmare. He’s involved with a local cultural and historical research group in the town, and each year they publish the ‘Kenmare Chronicle’, a journal dedicated to documenting various aspects of the local heritage. He tells me that this year the group have been researching the many disused school houses located in the area, and has given me a hand-drawn map which shows the locations of the schools he’s identified. Gortnabinny is my last stop on Simon’s map.
Leaving the humid roadside which is arched by a canopy of the most vibrant green deciduous trees, I make my way up a low knoll and through the wet woodlands; toward the crest of the hill I can see the remnants of single-storey building hidden behind pine palms, dripping after the most recent sun shower.
The white-washed building comprises a detached, L-plan, three-bay, single-storey school house. The gable end of the projecting porch includes a name-plaque which reads ‘Gortnabinni National School’ though there is no date. Drawing architectural comparison with the school houses at Whiddy Island, and Réidh Reamhar my guess would be that this school was built sometime between 1880 and 1898.
Why 1898?; the school building is marked on the Second Edition 25 inch Ordnance Survey Map (1893-1898) for the area which shows the building located on the low hill, with footpaths leading to the rear of the school where there are two outbuildings, most likely toilet blocks. It is squeezed between two small streams with only one other building nearby.
The door of the building is unlocked and as make my way inside, I notice that the crumbling plaster-work has revealed the appealing pattern of the roughly coursed stonework with brick quoining underneath. Although the school was built to a standard plan supplied by the Office Of Public Works at the time, it was constructed of local materials by local people.
Inside, it is obvious that this school has had at least two lives. In what was once the main classroom, there are the remains of relatively recent partition walls that divide the main room into three. The floorboards have completely rotted so all that remains is a dusty clay underfoot. To my right is a doorway leading to a smaller room, perhaps originally a classroom for infants.
The walls are covered with a pealing patterned wall paper and it is dark inside; the trees and dense greenery preventing light from entering the building.
To the rear of the building there is a modern flat-roofed extension. Here, there is a kitchen and bathroom with 70’s style fittings. It must be that when this building was no longer used as a school, it was converted to a house and lived in.
But what of the former use of this building? The patterned wallpaper and partition walls make it difficult to imagine this place as a school house. There are no school desks, no blackboard or other features of the school interior remaining. Only the name plaque on the front gable and the recognisable architectural style of the building indicate that this was once a local school house. However, a quick look through the records of the National Folklore Commission* show that in the 1930s, this building was still very much alive as a school. The records show a fine collection of stories and folklore from the locality gathered by the local school children at the time.
The Schools Folklore Collection for Gortnabinny is bilingual, with stories recorded in both the English and Irish language. Sadly, the area is no longer a Gaeltacht, and like so many other parts of Ireland, the language is not in daily use. However, the records do reveal a rich linguistic heritage in the area at the time, with stories relating to local characters such as Cait Harrington, a local woman, who used two stools as crutches because of a physical disability:
Like Réidh Reamhar in Co. Galway, it is the landscape setting of this disused school that is most striking. The building is isolated now, and it is difficult to imagine a time when there were enough school children in the locality to necessitate a it. Perhaps this is what makes Gortnabinny National School interesting; it is a relic of the past and a legacy of the changing rural Irish landscape of the past 50 years. If you or someone you know attended this national school, please do get in touch and share any stories, anecdotes, photographs, or any other memories you may have.
*In 1937 the Irish Folklore Commission, in collaboration with the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, initiated a revolutionary scheme in which schoolchildren were encouraged to collect and document folklore and local history. Over a period of eighteen months some 100,000 children in 5,000 primary schools in the twenty-six counties of the Irish Free State were encouraged to collect folklore material in their home districts.