Borderlands; ‘generally wet, sour, and moory’ – Samuel Lewis, 1837 (Heritage Week 2016 Series)

This is the third in the series of daily posts to the Disused School Houses blog to mark National Heritage Week 2016 (August 20th- 28th). This post presents images of abandoned school houses from Ireland’s ‘Borderland’ region, along with a brief narrative outlining the changing social landscape of the area over the past 100 years.

Gaigue NS Co. Cavan 1890 - 1900: Now a mechanic's workshop
Gaigue National School, Co. Cavan

aThere are a number of reoccurring motifs and themes that I have come across in the course of researching and photographing the disused school houses I visit. Rural depopulation and changing rural settlement patterns are amongst those themes. In some rural areas, the negative affects of this depopulation are partly offset by a thriving modern tourism industry. However, along the border region between the Republic and Northern Ireland where fewer tourists visit, the affects of demographic change have only been exacerbated further by social upheaval over the past century or so.

Drumreilly NS Co. Leitrim 1897 Fireplace
Drumreilly National School, Co. Leitrim (built in 1897)

The social history of the border already fills countless tomes and theses. The borderlands of Northern Ireland and Ireland are amongst the most disadvantaged and deprived areas of the island, and the proliferation of abandoned national schools in the area tells that story in itself. In March of this year, I spent a few days travelling through counties Monaghan, Cavan and Leitrim. These counties make up a significant percentage of the north/south border, and in terms of looking for derelict school houses, this is prime territory.

Corvoy Ns Co. monaghan 1902 Piano Through the Door
Corvoy National School, Co. Monaghan (built in 1902)

Besides dramatic social change, the creation of the custom barrier in 1923 significantly affected the movement of goods. Duties were payable on items such as tobacco, clothing and other manufactured goods. This had significant implications for retailers who formerly served areas that were now on either side of the border and for ordinary people whose patterns of shopping were disrupted by the new customs barrier.

Latton Co. Monaghan 1941 Classroom
Latton National School, Co. Monaghan (built in 1941)

Even before the decades of violence, the creation of the border badly affected existing retailers, manufacturers and services near the border. For many business the cost and inconvenience of new customs system – duties, paper work, delays and longer journeys – as well as the growing divergence in the administrative systems on either side created difficulties which led to a dramatic decline in trade across the border.

Carrigan Co. Cavan 1897 Interior School Room Blue
Carrigan National School, Co. Cavan (built in 1897)

None of this was helped by the local geography either. The landscape is charaterised by the low rolling hills of the Drumlin Belt. The Drumlin Belt comprises tens of thousands of tightly-packed hillocks (called Drumlins), in a wide belt extending from County Down to Clew Bay. The land is agriculturally poor, and the hollows between the drumlins tend to become water-logged and boggy. In 1837, the antiquarian Samuel Lewis described the region as ‘generally wet, sour, and moory’.

Killymarly NS Co. Monaghan c1850 Classroom Desks
Killymarly National School, Co. Monaghan (built c.1850)

Throughout the region, the main industries are food production and farming, saw-milling, and steel-working. The area is dotted with small, former provincial market towns, typical of the midlands and rural Ireland. Although farming remains important to the local economy, rural life has changed, and the hustle-and-bustle of the market town is no longer what it used to be. Large purpose-built co-operative marts have replaced the buying and selling of stock on the streets at markets and fairs in the local towns. Many pubs and small businesses have closed their doors without the income these occasions generated. In winter, this part of Ireland can seem particularly grey and isolated; land-locked and empty of vibrant life.

Gortahose National School, Co. Leitrim (built in 1890)

As I mentioned above, this area is prime derelict school house territory. The livelihoods of many here have changed over the years, and many young people see little benefit to staying in the area. Abandoned school houses are just part of the story, and a lack of inward investment is not helping. In short, it’s a story of changing demographics, emigration, depopulation of the rural countryside, and the changing requirements of rural settlement. It is also worth considering what will happen in the region in the future. Over the past decades, the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, and the Schengen ‘No borders’ Agreement within the EU has helped to breathe new life into the area. However, in recent months, an impending ‘Brexit’ from the EU may reinstate a much more tangible international border here. What impact might this have?

 If you or someone you know attended these national schools, please do get in touch and share any stories, anecdotes, photographs, or any other memories you may have.

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