Gola Island National School, Gola Island, Co. Donegal

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)

Gola Island First Edition OS Sheet
The First Edition Ordnance Survey 6 Inch Map Showing Gola Island in the late 1830s

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.

Gola Island Population

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.

Gola Island National School
Gola Island National School, Co Donegal, with Mount Errigal in the backgroud

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.

Abandoned Schoolhouse on Gola Island in 1969
Gola Island School House, c.1969

A plaque by the front of the building once bore the name of the school, and perhaps a date, but this has been weathered away. The original deeds for the school still exist, and date the earliest school on the site to 1846. However, the present building seems almost certainly to be of a later date, perhaps c. the turn of the 20th century. All that stands now are the bear walls of the T-plan building. Drawing architectural comparisons with similar school house designs such as those at Bunbeg/Knockantolar on the mainland, and on Whiddy Island in Co. Cork, this building was probably constructed some time between 1880 and 1900. It appears on the First Edition 25 Inch Ordnance Survey Map dating to the turn of the century.

Gola Island National School VII
Gola Island National School; coastal erosion threatens the future of the school

With a peak population of 169 in 1911, the two-roomed school house undoubtedly served the community adequately. Such diminutive schools were common place on the small off-shore islands through the early part of the 20th century. In fact, early historic mapping shows some 40 national schools located off the coast of Ireland at this time. Many had just a handful of students like examples at Inishmurray in Co. Sligo, and Island Eddie off Kinvara in Co. Galway.

Gola Island National School V
Gola Island National School, Gola Island, Co. Donegal

However, these small off-shore national schools are now a feature of past settlement patterns, with many of these islands now un-populated. I guess this makes the certain fate of Gola National School all the more poignant. Without a significant effort to protect the building, it will be destroyed by the sea in the near future.

Gola Island National School VI
The stained floor tiles in the entrance hall to the school
Gola Island National School III
A view out to sea from the entrance hall at Gola Island National School

The building holds many precious memories for those who attended the school, and is a relic of the people who considered the island their home for several centuries. In recent years Cáit McBride has collected some of the memories from the Island. In her short history of the locality (Gaoth Dobhair by Land and Sea), she recalls some of the local families, their history and their lifeways on the island:

‘I had more interest in Gala than in the other islands, because as a child, my mother spent some time in school there. She knew the different families living on the island. She could name most of these, as they had been her childhood companions. These included the McGees, McGinleys, the Duggans (who are linked with Irish history) and the Divers (whose name had really been Dwyer) had been Chieftains from County Wicklow in Michael Dwyer’s time before Cromwell came and banished them along with many others. They went north\vards by sea and arrived at Tory Island. A section of the family went to Gola. They were fishermen who mixed and married with the others and made a living from the sea. The Divers settled there and there were also the Gallaghers who were excellent singers. Indeed one member of this family was a world famous singer. There was also Mciire Bheag Gallagher, who married locally. Along with the McGees and the McGinleys, there were the Duggans and the Peoples, who were from Wick in the North of Scotland. They were originally Silversmiths but by the time they reached Donegal, they had changed to Blacksmiths and kept up the trade on the mainland for many generations. The Peoples from Gola Island were fishermen, brilliant, with brains to burn. Some of them went to Australia, some went to America and some remained at home. Also on the island at the time were the McBride& and the Roarty family. The Roartys had a beautiful singing voice while the younger Roartys were fishing, the grandfather, Hugh Roarty, would lilt for the young people for a hour every night so that they could enjoy themselves.

My great aunt married a Sweeney and her family were fishermen. Her in-laws, who were also Sweeneys, lived nearby. Her brother-in-law, Eamonn, had died but his three sons had kept up the fishing tradition. She didn’t like the three of them in the same boat, even though they were very careful, cautious young people who were never in danger. Summer time was a worrying time for the salmon fishermen, because a sudden squall could rise in the midst of the calmest weather and people had to be prepared. The island women didn’t sleep very soundly at night. There were always that little bit of worry when their men of the island were deep sea fishing and the sea was treacherous.’

Gola Island National School IV
The weathered frame of Gola Island National School

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. You can do so here.

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