School days over: spaces, places and memory
The autumnal evening sun hangs low in the sky, and the few clouds that have lingered as twilight beckons are tainted red and orange around their fringes by the setting sun. From the forested hills of the Slieve Aughty Mountains in south Co. Galway, I can see across into Co. Clare, with the stoney plateau of the Burren silhouetted blue by the bright, dropping sunlight. I’ve spent the day touring around South Galway indulging in a recent pastime of mine; looking for what I consider to be a derelict beauty. Beside where I’m standing on the low hillside, and hidden in the dense forestry plantation of the Slieve Aughtys, is the now-disused, one-roomed Reyrawer National School; dilapidated and empty, haunting and isolated. I’m here to photograph the school, and to get a sense of the local environment, both in its present state and in the past.
The landscape around here has changed significantly over the past 50 years. The now forested hill-sides are dotted with the ruins of former farmsteads. The former pasture and rough grazing lands have been sown with coniferous plantations, and the ubiquitous and imposing wind-turbines highlight the movement away from agrarian living in this area, as an alternative and profitable use is sought for this now people-less landscape. In the Aughtys, the result is an empty space, a desolate place where few people live. An unintended but welcome consequence of this depopulation is the creation of a welcome retreat from the ribbon development popular across much of the Irish landscape – though the man-made forests bear a hunting watermark of former settlement, with field boundaries, bóithríns, houses, farms, and infrastructure such as disused schools, hidden throughout the forests. When Reyrawer National School was in use, this was a lived-in landscape which supported a scattered, largely agrarian population. With the movement away from this lifestyle, the landscape was emptied and the school was no longer needed. The plaque on the eastern gable of the building dates the construction of the school to 1891. It closed in the late 1950s.
From travelling the countryside to photograph these old schools, I can tell you that there is a greater proliferation of abandoned schools in more rural and depopulated areas, with a near absence of them in urban centres. To begin explaining this let’s start with the establishment of the National Schools Act in 1831. Shortly after the establishment of the National Schools Act, Ireland’s population began to decline dramatically, initially triggered by the Great Famine of the 1840s. Between 1840 and 1960, the population of the 26 counties of what would become the Republic of Ireland fell from 6.5 million to 2.8 million. However, this decline was driven by mass emigration, and birth rates in Ireland during this time were amongst the highest in Europe. Because of this fact, despite a dramatically falling population, the need to educate significant numbers of children of school-going age remained. New school buildings continued to be required and used. There were particular spikes in new-builds after the National Schools Act in 1831, and again 1926 with the School Attendance Act which meant parents were legally obliged to send their children to school for the years between their 6th and 14th birthdays.
During this time the Irish demographic was quite different to today’s, with the majority of the population living in a rural setting. In a time before motorised transport and a transport infrastructure, the requirement was for many small national schools which local children could walk to. Hence, in 1950 there were 4,890 national schools staffed by 4,700 male and 8,700 female teachers (CSO) in the 26 counties, while the population remained at about 2.8 million. In 1998 with the Irish population passing 4 million, the number of open national schools was 3,350.
How is it that with a rising population, there could be less national schools in Ireland? To explain this, we can look at the change in the Irish demographic from about 1950 onward. Through the 1950s, some 400,000 Irish emigrated because of a lack of opportunities for employment at home. With things at their most bleak, at the beginning of the 1960s the programme for economic expansion was initiated, establishing the Industrial Development Association (IDA) which sparked an improvement in the Irish situation, the development of an industrial economy, and a shift in settlement patterns from a rural based economy to one centred around industry and urban settlement. This saw the beginning of an emptying of the rural Irish population into the larger towns and cities. Small farms began to be consolidated. Further to this, actions such as the ‘evacuation’ of many offshore Islands compounded the issue even more.
All the while Ireland’s birth rate began to drop, becoming more like that of the rest of Europe. Joining the EEC in 1973, Ireland was now beginning to resemble it’s European neighbours in terms of demographics. Further to this, motorised transport became more widely available and so the hinterland of small schools became wider, with many schools in rural areas being consolidated into larger multi-classroom school buildings while the smaller school houses were closed and left to rot. During the period 1966-73, the number of one and two teacher schools was reduced by c.1,100. For this reason, small one and two room abandoned school houses are almost ubiquitous across the rural Irish landscape. They are often a mark of rural depopulation where communities dwindled as young people chose to leave the countryside for bigger cities and more prosperous lands.
For many who emigrated from Ireland at an early age, their days spent in these rural and isolated school houses often represented the last formal education they received before seeking a brighter future abroad. Although many of these buildings are now physically empty or approaching a point of collapse, the physical structures are cognitive stimuli for those who attended, and hold a wealth of memory and associations that shaped their understanding of the world around them at an early age. From these small rural school houses the children of Ireland took what they had learned and went out to find fortune and to explore the greater world.
Undoubtedly, these school buildings still tell stories about those who attended them, and what school life was like in the past. Particularly from the latter part of the 19th century onward, many school buildings were constructed to a standard design by the Office of Public Works (OPW). The architecture of these buildings reflect many of the social paradigms of the 19th and 20th century.
Where resources and architecture allowed, multi-room school buildings generally divided their pupils, initially by age (with infant girls and boys being taught together), before the older school children were divided by sex. Where possible, girls and boys were taught in separate classrooms, or even separate school buildings. It was not uncommon for many schools to have separate doors, or even separate schoolyard entrances for boys and girls. Often, a plaque over the doorway identified the boys’ and girls’ doorways. Where there were separate entrances, more often than not there were separate cloakrooms inside. The schoolyard often further enforced gender segregation, with a dividing wall running down the centre of the play area to ensure that boys and girls would not mix during lunch times.
It is worth bearing in mind that these architectural features were only a reflection of the differing education received by boys and girls. For boys, the turn of the 20th century saw the introduction of a dramatically different programme and a modern approach to national school education”. In addition to the ‘three R’s’, inspectors’ reports draw attention to the additional subjects taught – physical drill, drawing, object lessons, singing, geography, grammar, history, shorthand, and book keeping. For girls, the intensive syllabi of instruction included cookery and laundry lessons for the older girls from 1910 to 1922. Inspectors checked the cookery and laundry rolls, and usually made a note of the number of lessons given e.g. These classes were discontinued after 1922, when – under the newly-established Irish government – curricular emphasis changed in favour of the teaching of Irish language.
It is worth bearing in mind the harsh conditions experienced by school children just a handful decades ago – when even the simplest of life’s necessities could be a test of endurance. With the onset of the winter rain, wind and snow, the luxury of indoor plumbing was generally beyond the expectation of most attending school at this time. When nature called, it was commonly necessary to brave the elements and venture outside to a cold and draughty detached toilet-block, usually located at the rear or to the side of the already cold and damp school house. Through the 19th and into the 20th century, even the most basic plumbing in the outside toilet was not at all common, with dry-toilets being far more prevalent, particularly in rural Ireland. These dry-toilets varied in form and design. Generally, a single free-standing toilet block would be located at the rear of the school building and divided for male and female pupils; accessed through separate gender-assigned doorways. Occasionally, when a school yard was divided by sex, each side of a centrally located toilet block had an entrance allowing access from either the male or the female side of the yard.
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 from the eldest or most knowledgeable members of their household. 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. These first-hand stories, poems, recipes, phrases and local folklores were all written down by the school children who attended these schools in the 1930s, and represent a wealth of local first-hand knowledge that dates as far back as the mid -19th century. Many of the school houses featured in my blog have complimentary documents of stories from their locality, which are included in each Blog post.
Memory is dynamic and fluid – a pulsing living thing. It can be continually stretched, coveted, erased and manipulated by the environment and circumstances from which it is recalled by an individual or group – taking on greater or lesser significances that are determined by the interpretation of those who recollect in the present. Outside of an individual’s family, or tragic and traumatic events in our youth, it could be argued that few things have greater impact on our development and personality, our understanding of the world around us, and our coping mechanisms to deal with and interpret that world as our experience of the classroom and schoolyard. With this in mind, consider how much of an impact these now rotting buildings may have had on the lives of many.