Coolagh National School, Abbeygormacan Parish, Co. Galway

The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 3

The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning (contd…)

The original architect's drawings for Derryneen National School, in Co. Galway drawn up in 1914 (National Archives OPW5HC4872)
The original architect’s drawings for Derryneen National School, in Co. Galway drawn up in 1914 (National Archives OPW5HC4872)

School house designs supplied by the OPW toward the end of the 19th century vary in form but maintain the same basic features; an entrance porch, a cloakroom, the classroom, tall sash windows, an open fireplace and high ceilings, wainscoting on the lower parts of the internal walls, a raised wooden floor, ventilation features etc. The architectural drawings were supplied and distributed by the OPW to locations around the country, and for this reason you can often find identical school buildings at opposite ends of the country. There were a variety of designs available through the decades, and it is often possible to date the construction of a school house to within a few years based on the form of the building.

Lettermore NS Co.Donegal 1909
The partially removed wainscotting from the walls of Lettermore National School in Co. Donegal built in 1909

Many of the school houses that were built ‘to-plan’ were extended and modified and many remain in use today. Often a modern school building will have an original 19th-century construction at its core. It is interesting that the many of the principle features of the early schools have been retained such as high ceilings and windows. These features reflect the ecclesiastical and monastic origins of school house design that persist to this very day. They also reflect the continuing control that Churches had on the school system.
Although there were architecturally elaborate school buildings (most often patronised by a local land owner), they more frequently comprised functional structures, usually lacking architectural ornamentation, and built to serve a small local population.

After the National Schools Act of 1831, the need for, and mechanisms to build new school houses created a demand for new school buildings in rural areas, and these simple structures helped to meet that demand. Many were built by local communities using local materials, but to a number of standard designs supplied by the Office of Public Works; hence there are schools of identical form scattered all across Ireland. This in itself tells the story of standardising education and providing for the educational needs of the general public; a huge, and progressive leap forward at the time.
Better education was both a goal and a tool in the comprehensive modernising projects of the 19th century. The schoolhouse held notable significance as an institution for education and represented a shift towards better education and schooling. In reality, it cannot be understated how significant these buildings were in bringing learning to the masses. They were at the heart of the community and remain symbolic of a more progressive ethos that stemmed from the 1831 Act.

Rural in character, for a young teacher, these buildings were often outposts of education. At times, a school might only serve a handful of families in locality. Nonetheless, schools that children could walk to were required, and therefore many small schools with comparatively small catchment areas were constructed. Prior to this, many rural areas lacked any kind of formal educational infrastructure, and these buildings represented the first steps in making a formal education available to all.

Affane-Sluggara National School, Co. Waterford - Segregated schoolyard
The wall to the rear of Affane/Sluggara National School, Sluggara townland, Co. Waterford which separated the boy’s schoolyard from the girl’s schoolyard. This school was built in 1914

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.

Shanvaghera National School Co. Mayo 1935 Classroom
The sliding screen which divided the classroom at Shanvaghera National School, Shanvaghera townland Co. Mayo (dated 1935)

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 building. 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.

Tubrid National School Co. Tipperary
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. This is an example from Tubrid National School, Co. Tipperary and dates to 1821


When considering the ecclesiastical appearance of these windows it is worth bearing 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. Hence, school architecture often reflects that of ecclesiastical buildings.

Porterstown National School Co. Dublin
The pointed arches on the windows of Porterstown School House, Porterstown Road, Fingal, Co. Dublin built 1854. Architect: James Kennedy Esq.


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.

Kilfinanne National School Co. Limerick
The 1908 national school at Kilfinnane, Co. Limerick breaks from the ‘to-plan’ norm of national schools built at the turn of the 20th century.

In contrast, many other schools dating to this time that were built locally ‘to-plan’ following designs commissioned by the OPW, 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 in below from Reyrawer National School, Co. Galway.

Reyrawer National School. Co. Galway 1883 Window
The light shines through the simple sash square headed window of Réidh Reamhar (Reyrawer) National School, Reyrawer townland, Co. Galway. This school house, built in 1883 is located high in the Slieve Aughty Mountains in Co. Galway. It is reported as the highest school house in Ireland

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 drafty 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.

Dry toilets were a simple and practical design with an absence of convenience, and luxury not even an afterthought. They comprised a number of separated cubicles over a shared trough which could be cleared out from the rear of the building, a task which frequently fell to more hard-up members of the local community or often passing vagrants. A wooden plank with an adequate opening was all that separated you from the most foul quagmire which lay beneath.
Some older toilet-blocks opened directly onto the schoolyard though a simple wooden door kept you from the view of your schoolmates while in the most vulnerable of positions.

Shanvaghera National School, Shanvaghera townland, Co. Mayo
The dry toilets and encroaching greenery of Shanvaghera National School, Shanvaghera townland, Co. Mayo constructed.

Many early free-standing toilet blocks were later plumbed and re-fitted meaning some degree of comfort. New-build school houses and schools with extensions added from the 1930’s onward generally incorporated indoor plumbing like the example Scoil Cill Criosta Co. Galway (below).

Scoil Cill Criosta - Scoil Naisunta, Co. Galway
The Autumn leaves are piled high around the outdoor toilet at Scoil Cill Criosta, Ballingarry townland, Co. Galway built in 1931. This must have been a chilly spot in winter

With this added degree of luxury there was finally enough comfort to allow you to ponder over your lessons, and perhaps scribble some of your musings on the wall.

Plate 33 - The idle musings on the walls of the bathroom at Drumlish National School, Drumlish townland, Co. Longford built in c.1930
The idle musings on the walls of the bathroom at Drumlish National School, Drumlish townland, Co. Longford built in c.1930

As part of their contribution to the upkeep of the school, the parents of the school children were required to supply fuel through the winter months (in rural schools, this was typically peat turf) to heat the classroom as needed. Generally, the location of the fireplace at the head of the classroom meant that the teacher enjoyed the benefit of the warmth much more than the children. However, as a small comfort the fireplace was sometimes used to heat glass bottles of milk which each child often brought to school.

Very often, supplying turf for the school fire amounted to the school children carrying a sod or two of turf to school each morning in winter. In some cases, each family who had children attending the school had to provide one cart-load of turf each year. When this was used, each pupil had to bring further fuel each day until the weather improved. Turf was often stored in the porches where the children’s coats hung.

It is noted by many who recall the practice of bringing turf to school, that failure to supply the required fuel resulted in a caning, though officially children were not supposed to be caned for this. In 1911, government funding was made available to heat classrooms, though the practice of carrying sods of turf to school continues for several decades afterwards.

Each morning during winter, the fireplace was cleaned of the ashes from the previous day’s fire by the school children and the fire was then set. The style of the open fireplaces vary greatly from school to school though they are invariably located at the head of the classroom – be this at the gable end of the building or at an opposing central load-bearing wall which included a chimney-stack. Some fireplaces included mantle-pieces, hearthstones and occasional decorative brickwork, though often the hearth comprised a basic masonry or brickwork construction with little embellishment.

Plate 34 – The brightly coloured fireplace inside one of the classrooms of Ballycastle National School, Carrowkibbock Upper townland, Co. Mayo
The brightly-coloured fireplace inside one of the classrooms of Ballycastle National School, Carrowkibbock Upper townland, Co. Mayo. This school house was constructed in 1892.

School fireplaces were naturally smaller than their domestic equivalents as domestic fireplaces included cranes and space for food preparation in the home. The hearth wall itself was usually very deep and extended to the ceiling with the chimney stack protruding further above the roof. As a result of this, the chimney wall is often one of the best-preserved features of abandoned school houses today.

Even today with the wonders of central-heating, attending school through the cold winter months is a testing experience for many school children. Think back to what it must have been like before insulation, double glazing, and warm radiators were common place in the classroom. The fireplace is an almost ubiquitous feature in every school house built in Ireland through the 19th and into the first half of the 20th century. During this period, it was common for each classroom to have its own open fireplace to keep the classroom warm, though stoves could also be found in some schools.
It is striking that for so many people who attended these schools, one of the most lasting memories is supplying fuel for the school fire.

Sluggara National School, Co. Waterford
A textbook lies on a rotting desk in an outbuilding of Affane/Sluggara National School, Sluggara townland, Co. Waterford


You can read The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning Part 1 here and The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning Part 2 here



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