Category Archives: Disused School Houses

The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 2

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

What makes a building important?

Contemporary 19thand early 20th-century sources in Britain and the US (Bernard 1848; Patterson 1875; Shawkey 1910) provide, first-hand insights into the ideological and societal backgrounds behind school architecture of the period. In Britain Weiner (1994) dedicates significant wordcount to architecture and social reform in late-Victorian London from the perspective of school design, however it is part of an over-arching examination of the subject as a whole. Similarly, Avery (2003) presents a comprehensive overview of Victorian and Edwardian architecture in Britain which includes dedicated passages relating to school houses designed and constructed during this period. Both publications treat the physical and architectural environments in their historical contexts, offering a late-20th century perspective on the impact of Victorian and Edwardian reform on architecture. However, neither publication is concerned with the modern-day significance of these buildings to the modern-day populations which engages with them on a daily basis. To be fair to both publications, such a consideration is well beyond their assigned academic remit.

Gurtovehy National School, Gortaveha townland near Lough Greaney in Co. Clare This school house was built in 1920 to replace an earlier school house that was located nearby

What is important to consider is that these and other studies have been primarily concerned with ‘Architectural Interest’ from all almost exclusively historical architectural perspective. They fail to draw upon or recognise the identical social significance of many similar buildings that have served the same institutional function, but were perhaps of a lesser intrinsic architectural value for a variety of reasons (date, originality of design etc.). Hence, these buildings have been overlooked.  In defining a building to be of ‘Architectural Interest’, Historic England have condensed the general principles applied by the Secretary of State under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (DCMS 2010) to this simple statement:

‘To be of special architectural interest a building must be of importance in its architectural design, decoration or craftsmanship; special interest may also apply to nationally important examples of particular building types and techniques (e.g. buildings displaying technological innovation or virtuosity) and significant plan forms.’ – Historic England 2017 Continue reading The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 2

The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 1

The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning

Henry Glassie is a professor of folklore at Indiana University in the United States. He has published extensively on the topic of material culture, and in the 2000 he published a book that was simply titled Vernacular Architecture. Glassie’s publication drew on his three decades of observations of vernacular architecture from around the world, and showed that common buildings, and the meanings and associations attached to them, contributed to a more democratic telling of history. Glassie viewed buildings like poems and rituals, in that they realise culture and reflect in a material way, the thoughts, beliefs and experiences of the people that design, build and use them. Of course, this is true about all architecture, not just the vernacular traditions. But what do we mean when we talk about vernacular architecture, and are school houses vernacular structures, or imposing institutional buildings?

Vernacular architecture exists everywhere there are human populations around the world. It can’t be defined as a particular architectural style that you might recognise like Baroque or Neo-Classical, but rather a building paradigm where the arrangement of the structure is the simplest form of addressing human needs. It is a pure reaction to an individual person’s or society’s building needs, and has allowed everyday people, even before the architect, to construct shelter according to their circumstance. Some are the exotic products of indigenous people in places unknown to us. But others are familiar, maybe too familiar, and so are overlooked and unappreciated. This is the case with many of the school houses featured here.

Hollygrove National School, Hollygrove townland, Co. Galway (dated 1899). This plain two-room school house is a fine example of one of the most simplistic ‘factory school’ designs supplied by the OPW at the turn of the 20th century. Despite their pivotal role in education in rural Ireland at the time, many of these buildings are not recorded in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage

Vernacular buildings are composed of local materials. The meanings that lie in the selection of materials are social and economic as well as environmental, and the buildings very much reflect the local area and its people. They can tell us a lot about the people that constructed them. As Glassie states; ‘culture gathers into an inner resource of association and gathers order aesthetically, by which he means that the landscape and how people view and experience the world is reflected in what they build and create. With the act of physical alteration that calls time into space implying a past and a future, and with the walls that divide space, at once including and excluding, architecture has happened’ (ibid.). Architecture gives physical form to names and claims, to memories and hopes. As a conceptual activity, architecture is a matter of forming ideas into plans, plans into things that other people can see. Architecture shapes relations between people. It is a kind of a communication (ibid.). Continue reading The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 1

School Days Over: Spaces, Places and Memory

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.

Looking out of the classroom window of Reyrawer National School in the Slieve Aughty Mountains

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.

The landscape of the Great Blasket Island with the old national school barely recognisable in the centre

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.

Rotting desks inside Latton National School in Co. Monaghan

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.

Graffiti on the walls of Knockstolar National School in Co. Donegal

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.

The old national school on the island of Inishkea off Co. Mayo. The island has been entirely deserted since the 1930s

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.

A Packed school at Ballinderreen in Co. Galway in 1932

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.

A long-silent organ disintegrating in the hallway of Coolagh National School in Co. Galway

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.

The old national school in Celbridge, Co. Kildare with separate entrances for boys and girls

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.

Religious paraphernalia remains in Gortahose National School in Co. Leitrim

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.
The outdoor toilets at Shanavaghera National School in Co. Mayo

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.

The unusual inclusion of a photograph in the 1937 Schools Folklore Collection from Clooncurra National School in Co. Kerry

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.

Gola Island National School in Co. Donegal. The sea threatens to take the building each winter

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.  

One man’s junk is another man’s treasure

Bunglash (Bun Glaise) National School, Bunglash South townland, Co. Kerry

Bunglash (Bun Glaise) National School, Bunglash South townland, Co. Kerry

(dated: c.1873)

NGR: 69192, 87189

On the 12 September 1893 the Great Southern and Western Railway opened a branch-line off the existing Tralee-Mallow main line which would connect the village of Farranfore in County Kerry with Valentia Harbour on the southern shore of Dingle Bay. At that time it was the most westerly railway line in Europe and  passed through some of Ireland’s most spectacular scenery as it climbed through Kerry’s mountainous countryside. It served as the main transport system for the Iveragh Peninsula for 75 years with the last train departing Killorglin on 30 January 1960.

So for sixty-seven odd years, a steam-powered locomotive chugged daily along the Farranfore to Valentia Harbour line, passing just north of the glacial lake Lough Carragh, and stopping at the Glenbeigh station. Glenbeigh Station was located at the foot of Seefin Mountain, and the surrounding landscape at the turn of the 20th century was beautiful, wild and remote. There were few distractions intruding from the outside world, and the coming and going of the steam train served to punctuate the day. In surrounding the hills and mountains, schools did not have clocks, and the whistle of train in the quite landscape as it passed over Curraheen level crossing at 10.15 am let the local school children know that it was am sos (break-time).

Bunglash National School, Co. Kerry - 1873
Bunglash National School, Co. Kerry – 1873

Continue reading Bunglash (Bun Glaise) National School, Bunglash South townland, Co. Kerry

Milleen National School, Milleenduff Townland, Séipéal na Carraige (Rockchapel), Co. Cork

 

Milleen National School, Milleenduff Townland, Séipéal na Carraige (Rockchapel), Co. Cork

(Dated 1914)
NGR:  122001, 119413

The village of Roundwood in Co. Wicklow claim that at 238 m OD, their’s is the highest village in Ireland. However in recent years, the village of Meelin in Co. Cork has erected a braggadocious signpost at the edge of their humble home stating ‘Welcome to Meelin – Ireland’s Highest Village’. The  brazen folk of this tiny north-Cork hamlet claim that their little settlement, located just south of the Mullaghareirk Mountains, is 15 m higher than their Wicklow rivals. If you investigate the issue online, you might find various reasons why one village believes the other’s claim to the title of the most elevated settlement is illegitimate. In all honesty, the argument could probably be settled in minutes by pulling out an Ordnance Survey Map… but what’s the fun in that?

The plucky village of Meelin is located in northwest Cork. It is one of a handful of small villages located north of Newmarket near the Cork-Kerry-Limerick border. It is unlikely that your travels would ever take you through this area; much of the land close to the village is planted with coniferous trees, mainly of lodgepole pine and Sitka spruce. The area is sparsely populated though the woodlands are filled with ruined cottages and farmsteads which remind you that there was a time when the lands here were farmed rather than planted with commercial forests.

Old Milleen National School - 1914 (Cassini Map Extract c.1940)
Old Milleen National School – 1914 (Cassini Map extract c.1940)

It is here amongst the plantations just north of the village of Rockchapel that you will find the now disused Old Milleen National School in the townland of Milleenduff. The building is hidden from view by mature evergreens, with the Caher River flowing just to the south. On a bright day, sunlight flashes through moving branches of the surrounding woodlands onto the south-facing gabled entrance with it’s centrally placed name and date plaque. The planted woodlands have largely consumed the surrounding vernacular farming landscape that existed to the east here when the school was in use. 

Old Milleen National School - 1914
Old Milleen National School – 1914
Old Milleen National School - 1914
Old Milleen National School – 1914

Continue reading Milleen National School, Milleenduff Townland, Séipéal na Carraige (Rockchapel), Co. Cork

Coolagh National School, Drumatober townland, Co. Galway

Coolagh National School, Drumatober townland, Co. Galway 
(Dated 1930-40)
NGR: 175363, 215440

The rural landscape is not static, and has changed quite a bit over the recent decades. Although the hills, mountains, rivers and lakes don’t move much, the way that people interact with the landscape, and the character of the environment is dynamic and fluid. Rural towns and villages that were once important market places and a hub of rural activity, fade into a mere collective nostalgia for times gone by, as young people gravitate to cities and the landscape empties. I’m from County Galway and anytime I would have travelled to Dublin in the past, it was a straight burn along the N6 through Ballinasloe, Athlone, and on to the myriad of bottlenecks as you approached the capital. In more recent years the M6 means that I rarely see any of these towns anymore.

Before motorised transport and the railway, distance was largely the determining factor when choosing a route from west to east. Travelling from Galway to Dublin by carriage or on foot, it was likely that you would take a route through Loughrea, Killmor and Eyrecourt, crossing the River Shannon at Bangher in Co. Offaly; all the while passing near or along a much more ancient route, An Slighe Mhór.

But this is not the case today when the motorway saves you from having to negotiate town and village streets as you travel.  The reason I mention it is to explain why, that in the three or so years that I’ve been photographing these old school houses, I had not passed by Coolagh in the parish of Abbeygormacan near Killoran (along the former road to Dublin) , and noticed the old school house there. The building is located on the northern side of the N65 about 3 km beyond Gurtymadden Cross when travelling east.

Coolagh National School - Cassini 6-inch Map
Coolagh National School – Cassini 6-inch Map

Continue reading Coolagh National School, Drumatober townland, Co. Galway

St. Josephs National School, Letter townland, Islandeady, Co. Mayo

St. Josephs National School, Letter townland, Islandeady, Co. Mayo
(Dated late 19th century)
NGR: 107056, 289784

It’s late evening near Westport in Co. Mayo after an unusually dark day in late July. The sky has been overcast all afternoon and the air is damp but warm. When I think about Irish summers in the west of Ireland this is undoubtedly the weather I think of; June can (sometimes) bring long hot days but once the Atlantic Ocean has warmed up then the air becomes heavy with moisture. June had been exceptionally warm and dry this year, but now the grassy drumlins around this part of Mayo are fresh after a recent rain shower.

I’ve taken a spin out from Westport toward Castlebar. About halfway along this route there’s a boggy rural spot hidden amongst the drumlins called Islandeady. A friend of a friend had let me know that there’s and old school house located out here and so with an hour or two to spare before sunset I went out to take a quick look.

The parish of Islandeady still contains four (small) working national schools; Cloggernagh, Cornanool, Cougala and Leitir. But the school house at Leitir replaced an earlier school building that still stands, and it is this structure that I’m interested in. Today it’s modern successor has just 6 girls and 4 boys on the coming years enrollment, and I wonder if it’s likely to stay open for much longer.

Leitir National School as shown on the First Edition Ordnance Survey 25 Inch Map
Leitir National School as shown on the First Edition Ordnance Survey 25 Inch Map

The original school house at Leitir is located on a low rise over a small local road just a few hundred metres from it’s successor. In form, the old Leitir schoolhouse is identical to the one at Ballymackeehola National School (also in Co. Mayo) which dates to 1895, and though there is no date plaque at Leitir I would imagine it to be of a similar date.  Continue reading St. Josephs National School, Letter townland, Islandeady, Co. Mayo

Inishkea (south) Island National School, Inishkea south, Co. Mayo

Inishkea (south) Island National School, Inishkea south, Co. Mayo

(Dated (c.1900)
NGR: 55721, 321451

For two months I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to make my way out to the Inishkea Islands off the west coast of Co. Mayo. There is no ferry service or regular connection between the mainland and the two islands. Located out beyond Blacksod Bay, nobody lives there anymore; in fact the islands have been empty of human life since 1934, with the only inhabitants these days being flocks of free-roaming sheep and a thriving seal colony. I’d been out to Blacksod on the Mullet peninsula twice in April and May only for my possible lift to Inishkea failing to materialise. But late one Friday evening I got a phone call to tell me that a boat would be leaving in the morning from Termon Pier, and if I could get there I’d be able to hitch a lift out to the empty islets – they couldn’t say when exactly I might be coming back. Nonetheless, I took the chance and left for Blacksod early the next morning.

Inishkea Island - Ordnance Survey 3rd Edition Sheet
Inishkea Island – Ordnance Survey 3rd Edition Sheet

After several disappointing attempts to get to Inishkea over the preceding months, the straight burn across the Bangor stretch toward Belmullet was familiar. I made it to the pier, and to their word, Geraghty’s boat was, thankfully waiting there. Pulling out into Blacksod Bay the sun sparkled on the calm seas, and the north side of Achill Island and Slievemore Mountain was a hazy shadow on the horizon. The islands were only about 45 minutes out to sea though I could have watched the passing coastline of Achill in the glistening silver waves for hours.

The Inishkea Islands have been empty of a permanent population for about 85 years, and in that time they have lain almost untouched. Visitors are infrequent by all accounts, though the skipper tells me that one man has been living on the north island for two years without contact, electricity or even a boat. The skipper delivers him a food package once a month. Although this sounded intriguing I knew that in reality it must be tough – but I hadn’t seen the islands yet.

Pulling into ‘the anchorage’ at Porteenbeg on the sheltered eastern side of the island we passed the diminutive Rusheen Island where could been seen the remains of an old whaling station. Ahead on the shore were a line crumbling empty stone houses lined up like a deserted street overlooking a white deserted beach The pier was arranged for livestock arrivals rather than people, and I began to wonder that perhaps maybe this place was perfect, so perfect that even though I might go ahead and photograph the abandoned school house on Inishkea south, I might not post about it on this Blog for fear it might encourage any more visitors to this perfectly empty place, this empty island with it’s white beach that was almost blinding in the strong sunlight. The sea was clear and turquoise, calm and sheltered on the eastern side of the island, even though I could sea waves crash silently on the western shore in the distance: that coastline being exposed to the Atlantic. Continue reading Inishkea (south) Island National School, Inishkea south, Co. Mayo

Finny National School, Finny townland,  Co. Mayo

Finny National School, Finny townland,  Co. Mayo

(Dated 1946)
NGR: 102009, 258477

The wilds of County Mayo are spectacular. Along the rugged west coast the skyline is marked by the Partry and Nephin Beag ranges. On Achill Island, the northern slopes of Croaghaun mountain plummet from 600 m OD to the sea below, while on it’s southern side it shelters one of the most beautiful beaches in Ireland, Keem.  To the southeast of here is Clew Bay with its plethora of low drumlin islands, while inland the landscape is dotted with rivers, lakes, bogland and the occasional turlough.

Lough Mask is located to the south of Co. Mayo. Along the lakes western shore is the village of Tuar Mhic Éadaigh, and if you ever get the chance, I would recommend the trip from here to Westport across the hilly and barren emptiness of Aughagower. The landscape comprises blanket peat that is unproductive, there are few homes though there are the crumbling ruins of many vernacular houses long deserted. Wild and ragged mountain sheep roam the narrow roads.

It is just south of this area that you’ll find the little hamlet of Finny. On high land, it affords spectacular views of a narrow part of Lough Mask. Almost directly across from Dead Island on the lake, and along the R300 road, is Old Finny National School. The building is disused now, and being so off the beaten track, it probably has very few inquisitive visitors.

Continue reading Finny National School, Finny townland,  Co. Mayo

Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo

Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo
(Dated 1880-1900)
NGR: 06162, 07203

Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo
Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo

For as long as I’ve been undertaking this disused school houses project, the diversity of the Irish landscape has not failed to routinely take my breath away.  Every region, every road, every little village, every hill, island, or woodland has a unique character shaped initially by the physical landscape, and then by the people who have lived in that landscape through the centuries. Even in areas that seem empty now, the hills and boglands bear the scars of past settlement; redundant field patterns, abandoned tillage plots, collapsing vernacular houses and old mills.  Layers of settlement are written on the landscape, abandoned, and left to future interpretation.

The theme of rural depopulation is reoccurring within this project, and each time I leave my house to head up the country to photograph some old school that is no longer in use, I am invariably going to end up in some empty place where few tourists visit, and where the local population has declined. By and large, I will be driving to somewhere in what were known at the close of the 19th century as ‘The Congested Districts’; the poorest parts of Ireland with the poorest quality land, predominantly located on the west coast.

To alleviate poverty and congested living conditions in the west and parts of the north-west of Ireland, the Congested Districts Board for Ireland was established in 1891. Various political machinations were at play at the time, largely in an effort to deter a desire for home rule, but the basic role of the Congested Districts Board was to alleviate poverty by paying for public works, such as building piers for small ports on the west coast, to assist fishing, modernising farming methods or sponsoring local factories to give employment and stop emigration from Ireland. The efforts largely failed, and the impact of the Congested Districts Board was minimal. In time, the rural landscape would empty.

Many folk lament the decline of rural Irish lifeways; the changing demographics, the inevitable fate of the small farmer and the uncertain future of the land. In these desolate spots, I can spend days rambling through the ruins of defunct livelihoods. Vast expanses of unproductive farmerland on hillsides and bogs have been planted with commercial forest, and in these unnatural woodlands you will find the ghosts of past farmsteads. Across places like northwest Mayo, the remnants of vernacular settlement are swallowed by forestry. Cottages tumble and collapse, schools are closed and left to the same outcome.

Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo
Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo

Continue reading Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo