Modernising National School design during the mid-20th Century – Basil Raymond Boyd-Barrett – Architect of National Schools for the Office of Public Works
*There is a clear but difficult to define distinction between National Schools built in Ir eland during the 19th and early 20th century, and those that would be built from about the 1940s onward. Early school houses built by the Office of Public Works (OPW) had a vernacular feel to their aesthetic and environment. The earliest schools were run by the great religious orders in the Middle Ages and those were invariably built close to the church or monastery in the ecclesiastical manner, a style which persisted long after the strictly religious character had waned and indeed even down to comparatively recent times. Many are familiar with the early school with the high Gothic windows and gates, high ceilings with exposed root trusses, all looking like something between a parochial hall and a church and certainly more suited for either purpose than that of a school. It is not unusual to still come across such schools today and, where they have been erected as a National School, one finds that they were built as Model Schools about 150 years ago, or that they were erected by some enlightened Lord of the manor to provide education for the children of his tenants and workers.
From the 1830`s national schools were built to a standard plan based on pupil numbers. The first schools were of a very simple nature, consisting merely of class halls. An awakening of interest in public health towards the end of the 19th-century lead to general improvements in standards through the development of sanitary services such as toilet facilities.
However, in 1934 an architect named Basil Raymond Boyd-Barrett with a particular interest in school design was appointed an assistant architect in the OPW. In 1947 he was appointed chief schools architect, and his impact on school design in Ireland can still be seen today.
Basil Boyd Barrett (1908-1969) was born in Dublin on 19 September 1908. Brother of James Rupert Boyd-Barrett, both siblings would leave an indelible mark on Irish architecture through the 20th century. Basil was a student at the School of Architecture at University College, Dublin for two years, and attended the School of Art for four years. After serving as an apprentice at the office of Jones & Kelly, he would serve out the majority of his career at the Office of Public Works.
Glensaul National School, Greenaun townland, Co. Mayo (Dated mid-20th Century) NGR: 105539, 265891
The townland of Greenaun is located to the southwest of the village of Tourmakeady on the shores of Lough Mask in Co. Mayo. The Partry Mountain range lies to the west of the lake, and from there a number of mountain streams tumble and flow down the hillsides and enter Lough Mask below. On the opposite side of the lake to Greenaun, the towns of Ballinrobe and The Neale are located on the relatively-productive flat-lands. In between these two areas Lough Mask glistens like a shimmering silver mirage on a bright day, and lights up the surrounding landscape with the most brilliant light. The Place-name ‘Greeneaun’ translates as solarium; a fort commanding a prospect’. From the elevated position on the west of Lough Mask and looking east with the mountains behind you, the landscape seems open, with panoramic views across the glistening water body and the wild lands of this part of Co. Mayo.
Historically, a large portion of the southern part of the parish of Tourmakeady was formerly part of Co. Galway. However, in 1898 the entire parish was transferred to Co Mayo. Like much of this area around North-Galway/South-Mayo, the wider region was predominately Irish speaking until recent decades. Today, the Gaelic speaking areas in Co. Mayo have been reduced to just three clusters; Erris, Achill Island and Tourmakeady. There are 1,000 people living in the parish of Tourmakeady of which approximately 400 are daily Irish speakers.
The mountainous landscape was dotted with small farmsteads through the 19th and earlier parts of the 20th century. But the area was devastated during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century and never fully recovered from this tragic event. Like the Irish language, the population dwindled in the years and decades that followed. At the turn of the 20th century, many one-roomed schools were still in use in the area, but as the century progressed, many were closed or consolidated as people left the area and emigrated abroad. Some of these school buildings still remain on the landscape in varying ruinous states, though the population that required them is now gone. Below are some other examples from the immediate area around Tourmakeady:
The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning (contd…)
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.
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. Continue reading The School House in Ireland: Architecture and Meaning – Part 3→
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.
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
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.
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→