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.
Letterbrick National School, Coolnabinnia townland, Co. Mayo
NGR: 06162, 07203
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.
Achill Beg National School, Achill Beg Island, Co. Mayo
NGR: 071712, 292437
If you were to include just about every rocky outcrop of notable size, then you could count at least five-hundred-or-so off-shore islands off the coast of Ireland. However, only a handful of these islands have maintained a population through history, and even fewer-still have retained permanent residents into the present day. Through the early and high medieval period many of the smaller islands off the west coast attracted monastic settlers. Off the west coast, monastic settlements can be found on Skellig Michael, St. Macdara’s Island, Scattery Island and Inishmurray to name just a few, with the early monks being drawn to the isolation offered by these punishing out-posts.
However, our period of interest is the 19th and 20th century, and the experiences of those who lived and were educated on these islands at that time. Examining the early mapping sources like the First Edition 6 Inch map (1834-1842), and First Edition 25 Inch map (1890-1911), it can be seen that up until the mid 20th century, there were some forty national schools located on islands off the coast of Ireland. Life on many of these islands could be harsh at the best of times, and by the 1950s, settlers on many of the smaller islands were encouraged to leave and settle on the mainland. The evacuation of the off-shore islands left many of the smaller islands desolate and empty, and consequently, the majority of the forty national schools once located on them were closed.
For the past couple of months I’ve been slowly making my way out to many of these island school houses. Some have unfortunately been completely destroyed by the elements such as the school house once located on the eastern shore of Scattery Island, Co. Clare. Others have been restored as holiday homes like the example on Dursey Island, Co. Cork. And some, such as the example featured here from Achill Beg, have been sitting vacant and abandoned since the island was evacuated in the mid-20th century.
Scoil An Cneagain/Cregganbaun National School, Cregganbaun townland, Co. Mayo
NGR: 080756, 274223
The coastline of County Mayo is a forgotten gem in the Irish landscape. Mountainous and barren for the most part, the area attracts the more adventurous visitors who are willing to stray off the well beaten tourist track that generally takes in the southern half of the island of Ireland. In recent years, the popularity of the Wild Atlantic Way has brought and increase in tourism to the area. When I most recently passed through the region, I was making my way from Kilary Harbour to Westport. Taking the scenic route, my journey brought me northward by the shores of Doo Lough, a small lake that is hidden between the overshadowing Mweelrea and Sheefry mountain ranges.
After emerging from the mountain pass, the R335 headed north toward the town of Louisburgh. There was little by way of settlement between the mountain pass and Louisburgh, and the small regional road had little to navigate except expansive boglands with the Sheefry mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. The roadway gently bulged over the peatlands and there was little roadside vegetation to interrupt the view across the bog as I passed the occasional singe rural dwelling. Not many people live here I thought.
Much of this landscape had been empty since the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, and I associate sadness with this particular area. You see the route I was driving was in fact the route of the ‘Doolough Tragedy’, which occurred in March 1849. The Doolough Tradgedy is a journey many starving people were forced to make through the Doolough Valley to attend an inspection and get famine relief at Louisburgh. For unknown reasons the inspection was not made, and the hundreds of people were then told to appear at Delphi Lodge near Kilary Harbour. They walked the eleven miles in cold and wintry conditions, but, when they got to Delphi Lodge, they were refused either food or tickets of admission to the workhouse. On the journey back home more than 400 people died.
The population never recovered after the famine, and there is not much by way of infrastructure here today. Nonetheless passing near the townland of Creggabaun in the Civil Parish of Kilgeever, I came across an old two-roomed school house by the roadside. There was only one house nearby and it’s difficult to imagine a time when a school was needed in these parts.
The building comprised a detached five-bay single-storey national school, dated 1945. From the outside, it looked as grey and dismal as the foreboding overcast sky that had drifted over when I stopped to take a few snaps. I rushed inside to take shelter from the on-coming rains, and in there I discovered a brightly coloured interior, strewn with rubbish and old furniture.
There were two classrooms, both once heated by oil burners. The plaster fell from the walls revealing the coarse stonework underneath, and the roof looked like it wouldn’t hold out to the elements much longer. To the rear were the toilets, with toilet doors painted a discomforting yellow colour. As the rain began to fall and drip through the holes in the ceiling, I thought to myself that this is one of those schools that people romantically think of as wonderfully isolated and wholesome – the reality being that you are surrounded by the exposed, damp and peaty landscape; truly a delight in the summer, though I’m sure the Atlantic gales can make a wet and dark winter seem very long. Continue reading Scoil An Cneagain/Cregganbaun National School, Cregganbaun townland, Co. Mayo→
Lisglennon National School, Lisglennon townland, Co. Mayo
NGR: 119452, 327424
Lisglennon National School is situated to the west of Killala Bay in the rural townland of Lisglennon in north Co. Mayo. The building lies immediately adjacent to the ruin of Ballysakeery Church, with a former Presbyterian Meeting House lying further to the east. The exact date of construction is not known though it may have been built around the same time as the adjacent Church (Board of First Fruits Church of Ireland church, under construction 1806 – complete 1810). It is certainly a relatively early school house in Ireland, and can be identified on the First Edition Ordnance Survey sheet for the area which dates to the late 1830s. Today, both the Church and the school buildings are in a ruinous state, though unlike the church, the school retains its roof. The 1901 census suggests that the school was in use at that time, but it had fallen out of use by the time of the 1911 census.
The building itself comprises a detached three- or four-bay single-storey school house with half-dormer attic on an L-shaped plan with an outline of single-bay single-storey gabled advanced or projecting porch. It has a pitched slate roof of timber construction with clay ridge tiles, ivy-covered rendered chimney stack with capping not visible, and no rainwater goods surviving on cut-limestone eaves. The north-eastern rough-cast walls include square-headed window openings with cut-limestone sills, and concealed dressings framing the remains of six-over-six timber sash windows with a one one-over-one timber sash window in the western gable.
It is a dilapidated school house forming part of a neat self-contained group alongside the ruined Ballysakeery Church with the resulting ensemble making a pleasing visual statement in a sylvan street scene.