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.
Christmas, ‘Mummering’, The Wren and The Schools’ Collection of the Folklore Commission
Over the past few years, this blog has frequently made reference to ‘The Schools Collection’ (Bailiúchán na Scol) of the Irish Folklore Commission; a collection of primary school copybooks gathered under the direction of the Irish Folklore Commission between 1937-39. This is a most valuable, beautiful and fascinating resource, and nowadays a digitised copy of the original texts can be accessed online.
The aim of the project was to catalogue, index, and conserve information on Irish traditions from across the country. This collecting scheme was initiated by the Irish Folklore Commission, under the direction of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Séan Ó Súilleabháin, and was heavily dependent on the co-operation of the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. Over the duration of the project, more than 50,000 sixth-class schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. Topics covered under the scheme included those of supernatural lore, festivals, hidden treasures, diseases, cures and herbs, local crafts and customs, famous local people, information regarding holy wells, fairy forts, local fairs, games played by children, legends, riddles and proverbs and topographical information, to list but a few. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.
Material was written first into the children’s homework copybooks, and then re-written into the larger official notebooks that had been distributed for the scheme. The completed official notebooks were bound, paginated and numbered, according to parish, barony, county and province. Approximately 740,000 pages (288,000 pages in the pupils’ original exercise books; 451,000 pages in 1,128 bound volumes) of folklore and local tradition were compiled.
Among the traditions and festivals recorded in this archive are those associated with Christmas time. A great variety of practises are recorded, some still familiar to us now, and some no longer common. The Yuletide practise of ‘mummering’ is less common and widespread now than in 1930’s Ireland, and there are hundreds of references to this Christmas tradition in the Schools Collection. ‘Mummering’ is a Christmas-time house (and public house)-visiting tradition involving local community groups who dress in disguise and visit homes within their community or neighbouring communities during the 12 days of Christmas. If the mummers were welcomed into a house (again, or pub), they often performed a variety of informal dances, musical recitations or told jokes. However, the hosts had to guess the mummers’ true identities before offering them food or drink. Judging by the number of references to the practice recorded in the Schools’ Collection, the tradition seems to have been especially popular in Co. Donegal and Co. Louth in the 1930s, though it was a nationwide custom. The tradition continues into the present day. If you would like to witness this spectacle, I suggest visiting the town of Dingle in Co. Kerry on December 26th where mummering is somewhat conflated with the largely similar traditions associated with Hunting the Wren. You will also be able to find the practise in other parts of Ireland on this day, and in far-flung places like Newfoundland where the long-banned tradition is now making a comeback.
In Ireland, the tradition, with it’s pagan associations came under the scrutiny of the Church in many areas through the 20th century. The parish priest of Bannow in Co. Wexford had the following to say about the practise in the late 1920s;
“It has come to my notice, that a blackguard mummering set has risen in our midst, contrary to the laws of our Church, with a variety of foolish tricks and silly manoeuvrings, in order to obtain food, drink and money by false purposes . . .”
The priest was ignored and mummering went on. A few years later, however, his church, bolstered by the passing of a Dance Halls Act, got its hands on the running of all dances in Ireland’s rural parishes – and the might of the law was four-square behind the clergy in prosecuting those who engaged in the sinful and unIrish mumming, which didn’t contribute a penny piece to the coffers of the church either.
According to Diarmuid O Muirithe writing in The Irish Times in 2000, The Wexford Mummers were arrested for dancing on the street in 1935. As late as 1947, the local paper reported, “Patrick Fanning of Raheen, Taghmon, was fined £1 for a breach of the Dance Halls Act. Of the seventy people found watching mummers in a loft, fifty three had paid two shillings to play cards for chickens. Sergeant McEvoy prosecuted. For the defence it was stated that Mr Fanning’s grandfather allowed mumming in the loft in days gone by.
Although on the wane for some decades, perhaps it is time to resuscitate this once-widespread tradition?
The Needlework of the Pupils of the National Model Female Schools
The images below are photographs of a beautiful National Model School needlework workbook that were kindly passed on to me in recent weeks by Loletta Hale. This first edition of this workbook was published in Dublin by the Hibernia Press Office in 1835 (reprinted in 1853 and 1861). The copy featured here was purchased at Whitney Antiques in the UK last year. It is one of possibly only a handful of surviving copies. You can see the dates 1846 and 1854 embroidered on two pieces of needlework, and this workbook was probably in use around these years.
In 1834, three years after the establishment of the national system of primary education in Ireland, the first Model School was opened in Upper Merrion Street, Dublin. Model Schools were teacher-training institutions under the auspices of the Commissioners of the Board of National Education, the administrative body of the national system. Each Model School maintained at least one national school where student teachers could practice their skills and gain experience in teaching.
These training institutions were numerically insignificant, never exceeding thirty as opposed to the thousands of ordinary national schools. It was originally intended that only male students would be trained for the office of teacher at the Model Schools. Female student teachers were not accepted until 1842.
The book contains simple directions in needlework and cutting out intended for the use of the National Female Schools of Ireland. Needlework and the specimens of work were added to the book, mounted on green stock paper as issued. Published to assist teachers in, and patrons of the National Female Schools of Ireland, “for the improvement of the poor”, the work includes “simple directions for plain and fancy works” giving directions for the various techniques of needlework.
This copy of the workbook retains actual mounted specimens including; a sampler, a fully realised miniature shirt (or smock) for a boy, and “gathering and fastening-in gathers” for sleeves, button-holes, and seaming. The Model Schools promoted the education of the poor in Ireland. They often taught knitting, as did orphanages and workhouses, with the aim of providing the poor with a skill for gainful employment.
Brockagh National School, Brockagh Lower Townland, Co. Leitrim
NGR: 201431, 337272
The little village of Glenfarne is located in north County Leitrim, surrounded by rolling drumlins and boggy lakelands that are so characteristic of this part of the country. The soil quality is poor, the lands are often damp and unproductive, and in recent decades, much of the landscape has been planted with vast expanses of commercial forestry in an effort to put the landscape to some commercial purpose. Leitrim is the least populous county in Ireland – often the butt of the joke in regional banter and rib-poking. But I don’t think anyone there really cares about that. In reality the county offers wonderful lakeside isolation, with forest-covered hills over-looking small hamlets, vernacular houses and ruinous clachains. It is a peaceful landscape, and though it can be harsh during a long winter of short evenings, in summer the still lakes glisten in the sunshine without the disturbance of excessive tourism.
The village of Glenfarne is probably best known as the site of the original “Ballroom of Romance”, which inspired a short story by William Trevor and was subsequently turned into a movie by the BBC. The story itself is a little grim; set in rural Ireland in the 1950s, the lead protagonist Bridie has been attending the local dance hall for years in the hope of finding a good husband who can help work her family’s farm. Now surrounded by younger prettier women at the dances, she comes to the realisation that all the good men of her generation have emigrated or have been spoken for; and her only remaining hope for marriage is with the alcoholic and unreliable Bowser Egan.
The story of The Ballroom of Romance is set in a landscape of rural decline and emigration – common themes of rural Ireland that are particularly strong in Co. Leitrim through the 20th century. Glenfarne was once serviced by the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway line from Eniskillen to Sligo. The line opened in January 1880 and finally closed on 1 October 1957. A sawmill and creamery operated adjacent to the railway line, and a tourist hotel was located in the adjacent townland of Sranagross. And just to the south of the railway in the townland of Brockagh was the the old two-roomed school house – Brockagh National School, built in 1885, but now empty and abandoned. Continue reading Brockagh National School, Brockagh Lower Townland, Co. Leitrim→
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→
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.Continue reading School Days Over: Spaces, Places and Memory→
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.