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.
Gola Island National School, Gola Island, Co. Donegal
(Dated (1846), 1880-1900)
NGR: 177221, 426202
Northwest Donegal is possibly about as rural as you can get on the island of Ireland, and the islands off the Donegal coast are probably about as isolated a spot as you will find. Many do not have permanent populations, and if you’re ever looking for somewhere to go to get away from it all, then this is the place for you.
Gola (in Irish Gabhla or Oileán Ghabhla) is a small island located off the coast of Gweedore. The island measures 424 statute Acres in area with mildly hilly terrain. It is a haven for artists, birdwatchers, photographers and walkers, and the cliffs on the north side of the island attract many rock climbers. Near the Island’s lake, bird life abounds; cormorants, razorbills, guillemots as well as gannets and kittiwakes can be admired. Although many Irish people may not realise it, they may be familiar with Gola Island through song; Gola is the birthplace of renowned Irish writer, Seán ‘ac Fhionnlaoich, and the island has also been immortalised in the traditional children’s song Báidín Fhéilimí (Féilimí’s Little Boat)
For centuries, a couple of hundred people eked out a living on Gola from fishing and subsistence farming. But by the 1950s, the island could no longer compete with the economic opportunities offered by the mainland. Gradually, Gola’s families stripped their houses, boarded their boats and sailed away to the mainland. The closure of the island’s national school in the mid-1960s marked the beginning of the end.
Since the 1960s onward the trend on most of the off-shore islands has been a decreasing population. In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, many of the smaller islands were forcefully evacuated by the Irish Government as continuous bad weather meant that islanders were unable to travel to the mainland for several consecutive months. The most recent census taken during 2016 showed 15 permanent residents on Gola, although the return of permanent settlement to the island is a recent phenomenon, with the island being largely un-populated since the late 1960s.
In 2005 the island was connected to mains electricity for the first time, and from being totally deserted over 30 years ago Gola now has electricity and water and the future looks far more positive. However, the population remains small and somewhat seasonal.
The old school house on Gola has been closed since 1966. Located on the shore, it is in a most precarious position, with coastal erosion threatening to erase the structure from the landscape. Stormy weather in recent years means the sea now comes right up to the door at high tide. It is weather beaten, the roof has collapsed, and in all likelihood, it will be completely washed away in the coming years. Continue reading Gola Island National School, Gola Island, Co. Donegal→
I got a call last week to take a trip up to North Donegal at short notice. Despite the 1002 Km round trip I really didn’t mind going; we were headed for Mulroy Bay and Rosguill, and I knew that I was a relative stones-throw from Gweedore and Bloody Foreland. This was of interest to me as a few months back I’d be contacted by Sile Ui Ghallchoir, who had gone to school on the now deserted Gola Island in Gweedore Bay. Since then I had been eager to get some shots of the the school house there that had been closed since 1966. The sea was slowly reclaiming the land that the school was built on, and it would not be long until it was washed away.
And so I packed my bags and left the next morning for the north. We made our way from Ramelton toward the coast early the following evening, taking in what I already knew was some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Crossing through Glenveagh National Park, you couldn’t help but be struck by the wonderfully barren mountainous landscape; reminiscent of many parts of Connemara and West Kerry, but with a far greater feeling that you are a long way from anywhere (a six hour drive from Cork can give you that impression at least).
The plan was to coax a lift from a fishing boat in Bunbeg and make my way out to the island. With a few hours to spare before I could hitch the lift I had arranged, I ambled around the village of Bunbeg. Just outside the little hamlet in the townland of Knockastolar, I happened accidentally upon another school house lying empty. Painted in the Green and Yellow of Donegal and perched above the road from Bunbeg to Dungloe at a Y-junction, it looked like a late 19th-century style school house with a later extension perhaps. The original section of the building was identical to the old school house on Whiddy Island off Bantry Bay in Co. Cork (dated 1887), with an entrance to porch to the side. A hole in the door allowed me to get in to take a few quick photos.
The picturesque town of Moville lies on the western banks of Lough Foyle in County Donegal where the Bredagh River flows into the sea. The locality was the adopted home of the dramatist Brian Friel, and it still attracts many visitors who endeavour to make the long journey north to the Inishowen Peninsula and Ireland’s most northerly point on nearby Malin Head.
At the turn of the 19th century there were just 50 people living in the town of Moville, but the town would soon rapidly develop over the following decades. Through the second half of the 19th century, Moville was a significant point of embarkation for many travellers, especially emigrants to Canada and the United States of America. Steamships from the Anchor and McCorkell Lines, and others en route from Glasgow to New York, Philadelphia, Quebec and New Brunswick regularly dropped anchor in the deep waters off Moville to pick up additional passengers.
The new trade brought wealth and development to the town, and a growth in population. Naturally, the growing population would need schooling, and there were a number of national schools constructed, not just in the town, but in the surrounding hinterland also. The school house featured here is one such building. Scoil Bride Culaid is located near Cooly Cross; a rural spot just 3 km to the northwest of Moville Town.
The building itself dates to 1931, but examining the First Edition 6-inch and 25-inch Ordnance survey maps, you can see that this school house replaced an earlier school named ‘Tiyrone School’ just a few hundred metres to the east. This earlier school house, which dates to at least the 1840s, was unusually located away from the roadside, enclosed in the corner of a field. Two ‘right-of-ways’ led to the school through the surrounding farmland. Perhaps someone out there has an explanation for this school’s inconvenient setting? Was it perhaps built on land donated by a local landowner? Today, an area of rough ground marks the location of the original school building.
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→
Drumreilly National School, Kilnacreevy townland, Co. Leitrim
NGR: 219888, 312629
Every now and then I find myself on the road when I chance upon some old empty school house by a roadside somewhere. I wouldn’t say that I’ve become obsessed with these abandoned buildings, but it recently occurred to me that in the past 12 months I’ve visited just over 100 tumbling down ruins of old schools, and that at the moment I feel compelled to stop and take a quick look around when I do accidentally stumble across one. While travelling from Ballymote to Armagh last month, I happened across a late 19th-century school house in the townland of Kilnacreevy in Co. Leitrim.
County Leitrim is Ireland’s least populous county, predominantly rural in character, with Carrick-on-Shannon being the only sizeable town of note. However, the countryside is stunning in an understated way, defined by rolling, boggy drumlins with small lakes interspersed between. The land is agriculturally poor, and the hollows between the drumlins tend to become water-logged and boggy. In 1837, the antiquarian Samuel Lewis described the region as ‘generally wet, sour, and moory’.
I feel Samuel Lewis was a little unfair with his description of the region. In the area around Garadice Lough on the Leitrim/Cavan border, meandering country lanes navigate the hillocks and lakes, and lead from one small village to the next. It is on the northern shore of Garadice Lough that you’ll find Kilnacreevy townland; a place that hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years.
It was just a little over 100 years ago that a small one-roomed school house was built here overlooking the lakeshore. It is located on the northern side of the modern R199 road. The school building comprises a detached, single-storey, three-bay,one-roomed school house of rubble and brick construction, with a pitched slate roof. The date plaque indicates that it was constructed in 1887. It is near identical in form to the example from Sonnagh Old in Co. Galway, and in a similar state of decay. Continue reading Drumreilly National School, Kilnacreevey townland, Co. Leitrim →
The parish of Dysart (occasionally spelled ‘Dyzart’) is located about 3 kms from Dunleer in Co. Louth, on the coast road from Drogheda to Dundalk. In 1837 the village was visited by the travelling antiquarian Samuel Lewis who reported 699 inhabitants living in the parish at the time. He noted that the land was of superior quality and well cultivated: about two-thirds in tillage, and about 50 acres of bog. In the village of Grange Bellew, there was a mill for grinding oatmeal, and another for dressing flax. Among the most notable buildings in the parish was the old castle of John Bellew in Barmeath (one of the lords of the English pale). At the time of Lewis’ visit it was the residence of Sir Patrick Bellew, and stood ‘in a richly wooded demesne, commanding extensive views of the surrounding countryside’.
In the village of Dysart, Lewis remarked on the handsome chapel there, the site for which was presented by Sir Patrick, who also contributed towards its erection. A quick look at the Ordnance Survey 6-inch sheet which dates to just a few years after Lewis’ visit, shows there were few buildings in Dysart during the 1830s-1840s, bar the aforementioned chapel, and a national school.
Munterneese National School, Munterneese townland, Co. Donegal
Located in the south of Co. Donegal, and on the northern shore of Donegal Bay, the village of Inver is sometimes referred to as the hidden jewel of the northwest. In recent years, the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ coastal driving route has brought an increase in tourism to the area, with the parish being situated on the bay of Inver. Nonetheless it remains a quiet spot; rural in character with hilly and rough grazing land that is occasionally lashed by Atlantic winds and rain.
Although now quiet, the area was once home to an important whaling post during the 18th and 19th century, and a large whaling station and fleet was based in the Port of Inver, 2 km from the modern Inver Village.
Thomas and Andrew Nesbitt set up the whaling business in Donegal Bay in 1759. Thomas was the inventor of the gun-harpoon, which was witnessed by Arthur Young during his tour of Ireland 1776-1779, as he states: “From many experiments he brought the operation to such perfection that, for some years he never missed a whale, nor failed of holding her by the harpoon”.The ruins of the old whaling station still remain in the port but have eroded and deteriorated to rubble.
During the 19th century the area was busy enough to require a railway, and Inver railway station opened on 18 August 1893. However the final train passed through the station on 1 January 1960. It has been closed since.
Just a few kilometres east of Inver Village and situated to the south of the old railway tracks, are the townlands of Munterneese and Drumcoe. The townlands are sparsely populated today, though a quick glance at the historic mapping for the area shows that in the time since the publication of the First Edition Ordnance Survey 6 inch map series in the 1840s, there have been no less than four school houses constructed in this small area. Only two if these buildings remain today (both disused), and this blog post looks at the last of these to be constructed; a detached six-bay single-storey national school, dated 1938. Continue reading Munterneese National School, Munterneese townland, Co. Donegal→