The School House in Ireland at the turn of the 20th Century (Heritage Week 2016 Series)

This is the second in the series of daily posts to the Disused School Houses blog to mark National Heritage Week 2016 (August 20th- 28th). Heritage Week is a multifaceted event coordinated by The Heritage Council that aims to aid awareness and education about our heritage, and thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation.

Twenty-Sixteen marks the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland.  The 1916 Rising represented the first ‘major ‘ demonstration of force since the United Irishmen’s Rising of 1798. Already this year there have been many events across the country to commemorate the centenary.

Clooncurra NS Co. Kerry 1920s Corridor.jpg
Clooncurra National School just outside Dingle in Co. Kerry, built c. 1920

However, this blog post is not so much concerned with the political wranglings and social upheaval during the period. Instead, I would like to take a brief look at the national school system and what everyday school life was like in Ireland in and around the turn of the 20th century.

During the drawn-out process of establishing the Irish State in the early decades of the 20th Century, the government of the time inherited an already established primary education system. The Education Act of 1831 established the Board of National Education, and approval was given for a national system of education in every part of Ireland, partially paid for by the state. The role of the National Board was originally regarded as supplementary, providing inspection, approval, training, additions to salaries, and cheap books and requisites. It was hoped that in a given district the local gentlemen, businessmen, and clergy would not only provide the buildings, but would also partially pay the teachers, raise money for school perquisites, but also devise courses suitable for local needs.

Mountpleasant NS Co. Cork 1876 Interior
Mountpleasant National School Co. Cork , built in 1876. It was constructed on lands donated by the Baldwin Family, local land owners in the area at the time

According to the 1831 Act, he two legal pillars of the National School system were to be (i) children of all religious denominations to be taught together in the same school, with (ii) separate religious instruction. There was to be no hint of proselytism in this new school system. The new system, initially well supported by the religious denominations, quickly lost support of the Churches. However, the population showed great enthusiasm and flocked to attend these new National Schools.

In the second half of the 19th century, first the Catholic Church, and later the Protestant churches conceded to the state, and accepted the “all religious denominations together” legal position. Where possible, parents sent their children of a National School under the local management of their particular Church. The result was that by the end of the 19th century, the system had become increasingly denominational, with individuals choosing to attend schools primarily catering to children of their own religion. However, the legal position de jure, that all national schools are multi-denominational, remains to this day though in actuality, the system unfortunately functions much like a state – sponsored, church – controlled arrangement (this is an argument for another day).

1915 - Confirmation Scene
1915 – Confirmation Scene

The number of schools was not static. In 1899 there were 8,670 schools in operation under the Board. Today that figure is approximately 3160, less than half of what it was over one hundred years previous. Up until the 1950s, small multi-grade schools continued to be established throughout Ireland as part of the education infrastructure. But with an improvement in rural transport and the growing availability and popularity of motor cars, the need for small local schools that children could walk to was lessened, and larger schools covering greater catchment areas were favoured. 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.

Drumlish Co. Longford c.1930 Toilets
Drumlish National School, Co. Longford, built  c.1930

Undoubtedly, these school buildings 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.

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.

Tullaghan Co. Donegal - Name Plate
Tullaghan National School, just outside Bundoran in Co. Donegal

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.

Clooncurra NS Co. Kerry 1920s Books
School Books left behind at Clooncurra National School, Co. Kerry

It is also worth considering the harsh conditions experienced by school children up until 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.

Shanvaghera National School, Shanvaghera townland, Co. Mayo
The primitive toilet facilities at Shanvaghera National School, Co. Mayo, built in 1935

The fireplace is an almost ubiquitous feature in every school house built in Ireland through the 19th and into the first half of the 20th century. During this period, it was common for each classroom to have its own open fireplace to keep the classroom warm, though stoves could also be found in some schools.

As part of their contribution to the upkeep of the school, the parents of the school children were required to supply fuel through the winter months (in rural schools, this was typically peat turf) to heat the classroom as needed. Generally, the location of the fireplace at the head of the classroom meant that the teacher enjoyed the benefit of the warmth much more than the children. However, as a small comfort the fireplace was sometimes used to heat glass bottles of milk which each child often brought to school.

Scoil Micil Naomha, Sliabh Riabac Scoil Naisunta, Co. Cork
The crumbling fireplace at St. Michael’s/Slievereagh National School, Co. Cork

As we look back at 1916 and access how things have developed and changed over 100 years, perhaps take a moment to think of some of the universal experiences that, regardless of time and context, stay the same. There are few if any experienced environments that are as common to us all as the experience of schooling at a young age.

If you or someone you know attended these national schools, please do get in touch and share any stories, anecdotes, photographs, or any other memories you may have.

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