Lettermore National School, Lettermore townland, Co. Donegal
NGR: 185124, 383735
The island of Ireland is small but diverse. From the southwesternmost point at Mizen Head in Co. Cork, you need only travel about 550 km to reach the northerly tip of the country at Malin Head in Co. Donegal. But along that journey, you will witness a variety of landscapes, both physical and cultural – each different from the other in striking, or sometimes subtle ways. From productive mixed farmlands for both tillage and stock, to the mire of endless bog, the physical landscape has been shaped and manipulated, initially by geological process, and subsequently by the the people who have lived in it. Particularly in rural Ireland, the physical and cultural landscapes are entwined and form a narrative that is often not immediately clear, that requires an insight into, and interpretation of what shapes the lived experience of the world around you. In short, the landscape and what it contains tells the history of it’s inhabitants.
This blog post features the first abandoned school house from Co. Donegal (the northernmost county in Ireland) that I’ve visited, and it’s difficult to communicate the significance of the school without first placing this building in context.
The slogan ‘Up here it’s different’ has been used to promote tourism in, and attract tourists to the Donegal region in recent years. But what makes this area different? In terms of geography, Donegal is pretty similar to West Cork, Kerry and Connemara; a rugged western coastline shaped by the Caledonian Orogeny, and battered by the Atlantic Ocean, mountainous lands of blanket bog to the west, better, more productive lands to the east.
But Donegal different to these other places. Depending on your perspective, the circumstances of history have not done Donegal any favours other than to perhaps help preserve it’s striking landscape. The Partition of Ireland in the early 1920s had a massive direct impact on the county. Partition cut the county off, economically and administratively, from Derry, which had acted for centuries as it’s main port, transport hub and financial centre. But even before this, Donegal was one of the worst affected parts of Ulster during the Great Famine of the late 1840s. Vast swathes of the county were devastated by this catastrophe, many areas becoming permanently depopulated. Vast numbers of people emigrated at this time. Particularly in West Donegal, there was a spiral of decline from the 1900s onward, and what was once seasonal migration from the islands and highlands was replaced by more permanent migration to cities in Britain such as Glasgow.
The abandoned school house at Lettermore symbolises the recent history of the region, and the story of migration. Opened in 1909 to meet the educational needs of the local community, the school had a relatively short life.
It is a simple detached two-bay, single-storey national school on a T-shaped plan, having a gabled projection to centre of the west elevation and a single-storey toilet block to the rear.
In 1938, the Múinteoir (teacher) at Lettermore was Eilís Ní Bhaoghaill. In this year, she helped the local school children record stories from the locality as part of the Folklore Commission’s field study. These records still survive, and below is an extract from the Lettermore collection telling a local story of three witches:
However, with little in the way of prosperity to keep people in the area, the depopulation of 1940’s and 50’s saw the destruction of the areas social fabric as house after house closed, and the birth rate dropped. The closure of the border roads between southern and northern Ireland from the late 60’s on hastened the dismantling of the community.
In 1967, the school was closed as part of a programme to amalgamate four local national schools, the others being Letterfad, Derryherc and Binbane. But today, not even the amalgamated school is doing well. Visiting the old Lettermore school house, I was told there were only three new pupils to the new national school this year, with 11 leaving for secondary school in Donegal town. The trend of depopulation continues.
After closing, the building was bought by a visitor from continental Europe in 1972. Since then it has lay empty. Inside, time is beginning to take its toll on the school. The wooden panelling is falling away from the stone and mortar walls revealing the buildings simple structure.
Although now out of use, this simple but well-built early-20th century national school survives in relatively good condition, and retains its early form and character. Its integrity is enhanced by the retention of much of its early fabric, including natural slate roofs, timber sliding sash windows and timber doors, which adds a satisfying patina of age to this unassuming structure. Its simple T-shaped plan and layout is typical of its type and date, and is characteristic of the great many two classroom national schools built throughout Ireland in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to standardised designs prepared by the Board of Works/Office of Public Works. National schools of this type are a feature of the isolated rural landscapes of County Donegal, adding a layer of social history to the physical environment, and are indicative of significant local population in a period when transport was more difficult.
If you or someone you know attended this national school, please do get in touch and share any stories, anecdotes, photographs, or any other memories you may have.