Knockastolar National School, Knockastolar townland, Co. Donegal
NGR: 180992, 423154
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.
Inside, the building was in varying states of disrepair. The L-plan school had three classrooms beyond it’s entrance hall. The later classroom to the rear was in the best condition, with the blue wainscoting bearing the markings of some teenage gatherings.
Both classrooms to the front and in the original part of the building were in a poor state; the floor having crumbled and the roof nearing collapse. Both these classrooms contained fireplaces though nearly all other features had been destroyed and the wainscotting removed.
Bunbeg and Knockastolar feel like a long way from anywhere. I had only come here to try and get to Gola Island, and like much of this part of the country, the area does not get anywhere near the amount of visitors that topographically similar but more popular spots like Connemara and West Kerry do. This is undoubtedly the attraction of the area for me. At Bunbeg you’ll find a tiny fishing village hidden in a cove behind an expansive strand, overshadowed by Errigal mountain in the background. The area is a mountainous Gaeltacht that drops to the sea and is dotted with dozens of idyllic villages just like Bunbeg. It is worlds away from the urban areas of Ireland.
But despite seeming disconnected from all that troubles the world, Knockastolar National School had produced at least one famous and important student who made his mark on the world during World War II. Local man John James Doherty was at Bletchley Park (Britain’s top secret decoding centre) as a cryptanalyst and translator during World War II. Being from the area and attending Knockastolar National School John was a native Irish speaker. While his languages – German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Latin, Greek – were fully utilised, he never disclosed whether his knowledge of Irish helped in Hitler’s defeat.
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. You can do so here.