St Mary's National School Oldtown
A school for it's time, in it's place
The children of the present day would have little idea of the conditions of life that prevailed fifty years ago when the new school in Oldtown was being built. Although the second world war was over the shortages were not. and rationing was still in force. Tea tobacco, petrol and fuels were very scarce and, while compulsory tillage had meant that Ireland was self sufficient in flour during the course of the war. disastrous harvest conditions in the autumn of 1946 meant that even bread was rationed.
The dismal weather was snow storms and blizzards continued the winter through to the spring of '47. The army of volunteers - Clerks, civil servants and office workers - which had helped to save the harvest the previous year was again required to help sow crops that spring.
Trojan work was done by mothers who pieced, patched and darned to see that their children had warm clothes to wear during that hard winter.
Building materials were also very scarce and often of poor quality and the school, even though it was only a small building, took many years to complete. And when it was finished it had no running water and only outdoor dry toilets were provided. So the children who finally left the old school behind to hear Canon Purfield celebrate Mass on the first day were not walking into luxurious conditions.
It was a huge advance on the previous school. At the time of writing it is still possible to see the remains of the old school that adjoined the old church. It is hard now to believe that for around a century it accommodated sometimes up to ten class groups.
It is ironic too as we celebrate fifty years of the new school, the old church and school are about to disappear. No doubt many people will have mixed feelings about this as they witness the end of what has been part of their lives for so many years.
The earliest recorded date on the rolls of the school is 1865 but it is most likely that there was a school in existence before that. Patrick Archer; the writer and musician, author of "fair fingal" is reputed to have taught there but the oldest past pupils recall Miss Troy, Miss Rock and a Miss Murphy who married Kearns and died young. Later on Nora Ashe, a sister of the patriot Thomas Ashe also taught in the school. Miss Nellie O'Hara who married P.J. Connolly the schoolmaster in Ballyboughal, worked there for many years. A Miss Kathleen Smith taught then for a short time, But the teachers best remembered were Miss Margaret Sheehan who came from Cahirclveen, Co Kerry in 1922 and later became Mrs Rooney and Mrs Bridget Kettle who came in 1941. They were to put many years of today’s past pupils through their hands right up to the 1980's.
Terry White who is now well into his eighties and started school in 1916, has some memories od those early days. Mostly he remembers learning the Latin responses and serving Mass in the adjoining church. But Terry was no willing server and often made an excuse to leave the class before Mass time. He would then hide around the back of his house in the sheds in the Sale Yard where Fr. Kevihan would eventually find him and drag him off to serve Mass
" Introibo ad altarum dei...Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutum meum"
(I will go to the altar of god, the god who gives joy to my youth.)
For Terry there was no pity.
Matt Rooney also has memories of his days in school - or rather out of school - for he and his friends often mitched and went "chasing the stag “through the fields. One such occasion he recalls when Charles Mulvany of Moortown as the “stag" led him and his friends a merry dance across the fields through Westpalstown and Newtown and he got as far Baker's in Malahoo before they caught him. On their way back they were spotted by the parish priest who marched them to the school, lined them up against the wall and gave them a sound thrashing.
Modern parents should spare a thought for the pupils and teachers and the conditions they had to put up with in the old school. Small as it was, the junior classes were divided from the senior classes by a partition with an open door so that you could hear every sound made on the other side. Tommy Tiernan remembers brining butts of timber for the fire on hard winter days. "The open fire was alright, but the stove was terrible, it would smoke you out of the place.
No wonder the teachers were cross and cross they really were. All teachers were expected to keep an iron discipline in those days and stories of slapping and caning abound in the folk memory. Big boys were often sent down the lane past Mick Donnell's forge to cut sticks off of the white ball bushes in the Sally Gardens. Occasionally older boys were made to chastise the younger ones and that was not circulated to make them very popular! When they got a chance the same boys would cut a slit in a stick and it would cause much mirth when on the next use would break in halves. Despite the severity of the discipline not many complained to their parents "for if we did we'd get a bigger beating from our fathers for getting into trouble"
The same forge was an attraction for the children of the place. You'd hear Mick Donnelly whistling away as he hammered on the anvil. He hadn't much tolerance for the children but occasionally you'd get to pump the great bellows.
As will be seen from the photographs, clothing in the thirties was very poor. The girl’s dresses were held together with safety pins and they would often fall apart. Some of the boys still came to the school in knickerbockers. Tommy Tiernan recalls: "We used to play a chasing game called 'hunting the deer' around the school grounds. When you'd be caught you'd be grabbed at and the patches would come off the arse of your trousers"
It was not unusual for children to go barefoot to school. This was often by choice once May was in, but sometimes it was to save the shoes for winter everyone wore boots. Dickie McCann in Ballyboughal used to fix the boots. He took over from Fred Emery. He used to be delighted when he'd hear of a dance in Oldtown. Everyone would be on to get their shoes done for the occasion. Later on, Barney Murray recalls taking his boots to Mattie Geraghty, a herd on the Ward estate "He was a hardy cobbler"
Tommy Tiernan also recalls the football games of those days: "We played in the field called 'Ashland’s' in Moortown at the iron gate next to Collins' I remember Tommy White, he was very good, fast and athletic. He could score from any point. Mr Connolly used to train us. He was from Galway and he was mad about football I saw him playing myself. Once we got into a final against Fingallians. I was switched out to centre-field marking Kevin Howard. He never gave me a look in. I can still hear the shouts from the sideline' Fatheed Ninny! Oh the hurlers on the ditch...
Confirmation was always a big day in the lives of the pupils of the school. In those days it was held every three years. You'd be learning Catechism and bible history for weeks before to be ready for what the bishop would ask you. When it came to Tommy’s confirmation all the bishop asked was for them to say the Angelus, one line after another: "Sure why wouldn't we know it, after we singing it off at twelve o'clock for years".
The visit of the Catechism Examiner every year was also important and you'd have to know your Catechism off by heart." what is meant by the blessed trinity?" and "What is forbidden by the eight commandment?" Sometimes boys and girls would make up their own answers:
"Who made the world?
A little pig with his tail curled"
And then you might be told that you knew as much about it as a pig knows about Sunday. Or, Later on, that you didn’t know bee from a Bull's foot about it.
There were lists to be learned: The four Evangelists, The seven deadly sins, The Ten Commandments, The Twelve Fruits of the Holy Ghost - All had to be sung in unison.
Great was the temptation to take off from school altogether, especially as summer approached, there were cattle to be driven and jobs in the fields, but it was a very risky business. The guards from Garristown came after you, Guard O'Connor maybe, or Guard Early on his bike and you'd be ordered back to school.
Today's boys and girls were amazed to hear Tommy Tiernan reciting Irish poetry after all those years:
"I could never understand why we were never told what the Irish meant in English, I could work out the Condae Mhuigheo was county Mayo, but I haven’t an idea what the rest means" What people don't generally know is that teachers were expected to teach Irish without reference to English. It was called the Modh Direach and, because Irish was the mother tongue, pupils were expected to understand it just because of that.
As time went on the school began to be used more in the health care of the population. Older people will remember the scourge that TB was. Whole families were nearly wiped out with it. Everybody knew Someone or other who had to go to Peamount Hospital. Vaccines against small pox, Diphtheria and polio were developed and these were all administered in the school. Past pupils will remember the visits of the doctor with the 'needles' and the fears they felt as they waited with their sleeves rolled up.
The rolls for the school show that there was great mobility in the population in the forties and fifties. Families came and went from labourers' cottages and from land commission houses after the division of the Ward Estate people, like the Brady's of Leestown, came from as far away as co Roscommon. Tom White remembers that they were given a hard time by the local children, but Patsy Brady (Newman) remembers only that they were teased a bit because of their accents: " On the whole we were made very welcome, everybody was very friendly and helped us settle in."
The start of the new school in 1946 coincided with the coming of rural electrification and Oldtown village was selected to be the first place 'lit up' under the new scheme. Great changes were promised but they were slow to materialise. However into the fifties the North County fared better than other parts of Ireland. Barney Murray recalls: "We didn’t care much about schooling There was plenty of employment around, in the airport, in McCullough’s and the cloth mills in Lispopple".
When the new school was opened Fr. McNamee used to show films in the old school. We saw 'The song of Bernadette', the three Stooges and hop-along Cassidy.
The sixties however saw big changes to Oldtown, Shamrock Park was built and the new Church. Fr. Neville arrived to promote an interest in handball. Soon the alley was built and a very successful club got underway. Donnchadh Coichuin had arrived to the school as principal teacher in 1962 and a new interest in sports began to develop. A Miss McNamara taught for a short while before Eileen Doherty came to teach the infants classes in 1971. The old order had finally changed!
School sports were the big thing in the seventies and past pupils will remember the many days spent practising running and jumping in the school grounds. Oldtown boys and girls specialised in the high jump and had notable victories in this event. the handball continued to be promoted and tournaments used to be held in the old church and many former pupils will have pleasant memories of these.
It was only the years of great development in the community games and no-one worked harder or did more than Gus Warren, He promoted the enjoyment of all sports by the children of the locality, the County and even at national level.
With the new teachers in the school, came the new curriculum, new subjects like Art came in and the children were allowed to develop at their own pace of learning. There was less emphasis on rate learning. The small size of the school and the lack of facilities put some limits on what it was possible to do but every effort was made and still is made, to provide to Oldtown pupils what is available in any other school.
In the mid seventies came the Boards of Management and the involvement of local parents in the running of the school. This led on in time to the setting up of the Parents Association. A special mention should be given to all those who served on these committees for all the fundraising they have done over the years.
The staff is no longer just the two teachers. There is also Olivia Butler, and before her Joe Lally, visiting remedial teachers, Bernie Monks and Tommy Tiernan, who succeeded Billy Quinn R.I.P. Also play their parts. Our story has now come up to the present and the incumbent teachers are well aware that it remains for another generation to be the judges of their contribution. Fr. Kelly, at the inaugural meeting of the first board, referred to the Fenian Charles Kickharn whose Matt the Thrasher hurled "for the honour of the little village". The past pupils of Oldtown have brought their share of honour to the village and we are proud to have been part of it.
Liam Curran (Written in 1996)