Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál
By Mr. John Mulcahy
The original school was founded by the late Mrs. Peg O’Connor in the Emer Hall, Waterloo Road in 1952. Among the teachers in those early days were Mr. Aodán O’Donoghue, later to become Cigire in the Dept. of Education, and the late Ms. Marie Hobbs, later a Vice-Principal in St. Aloysius, Cork.
After a few years, a new four-roomed building was erected in the Station Road and this was to remain the campus for many years. In 1961, the student population was comprised of thirty students, and the staff consisted of just two teachers, Aidan Muldoon and James Looby. It is sad to record the untimely death of Mr. Muldoon in 1989, who taught in Nigeria and in Singapore after leaving Blarney.
When the school was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Gerard O’Beirne in 1962, numbers were still small, and special permission had to be obtained to employ a third teacher. Forty-seven pupils were enrolled in September 1962 and a grand total of four sat their Leaving Certificate in June 1963. This was an era when few continued to Second Level and fewer still went on to complete their Leaving Certificate. The Woollen Mill was still flourishing in Blarney, second-level education was expensive – fees were £25 per annum in 1963, almost a month’s wages then, – so the incentives to continue after PRIMARY School were not great. With small numbers on the roll, the prospects for the future of the school was uncertain and in 1965 the O’Beirnes decided to put the school up for sale again.
The Sisters of Charity were aware for some time of the situation. As well as running secondary schools for girls in Dublin and at St. Vincent’s in Cork, the Sisters had seen the need for second-level education in rural areas in Western Ireland and had for many years run co-educational secondary schools at Benada and Foxford, for instance. So, when in February, Mrs. O’Beirne made an approach to Mother General in Milltown, the order was ready to accept the challenge of continuing and expanding the school where they perceived a growing need. Mother General visited the school in March and the sale went ahead in May at a price of £3,000.
Sister Ignatius Paul was sent from Milltown to canvass local primary schools on the attractions of secondary education. Paddy Buckley and Maura Horgan were the only other teachers in the school at the time and both remained on to serve under the new management. Paddy recalls: “I remember riding shotgun in a Morris Minor accompanying two nuns on the annual trail to the outposts in Glashaboy, Ballyglass and Barrachauring. The pioneering spirit was very much to the fore, the front seat passenger keeping up the enthusiastic chatter, while behind, the look of apprehension and the tight grip on the Rosary beads told its own story.”
In the building at the Station Road the smoky stoves were replaced with central heating and the school was given a general facelift at a further cost of £2,425 before the ‘New Beginning’ in September 1965. A major fund raising drive was initiated to try and reduce the debt. A newly formed Past Pupils Union organised a sponsored walk while a Silver Circle was run over a period of twenty weeks. The new Principal, Sister Joseph Marie brought a determination and enthusiasm which quickly affected the small team she had assembled. A secretarial class was set up and fifth year girls spent an extra hour at their shorthand and typing with Sister Thomas.
Ingeberg Schmidt came to teach French and English. The following year a Science Lab and Domestic Science room were added to be followed shortly afterwards by new faces on the staff to teach the expanding curriculum. Neil O’Mahony, Michael Riordan, Gemma O’Keeffe, Bina Hickey, Mary Breen and Carmel Buckley arrived in the early years, some to stay for relatively short periods, some destined for longer service in Blarney.
By now winds of change were blowing in Irish Education as the country geared itself for the challenges of Free Trade and eventual E.E.C. entry. In 1967 free secondary education was introduced along with free transport to give equal access to schools to children in remoter rural areas. Catchment areas were drawn up for schools and it soon became clear that Blarney was set for major expansion. The proposed catchment area included Inniscarra, Donoughmore, Grenagh, Whitechurch and Clogheen/Kerry Pike. A bus route was organised to bring children from the outlying areas to the school.
It was quite clear that the potential number of new pupils could not hope to be accommodated in the existing building. Mr. Noel Lindsay from the Dept. of Education came to Blarney to inspect facilities and proposed that three prefabricated classrooms be erected as a temporary measure to accommodate the increase, with the promise of a completely new school in due time. When the doors opened in September, the numbers had doubled to 118. The following year another 60 First Years were enrolled. The sudden expansion brought problems and the little school began to burst at the seams. A caravan parked in the school yard accommodated the staff and two classes were boarded out in the T.A. Hall down the road. At this stage, it became obvious that a more extensive site and a much larger building were necessary to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers.
A site opposite the convent on The Hill was investigated but it was finally decided to move to the lowlands and almost six acres were acquired in the old sports field behind The Groves Estate for the modest sum of £5,000. The Department sanctioned a school to accommodate 250 pupils and work commenced on March 19th 1969. It was completed by November and it was blessed and opened by Father Cusack on 9th November. No sooner was it occupied than it was found to be overcrowded. After a while it was back to the T.A. Hall with some of our peripatetic scholars while the secretarial class laboured in the Arctic wastes of the Convent Hall.
The newly acquired acres gave scope for the playing of football, hurling and other field sports, while the installation of basketball nets in the tarmac area in front of the school fostered a new sport. So well did the Blarney girls in particular take to it that the school won several Colleges titles and the past pupils formed the Blarney Basketball Club which went on to become the leading club in the country. Indeed, just as we go to press, they have been crowned All Ireland Champions in winning the I.C.S. Cup under the glare of the television cameras in Neptune Stadium.
In the seventies, prefabs mushroomed all around the new campus and indeed these were fragile fungi in any school yard. The students and staff who survived their sentence in the prefabs deserve our highest admiration but the years of frustration and wasted effort, not to mention the huge capital investment, could surely have been avoided with some foresight and proper planning. After years of appeals, the Department finally sanctioned further expansion; then the hatching came to an end; the coops were brushed away; and the fledglings occupied the new extension in September 1980.
The completed building consisted of 22 classrooms, facilities for practical subjects, a large assemble room, a library, a staff-room and offices. In short full facilities to provide a comprehensive education to the children of Blarney and surrounds. On September 24th 1981, the school was officially blessed by Rev. Dr. John Aherne, Bishop of Cloyne and concelebrated Mass was attended by the staff and students. In September 1981, when her lasting memorial was well established, Sr. Joseph Marie was recalled to Dublin.
Sr. Carmel Kelly took the reins to guide the school through a decade which saw many changes in the field of education. Constraints in the discipling of students; in school expenditure; in staff appointments; the abolition of free travel; secretarial help etc. – led to a decade not without its trials and tribulations. Despite the massive cutbacks and general tightening of belts, plans for a further extension were drawn up in 1987. These were given final clearance in June 1990 -just a month prior to the departure of the Sisters of Charity.
The above article originally appeared in Issue No. 2 ‘Old Blarney’ Journal.