School's out: One man visited 240 abandoned Irish schools on camera with striking results

On an online archive, I stumble across a black-and-white school photo dated 1982/1983. Little seven-year-old me is smirking at the camera and wearing layers of clothes – like my 20 other schoolmates in the group photo – and a dark blonde bob with a fringe that’s jagged from trying to escape a home haircut from my nana.

One of the three teachers in that photo from Sylane National School, about 5km outside the Co Galway town of Tuam, kindly collected me on her way to and from the 19th-century rural schoolhouse. My grandfather didn’t have it so easy: when he attended in the 1920s he walked there in his bare feet.

When it was my mother’s turn in the 1960s, my grandfather would bring the obligatory cartload of turf from the family bog to keep the schoolhouse warm. By the early 1980s, the dry outdoor toilets had been replaced by flushable loos – but using the facilities involved nipping outside in the wind and rain to the toilet block at the back of the school.

Sylane was built in 1852 for the Sylaun House estate of the Catholic landlords the O’Conor Donelans. Today, it is one of the country’s oldest functioning schoolhouses. The original three classroom-building has been incorporated into an extended school – with indoor toilets – that is large enough to accommodate 90 pupils, six teachers, and support staff, thanks to help from the community.

Sadly not all traditional schoolhouses were so fortunate. Abandoned school buildings, once so pivotal to generations of families, pockmark the Irish landscape. Some 240 of these hauntingly beautiful time capsules have been photographed by Enda O’Flaherty and feature in his new book, The Deserted Schoolhouses of Ireland.

O’Flaherty is as an archaeologist and surveyor at Rubicon Heritage in Cork. During a work project four years ago, one of these empty schoolhouses caught his eye. He soon found himself spending weekends capturing images of old schoolhouses and posting them on his blog, where they especially resonated with the Irish diaspora and caught the attention of publishers Collins Press.

“I literally went from Malin Head to Mizen Head during this pet project,” he says.

“Every weekend, I’d pull out a map of, say, Monaghan, set up the satnav and search for these deserted schoolhouses. I did that for three years and there isn’t a corner of the countryside I haven’t been in.”

Most are situated in isolated spots on the Atlantic coastline, on offshore islands, and in border counties.

They were abandoned thanks to a combination of depopulation, emigration abroad and centralisation in towns from the 1950s to the 1990s thanks to the arrival of public transport. Many originated from the relaxation of the Penal Laws which prohibited Catholics from formal education between 1695 and 1782. The First Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry of 1825 concluded that separate education caused sectarianism and recommended public money for schools only when Catholic and Protestant pupils were taught together. Between 1833 and 1849, the number of new national schools surged to 4,300 and by 1900, there were almost 8,700.

“They are built with quite high ceilings, generally one-and-a-half storeys single leaf, with rubble and mortar construction used until the 1930s.” The number of one and two-teacher schools had fallen by 1,100 by 1973, and the disused buildings began to fall into despair. The archaeologist is now calling for national coordinated efforts to document the exact number of schoolhouses across the country with a view to repurpose as many as possible before they are lost forever. An obvious solution is to offer them for conversion to private homes.

In the last two decades, house-hunters with a penchant for an unusual property have given dozens of abandoned schoolhouses a new lease of life as family homes, often by hiring architects to add a contemporary extension.

In O’Flaherty’s experience, those residential conversions typically take place in regions with thriving tourism industries where owners can rent them out as holiday lets.

“All abandoned schoolhouses are rescuable to some degree, apart from those on offshore islands where the weather from the Atlantic can reduce them to a shell,” he says. “About 50pc are recorded in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage. If they are afforded protection, the new owners are supposed to use materials that were originally used in the building and they can be very expensive, deterring a repurpose.

“I’d like to see an assessment of what could be done with all these buildings and a comprehensive record of the number of them out there.

“These buildings are not just bricks and mortar. People contact me through my blog to talk about a grandfather who attended a school until they emigrated at the age of 13 or 14. Those emigrants never came home again, and the school could be the last memory they ever had of Ireland.”

* Deserted Schoolhouses of Ireland is published by Collins Press (€24.99)

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