Archaeologist and photographer Enda O’Flaherty presents a fascinating insight into the memory and meaning locked away in Ireland’s abandoned old school houses
The autumnal evening sun hangs low in the sky and the few clouds that have lingered as twilight beckons are tainted red and orange around their fringes by the setting sun. From the forested hills of the Slieve Aughty Mountains in south Co. Galway, I can see across into Co. Clare, with the stoney plateau of the Burren silhouetted blue by the bright, dropping sunlight.
I’ve spent the day touring around South Galway indulging in a recent pastime of mine: looking for what I consider to be a derelict beauty. Beside where I’m standing on the low hillside, and hidden in the dense forestry plantation of the Slieve Aughtys, is the now-disused, one-roomed Reyrawer National School; dilapidated and empty, haunting and isolated.
I’m here to photograph the school and to get a sense of the local environment, both in its present state and in the past.
The landscape around here has changed significantly over the past fifty years. The now forested hillsides are dotted with the ruins of former farmsteads. The former pasture and rough grazing lands have been sown with coniferous plantations, and the ubiquitous and imposing wind-turbines highlight the movement away from agrarian living in this area, as an alternative and profitable use is sought for this now people-less landscape.
In the Aughtys, the result is an empty space, a desolate place where few people live. An unintended but welcome consequence of this depopulation is the creation of a welcome retreat from the ribbon development popular across much of the Irish landscape – though the man-made forests bear a hunting watermark of former settlement, with field boundaries, bóithríns, houses, farms, and infrastructure such as disused schools, hidden throughout the forests.
When Reyrawer National School was in use, this was a lived-in landscape which supported a scattered, largely agrarian population. With the movement away from this lifestyle, the landscape was emptied and the school was no longer needed. The plaque on the eastern gable of the building dates the construction of the school to 1891. It closed in the late 1950s.
From travelling the countryside to photograph these old schools, I can tell you that there is a greater proliferation of abandoned schools in more rural and depopulated areas, with a near absence of them in urban centres. To begin explaining this let’s start with the establishment of the National Schools Act in 1831.
Shortly after the establishment of the National Schools Act, Ireland’s population began to decline dramatically, initially triggered by the Great Famine of the 1840s. Between 1840 and 1960, the population of the 26 counties of what would become the Republic of Ireland, fell from 6.5 million to 2.8 million. However, this decline was driven by mass emigration, and birth rates in Ireland during this time were amongst the highest in Europe.
Because of this fact, despite a dramatically falling population, the need to educate significant numbers of children of school-going age remained. New school buildings continued to be required and used. There were particular spikes in new-builds after the National Schools Act in 1831, and again 1926 with the School Attendance Act which meant parents were legally obliged to send their children to school for the years between their 6th and 14th birthdays.
During this time the Irish demographic was quite different to today’s, with the majority of the population living in a rural setting. In a time before motorised transport and a transport infrastructure, the requirement was for many small national schools which local children could walk to. Hence, in 1950 there were 4,890 national schools staffed by 4,700 male and 8,700 female teachers (CSO) in the 26 counties, while the population remained at about 2.8 million. In 1998 with the Irish population passing 4 million, the number of open national schools was 3,350.
How is it that with a rising population, there could be less national schools in Ireland? To explain this, we can look at the change in the Irish demographic from about 1950 onward. Through the 1950s, some 400,000 Irish emigrated because of a lack of opportunities for employment at home. With things at their most bleak, at the beginning of the 1960s the programme for economic expansion was initiated, establishing the Industrial Development Association (IDA) which sparked an improvement in the Irish situation, the development of an industrial economy, and a shift in settlement patterns from a rural based economy to one centred around industry and urban settlement.
This saw the beginning of an emptying of the rural Irish population into the larger towns and cities. Small farms began to be consolidated. Further to this, actions such as the ‘evacuation’ of many offshore Islands compounded the issue even more.