The Ardagh Boys School, situated at East Rock, dates back to the early 1820s, when the present day Parish Church was built by the then Parish Priest Rev. Jeremiah Molony (the elder). Prior to this the building which now houses the school was used as the Parish Church or chapel as it was sometimes called. The building itself dates back to the eighteenth century when the penal laws were being relaxed and Catholics were allowed to build churches under certain conditions. One of these conditions was that such a church could not have a bell or belfry. The way to circumvent this arrangement was to build a belfry separate to the church and this can be clearly seen in the accompanying photograph.
The great Fenian patriot Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa attended this school from the age of seven until the age of thirteen. In his autobiography Rossa’s Recollections he gives the following description of the school:
This school I was at was called the Old Chapel School. It was built on the top of the hill field, and on top of the Rock.
Rossa goes on to describe the locality surrounding the school as follows:
‘The Rock’ is a seashore hamlet inhabited chiefly by fishermen. The hill field was one of my father’s fields, and I had to be up early those mornings to keep the ‘Rock’ hens out of the cornfield.
The first official details of schools comes from the appendix to the second report from the enquiry held by the Commissioners of Irish Education 1826, and included among the eleven schools in the civil parish of Rosscarbery, is what is called the Chapel Rock School.From this we learn that the school was in the Barony of Carbery, parish of Rosscarbery, and diocese of Ross. John Cushin was the master, he was Roman Catholic, his total income from the school was about £20 per annum, which came from a portion of the chapel collection, and that scripture was not read.
To get an indication of population figures from the early 19th century it is worth looking at the numbers on the rolls for that period. In 1835 there were 318 pupils on the rolls. By 1839 however this number had dropped to 191. The school had one male teacher with a salary of £25, and a grant of £8-9-1 for requisites. This was matched by a local subscription of an equal amount. On the face of it, the master would appear to have an impossible task in trying to teach 191 pupils. But there were mitigating circumstances however. For example not every enrolled pupil turned up every day for class, so while the numbers on the roll were almost two hundred, the average daily attendance was sixty. In addition to this the master would have the assistance of monitors, who were chosen from the senior classes and included students who had an aptitude for teaching as a career. Monitors were rewarded for their work by receiving premiums from time to time, and even though the amounts were small, nevertheless they were a considerable incentive to pupils to improve their future prospects.
The Irish language was not taught in the national schools at this time, but since the language of the home was mainly Irish the children for Confirmation were taught their prayers in Irish. At this period the schools were held six days a week, and when the time for Confirmation came, the school broke up about noon on Saturdays, and the boys were led by the master to the chapel which was nearby, ‘and there ready to help our master instruct us in our Catechism were, Fr Jerry Molony, and his nephews Michael and Jerry Molony and Tead Red,’ (six). Rossa also gives us an insight into the school curriculum of the time. He mentions the ‘First Book of Lessons of the National Schools’, the ‘Exile of Erin’ and the ‘Downfall of Poland’ as some of the readers in the Chapel Rock School.
In the years before the Great Famine the numbers on the roll were on the increase and in 1844 there were 243 pupils on the roll. By March 31st, 1845 the figure was 276 an increase of 33. The numbers for September 30th of the same year had dropped back to 241. By March of 1846 the numbers again show an increase of approx. 30, while the September numbers show a corresponding decrease, indicating an annual turnover of almost 60 pupils. The full effects of the Famine were not seen until 1847 when the figures for March of 180 pupils on the roll a huge decrease in three years when 243 pupils were on the roll in March 1844. The figures for September 1847 of 86 was a drop of more than 50% in a six month period. The newspapers of the time and the British Parliamentary Papers carry accounts of people dying on the roadside, in fields, and in their cabins in the early part of 1847 in the Rosscarbery district. This may in some way explain the decline in the numbers enrolled for the school as parents who were suffering from hunger and fever were unable to register their children because of their own physical condition.
What we can be sure of is that no great number of children died during 1847, because in 1847 the numbers bounced back with a figure of 375 in March and 272 in September. This may be explained by the fact that although 1847 was the worst year for mortalities, there was no blight that summer, and anyone lucky enough to obtain seed potatoes to sow would have had an adequate supply for the winter along with the local soup kitchens and the help of bodies like the Quakers and other private charities. But the blight returned in 1848 with renewed vigour and the school figures once again show a dramatic drop in 1849, with 150 being registered in March, and 144 in September. During all this time the school had only one teacher until 1857, when Michael Donovan was appointed.
In subsequent years the population stabilised and by 1869 the numbers on the roll increased to 254, with an average daily attendance of 122. An earlier report from 1862 shows there were 188 pupils on the roll with an average daily attendance of 69. The attendance figures in almost all cases was less than 50%, indicating that people did not attach as much importance to education in those days, as they do today. The main priority in those days for boys especially, was to learn their prayers for Confirmation.
In the first half of the nineteenth century the Irish language was still strong, particularly in rural Ireland. It was still in everyday use in many homes. Children from these homes were at a disadvantage when they came to school as they had no English, as the business of the school was conducted in English. The situation was sometimes alleviated if the teacher could speak Irish and use it as a medium for the teaching of English.
In the later years of the century a number of organisations were set up nationwide to preserve and promote the Irish language. One of these was called the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language, and in 1878 it submitted a request to the education authorities to place the teaching of Irish on the results programme of the National Schools. This request was refused at first, but in the course of time it was recognised that Irish could be used as a medium for the teaching of English, something which was already being done unofficially.
Eventually the authorities relented and by 1906 the Skibbereen Eagle was reporting on a new bi-lingual programme in the National Schools, and over 1,000 teachers had obtained certificates of competence to teach Irish. These included a number of teachers from Rosscarbery.
A major event in the schools history was the rebuilding programme undertaken in 1884. Appendix K, of the fifty first report of the Education Comms., reveals that a sum of £424-16-8 was sanctioned for Ardagh Boy’s School, and plans were furnished by the Board of Works on the 7th May 1884. A local contractor Timothy Hayes was engaged to carry out the work which was completed in 1885. The number of pupils to be accommodated was 176. Up to the end of the nineteenth century the numbers on the roll held steady at just under 200 with an average daily attendance of over 100. In the early years of the twentieth century the numbers started to decline again and in 1917 we read that there were 58 pupils on the roll and two teachers John McCarthy and John Hayes.
In November of 1918 there was an outbreak of flu nationally which reached epidemic proportions in the spring of 1919, resulting in the school being closed for three months. School business eventually returned to normal after this outbreak, and there was no unusual occurrence until the War of Independence, when the school was occupied by the military for a short period during 1921.
One of the pupils who entered the Ardagh Boys School in 1907 was the famous freedom fighter Tom Barry. Tom attended the Ardagh School until 1914 when the family moved to Bandon. Sometime later he emigrated to England and joined the British Army. After spending a term in Iraq, he returned to Ireland and joined the IRA where he became famous as the leader of the flying column which fought at Kilmichael and Crossbarry. The teachers who served in the intervening years from 1920 onwards were John McCarthy, John Hayes, Paddy Kelly, Richard Donovan, Robert Patterson, Jim Donoghue, Liam O’Rourke, Jimmy McCarthy, James Hicks, Nuala Harte, Michael Paul Hicks, Ann O’Driscoll, Vicky Tobin, and Fiona Keohane.
Since my time as a pupil of this school things have changed considerably, and even though conditions were sometimes difficult these were the best days of our lives, but we didn’t realise it at the time. Even though work was hard we still managed to have fun especially at lunch break when a few empty paper bags were stuffed up the metal downpipe on the southern wall and set alight. The resulting roar of the fire brought the masters running out form their lunch to see what was wrong. A round of questioning then took place, but nobody seemed to remember anything. Another temptation which we found hard to resist was to put on the clock whenever the master left the room. Sometimes we got away with this and sometimes we didn’t and these times we got a few lashes, but the thought of the teacher arriving home ten minutes earlier than usual and being rebuked by his wife for his poor timekeeping made it all worthwhile. Of course it wasn’t all fun and games there was work to be done especially when the turf for the winter fires had to be drawn up the hill from Wycherly’s mill and packed into a bunker in the entrance hall. I have already mentioned the belfry on the hill and older pupils will have happy memories of throwing stones through the windows of the belfry in an effort to ring the bell. On one occasion somebody scored a direct hit on the bell which immediately fell to the floor. This marked the end of the bell ringing.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Rossa’s Recollections, 1838 – 1898, P35. The Lyons Press Guildford Connecticut.