Reunion recalls Mayo education experiment

A unique experiment in second level education will be recalled in Newport on the weekend of September 1 and 2 when the 50th anniversary reunion of St Mary's Secondary School, Newport will be held.

The school opened its doors to secondary education in the former Presbyterian Church on Castlebar Road in September, 1956, and added another nail to the coffin of segregated education by enrolling 14 girls and an equal number of boys.

Opened under the auspices of the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Joseph Walsh, a native of the town, the school was managed by the Sister of Mercy, with Sr Mechtilde O'Donoghue as Principal.
The school had a difficult and problematic birth. It was the brainchild of a group of local people who were driven by a desire to create equal opportunities for their children whose education, at the time, depended on an ability to pay boarding fees in distant colleges or cycling the 14-mile round trip to Westport each day.

In the 1950's the State maintained a respectful distance from education. They left that responsibility to the Church which "sub-contracted" the work to the religious orders.

The concerned parents of Newport took their case to Archbishop Walsh. He put few obstacles in the way of his own towns people. He gave the venture his blessing and promised to appoint a chaplain, provided that the parents could persuade the sisters of Mercy to manage the school.
Taking the Archbishop's blessing as a sign that their school had divine sanction, the Newport delegation - Gerry Bracken, Bob Loftus, Johnny McGovern and Michael Kelly - paid a visit to Mother Bernard Byrne in Westport.

There were few, if any towns, of the size of Newport (pop 370) with second-level education. There was a huge question mark over the viability of the school. All expert opinion was opposed to it. However, it is likely the enthusiasm of the parents stampeded Mother Bernard into agreement.
For Mother Bernard, whose natural instincts would have been opposed to the venture, there was the added problem that the Order had few sisters qualified to teach and there was a demand for their expertise at two new schools opened in Ballyhaunis and Westport.

For the parents there was the problem of a building. This was resolved on a temporary basis when Canon Tomas Killeen, PP, made over a lease of the Presbyterian Church for the school.
Fr Michael Comer, who had just completed his Dip Ed in Galway, was appointed chaplain and teacher. The management structure was completed by appointing Mother Rose Waldron Mother Superior in Newport Mercy Convent as Manager.

As it happened Fr Comer was hospitalised during August 1956 and recently ordained Fr Martin Newell took over chaplaincy and teaching duties for a number of weeks after the school opened in September.
The opening of the school was hailed as a victory for a small community. The desire for education was to be seen in the sacrifices made by parents and children in Glenhest, Mulranny and beyond to get to school in Newport.

However the europhia failed to make the problems go away. In order to get the necessary 28 pupils for the starting class, a number of children, with a year still to do in national school, were volunteered to make up the numbers.

After year one accommodation became an increasing problem. A purpose built structure was the answer but, with little or no state aid, it was beyond the reach of a small community. Restructuring was carried out to the church building. What was one room, became three and cloakrooms. An extension was added and space was used in the nearby town hall.

To make numbers so the school could be an exam centre, some students did their Intermediate exams from second year as well as third. Dedicated and enthusiastic teachers made light of the difficulties and students performed well to earn good exam results. At its peak there were 90 pupils attending classes.

But after 13 years the unequal struggle came to an end. Ironically, state intervention and the introduction of free education sounded the death knell for a wonderful community initiative which sought to bridge the gap left in the country's education structure by the government.

Free education, a butchering of catchment areas and free transport combined to remove the argument of the needs of Newport for education. The experts and the economists determined that the educational needs of the Newport catchment area could better be met in Westport, Castlebar and Achill.

It was decided that examination classes only would be retained in the school for its final year 1968/1969 and all other pupils would be transferred (even though there were 43 students in 1st year). There were meetings and protests and recriminations but after 13 years of a wonderful experiment which created a measure of educational equality and equipped many for life, St Mary's Secondary School, Newport closed its doors.

A chapter of loyal community service enhanced by dedicated teachers and religious order commitment came to a close in June, 1969.

During those 13 years of education, the choice of subjects offered to pupils, included English, Irish, History, Geography, Maths, Physiology, French, Latin and Music.
The subjects were delivered with great dedication and enthusiasm by Sr Mechtilde (Principal), Fr Comer (Chaplain), Fr Mewell, (part-time Chaplain) Ms Angela O'Sullivan, Ms Marie O'Sullivan, Ms Phil Keating, Mr Edward Fergus, Ms Mary McHugh, Me Denis Carroll, Mr Padraig Burns, Ms Elizabeth Brown, Ms Ryan, Mr Leonard Sheridan, and Sr Michael (Principal).

As well as the emphasis on academic subjects were encouraged to become involved in extra curricular subjects such as elocution classes, given by Ms O'Sullivan, and music with Leonard Sheridan, who also held choral classes for the adults in the area, Sport, for the boys in particular, mainly involved Gaelic football, and the school won some notable encounters against much larger schools such as St Gerald's, Castlebar, Westport CBS, and St Muredach's Ballina. On one occasion the team reached the Colleran Cup final only to go down narrowly to St Colman's, Claremorris.
The football team in those days was helped greatly by the late Paddy Sweeney, Quay Road, who volunteered many hours in training them.

Tennis which was coached by Fr Comer, basketball and, of course handball were also popular sports in the school, with Peter McGee a former pupil going on to win 18 All-Ireland titles.
The school re-union, after 50 years, now offers all who went through the portals of the groves of academic offered by St Mary's an opportunity to come together, renew the past and catch up with the present.

Courtesy of The Mayo News