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
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
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
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
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
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