De Valera's Bruree School was 100 years old in 1963

The centenaries of the foundations of Colleges are never allowed to pass unnoticed, but when one of the humble national schools of rural Ireland reaches its hundredth year there is never a word about it. And not a few of them have already passed the hundred year mark, un-honoured and unsung.
Some reach their centenary this year. Bruree school is one of them. I am aware that the date 1862 is carved for all to see on a slab that is set in the grey limestone wall that looks out on the Maguire Bridge. But the records of the Department of Education show that the school opened for the first time on Monday, January 12th, 1863.

The erection of the school was estimated to cost £255, of which £170 was to be met by a grant from the Board of National Education, which was sanctioned on May 17, 1861. The school was to be a one-room structure, with accommodation for 100 pupils - it was subsequently extended to its present size. The lessor of the site was Michael Ryan, Bruree. Rev D Cregan, CC Bruree was appointed Manager. Manager and lessor were named jointly as patrons.

The first principal was Andrew O'Keffe, who unlike Goldsmith's Village Preacher, was not even passing rich with forty pounds a years, for Andrew's yearly salary amounted to just £32. His assistant was Ellen Lawlor, who was paid just £16 a year and a junior assistant, Johanna Russell, who took up duty on March 1st, 1863, enjoying an annual salary of £14.

Before the national school was built, the children of Bruree went to hedge schools of which there were a number in the parish. In the 1830s the parish had seven hedge schools as well as a centre of instruction, described as a 'free school' which was situated in The Glebe, endowed with half an acre of land and supported by the Protestant Vicar. Two of the hedge schools had on their rolls a total of 122 boys and 68 girls; the other five made no returns of their attendances . A hedge school existed at the Churchyard side of the river in a place known locally as "Dell High: up to, it would seem, the building of the present national school. I remember one very old man who attended that hedge school; if I am not mistaken he afterwards transferred to the new national school. Probably the building of the new school spelt the end of the hedge school or maybe, teachers and pupils moved in a body to the new building and came under the Board of National Education. But the traffic was not all in one direction and not all the hedge schools disappeared with the coming of the new national school. Even as late as the year 1866 we find in the Bruree school records such notes as: John Moran, aged 5 of Clogher "sent to a hedge school held in their own house", Pat Foley, aged 6, Ballynaught "sent to a hedge school".
In 1869 Patrick Sullivan of Bruree was "kept home, being too young", he was aged 3.

The causes of withdrawal of pupils from the school in the 1860s were frequently given in such terms as these "working in Bruree Mills" (these were Ryan's Mills, which gave much employment); "bound to his fathers trade", "apprenticed to a miller", "apprenticed to a cooper". One lad was appointed Parish Clerk and John Cregan of Clogher was "appointed monitor in this school".

In these first years of its existence, pupils came to Bruree school from such comparatively distant places as Rockhill, Derawlin, Clonbrien, Cappagh and Dromin. The subjects taught were: English Reading; grammar (phrasing and syntax); geography - local and descriptive; arithmetic, practical and mental; mensurration; algebra; geometry and writing - on slates and paper. This list of subjects shows what a misnomer was the description "national" when applied into such a school and to all the other schools, built about that time by the Board of Education. Not a word of Irish was taught in them; not a word of Irish history. But the pupils of all those Irish National schools had to learn the following lines, which were printed in their readers:
"I thank the goodness and the grace,
Which on my birth have smiled,
And made me in those Christian days,
A happy English child",

That was the kind of "national" school that replaced the time-honoured hedge schools of which Patrick Joseph Dowling says in his book "The Hedge Schools of Ireland".

Writers have many of them described the hedge schools as poor, inadequate, mischievous. But let the worst be said of them and it may still with truth be maintained that they represented a system of education truly democratic and truly national. With their passing, the last link within the ancient Gaelic schools of Ireland was severed. Most illustrious pupil: The Maguire flowed within 20 yards of Bruree school, but for almost half a century the pupils in that school never learned a line from Slan le Maigh or from any of the other poems that were composed by the Gaelic poets of the Maguir countryside. Yet many of the lads and lasses who learned their ABC in the new school in Bruree undoubtedly came from homes in which the old people still spoke Irish as their first language. Kate Coll of Knockmore was one such. She left Bruree School on November 18th, 1871 at the age of fifteen and a half and later went to America, where she subsequently married. On the death of her husband her baby son was brought back by an uncle to be reared in the old home in Knockmore and began his schooling in Bruree on a May day in 1888, under the headmastership of Thomas McGinn. He was unquestionably the most illustrious pupil of all those who have ever sat at a desk in Bruree school in the hundred years of its existence. His name was Eamon de Valera.

Many priests are numbered among the past pupils of Bruree School and many nuns as well as doctors, teachers and men of various other callings who became eminent in their chosen walk of life. If all the past pupils were to be gathered together again they would have to be called back from the four quarters of the earth for they have strayed to almost all the places they ever learned about in their school geographies. End of the Story: Bruree school can, I feel, be said to have begun to act the part of a real national school on Monday, September 9, 1907, for that was the day the very first Irish Lesson was taught in the school. The teacher was Micheal O Conchubhair: Meetings, lectures, concerts, practice ceilithe, these too, the old school has housed down through the years; and it holds the secrets of ten thousand votes cast in half a hundred elections. One thinks of all the pupils and all the teachers who have passed through its doors in the last hundred years. It would require a book to do justice to the whole story.

I began my schooling in Bruree just as the long reign of Garret Hayes was coming to an end. Garrett, a ,member of a famous teaching family was brother of the distinguished historian, Dr Richard Hayes, and was succeeded as principal by his assistant, Donnchadh O hArgain, a past pupil of the school. Donnchadh O hArgain spared no effort to give us, among other things, a love of the Irish language, a love of local history and a love of local history and a love of the land. The first two loves he sought to inculcate in the classroom, the third in the neat, well-tiled school garden, where each pair of lads were allocated a plot of their own.

I have happy and grateful memories of Bruree school and would like to wish it something like Ad Multos Annos or Faid Saoil. But there would be no point in that.

Courtesy of the Limerick Leader