A school with a difference
An Irishwoman’s Diary: Learning, laughing and scrapping in the yard
Michael Lynskey, King of the Claddagh, and his son Patrick at the launch of Claddagh National School: 80 Years of Words and Pictures. Michael and Patrick are both past pupils of the school. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Picture this school exchange if you will. “Excuse me, Sir”, says a pupil. “Holohan, be quiet!” the teacher replies. “But sir . . .” “Quiet!” “Sir, Jacko is looking in the window.” Cue complete classroom chaos.
Jacko was a chimpanzee who was once a resident of the Claddagh in Galway. Half a century ago, it wasn’t so unusual, according to the “pupil”, Thomas Holohan. Men from the area went to sea to fish or to join a merchant navy, and it was not unknown to bring back an exotic pet.
If it hadn’t been for Holohan and company, Jacko’s life could have been quite bleak, for he was chained to a tree with a chain and rope outside a house next to Claddagh National School. Luckily, the lad learned how to aim his apple butt to land within a hungry paw’s grasp. Sometimes, the chimp would escape and “run wild” in the school grounds,and on one occasion he ate the cowboy hat that the boys tried to place on his head. He became such a part of the Claddagh community that he was afforded a funeral when he died, and was buried in nearby Fr Burke Park.
Paul Flaherty, on the same roll book several decades earlier, has slightly tougher memories of the city school which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Classrooms were bleak cold places back in the 1930s, with frost on the old water heaters that served for radiators in winter.
“We were there from nine to one and then we’d go home for dinner,” he recalls. “Some people went home and there would be nothing to eat anyway, so they’d go around the table and back again.” The “highlight” for him was when they started getting government-supplied bread with jam.
“Gigantic guards and dreadful dentists,” were among Flaherty’s lowlights. “Every week you’d get Sergeant Gill to the school, the biggest guard in Galway . . . from the Aran Islands,” he recounts. “Why weren’t you at school last week?” the officer would inquire with a fearsome roar.
And when the dentist came, there would be a rush to the back of the queue, for compulsory tooth extractions came without anaesthetic. “The nurse would hold you down and the dentist would put a knee on your chest and pull,” Flaherty says. The only consolation was the afternoon off class “because there’d be so much blood”.
There was the teacher who used “the leg of a chair” and another who employed a “billiard cue” for control, and the teacher whose mood was determined by the colour of her coat (pink signalled “good”).
As histories go, Sean Leonard’s record eschews the saccharine, but there’s plenty of sweetness and light in his compilation of eight decades of the Claddagh school.
Anne O’Rourke, whose father Kevin was a principal of the boys’ school before it amalgamated with the girls’ school next door, was both a pupil and member of staff. She was in sixth class in 1972 when a 22-year-old arrived to teach the infants. Heads turned for Kathy Diviney, for she was “young, drove a Mini and wore mini skirts”.
Diviney was to break new ground in more ways than one, for she was part of a team that was to develop integrated education long before “special needs” became part of the lexicon. Brendan Forde, who became Claddagh National School principal in 1976, had been moved by the sight of young children taking the train east each week – bound for the school for the deaf in Cabra, Dublin.
Working with his staff and Gerry McCarthy, “one of the unsung heroes of education”, Forde established two units for hearing-impaired pupils.The school, which is perhaps best known for its St Patrick’s Day band, “blazed a trail for inclusion”, as Leonard puts it in Claddagh National School: 80 Years of Words and Pictures.
Inclusion took many forms. In 1993, it built a Galway hooker and launched the boat nearby. In September 2001, Marie Cadden became first teacher of an autism-specific class.Claddagh now has four classes specifically for children with autism, and has one of the richest cultural mixes for a school of its type in Connacht.
Generations of city-born, including the family of Claddagh king Michael Lynskey, learn, laugh and scrap in the yard with Zimbabweans, Congolese, and Slovaks. Some have returned home, former language support teacher Margaret Geraghty notes, but she believes those new Irish who have stayed will “make their mark”.