Community in crisis: Extra teacher ‘vital’ to Inis Meáin

Island people book room in Buswells Hotel to lobby politicians and showcase commitment

Scoil Naisiunta Inis Meáin has only one teacher. Photograph: Jordan Currie

Scoil Naisiunta Inis Meáin has only one teacher. Photograph: Jordan Currie

 

An island community off the west coast which has stood tall against grinding poverty, endless isolation, wild storms and mainland apathy for centuries could be gone in a decade for want of just €30,000 a year, a meeting in Dublin has heard.

The people of Inis Meáin booked a room in Buswell’s Hotel, the scene of so much political skulduggery since the foundation of the State, to make it clear to their elected representatives, on the last day before their long summer holidays, that they would not give up their way of life without a fight.

Changes made by the Department of Education to school staffing ratios mean that the only primary school on the island now has just one teacher. The rules say that to get a second teacher it needs 20 students and because the little schoolhouse on Inis Meáin can only muster nine it can only have one teacher.

That teacher’s name is Orlaith Breathnach. This year she will teach children aged four to 13. Four of her new students won’t have any Irish. One – who comes from Belarus – won’t speak Irish or English. All five new entrants are likely to need extra care and attention in the early days of the new term.

Breathnach will teach seven different classes, supervise all play times while struggling between 9am and 3pm to find a moment to get a toilet break or eat something. She also has to worry about what happens if she falls ill – something that obviously plays on the mind of a woman who only recently returned to work after an 18-month battle with cancer.

It is clear that she loves her job and her school but she knows the situation is unsustainable .

“The island is the ideal place to raise a family. It is safe and unspoiled but there is a vulnerability here too,” she said. “We are 20km from Rosaveal and we are often cut off from the mainland due to storms. An island community must have its own resources.”

As she said this, she eye-balled half a dozen politicians sitting opposite her. They included among their number the former minister for the Gaeltacht Joe McHugh and one of his predecessors, Eamon Ó Cuív. They all made sympathetic noises and nodded their heads wisely but there were no hard commitments forthcoming .

No choice

There were parents of young island children at the meeting too. They said they will have no choice but to leave to get adequate schooling for their children unless a second teacher is appointed. If that happens, it will mark the beginning of the end for a small but vibrant community of 150.

“The school is at death’s door. It’s like the department is saying to parents, we don’t care about your children. Just leave the island and go elsewhere,” said Ruairí de Blacam, a parent and business owner on the island. “It almost looks like there is a policy to starve our school into extinction.”

The island has reached a critical turning point, he said. “If we lose the primary school then we lose our younger people.”

People like him. But he doesn’t want to leave. He was born on the island and only left to train as a chef before returning to open a restaurant and hotel. If he is forced off the island to ensure his children – who are not yet of school-going age – can get an education, he will take eight jobs with him.

“I would have no other choice. I have to give my children a chance in life. If there is no school what else can I do? We spend millions teaching children all over the country Irish – many of whom say they have no interest in it.

“ Here we have a community who speak Irish and want to continue to speak it and for the sake of the 30 or 40 grand it would cost to employ a second teacher we are willing to push them over the edge.”

His outlook is bleak but not unrealistic. “There is a chance that in just 10 years time the island will be deserted save for holiday homes,” he says. “A community will have been destroyed. These things tend to snowball very quickly. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to work out what will happen if we lose the primary school. Do we want to be saying in 10 years that it is an awful pity that that community is gone? If only we had given them the extra teacher they needed.”