Frank McNally: Goodbye to all that – a fond farewell to the primary school run

An Irishman’s Diary: For the past 15 years I got to walk the kids around the Royal Hospital Kilmainham

One of the accidental joys of where I live, and where my children went to primary school, is that the shortest route between those two places is via the grounds of the old Royal Hospital Kilmainham, now the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

So for the past 15 years, off and on, I got to walk or cycle the kids through there on countless mornings, around the 300-year-old military hospital, down the tree-lined avenue, past the ancient burial grounds of Bully’s Acre, and on towards Kilmainham Gaol.

Many a history lesson was inflicted on them, to (I’m sure) their undying gratitude. But the journey’s greatest pleasure, always, was the stretch along the avenue, and the view across the RHK meadow towards Phoenix Park.

Although you’re surrounded by the city there, you would hardly know it, because the Heuston railway yards and most buildings are sunken from view in the Liffey Valley. Except for the background hum of traffic, and a few landmarks including the Wellington Monument, you could be in open countryside.


For 15 years, we have marked the seasons there, from the yellowing leaves at the start of every school year, through chestnut season, the mists of November, the thrilling first frosts, bare tree branches, occasional snow, and then the triumphant return of spring and early summer until, like this week, the trees on either side of the avenue almost meet in the middle, in explosions of greenery.

The school itself was down by the river, in Islandbridge, where its neighbours include the lovely War Memorial Gardens, designed by Edwin Lutyens and built by hand in the 1920s and 1930s. That was never on our route, sadly, although my children will have happy memories of it too.

Lutyens’s masterpiece

It sometimes served as a ready-made film set for one of the teachers, Múinteoir Seán: a cinematic auteur who created short movies with his classes, instead of the usual plays. But the kids’ favourite memory of Lutyens’s masterpiece, I suspect, is the time it got them a day off because someone called Queen Elizabeth was visiting and the area had to be locked down.

Despite its location, the school is now and forever called Gaelscoil Inse Chór, in recognition of its origins on the other side of traffic-choked Con Colbert Road (crossing which was always the least pleasant part of the journey, and the bit you worried about when the children were walking or cycling alone).

It recently celebrated 40 years’ existence, but a commemorative book recalls the vagrant life that, in common with other gaelscoileanna, it led in childhood. Amid many changes of address, there were periods of exile in Crumlin and darkest Templeogue, while protests in its cause included hedge-school sessions taught outside the Dáil and OPW.

Last day

But it had impressive allies, clearly. Performers at the 1981 Féile Inse Chór, a festival of music and drama held on the site that became the school’s home, now read like a who’s who of Irish folk: Christy Moore, Mary Black, Paul Brady, the Fureys, Freddy White. The list went on.

It was from those years of campaigning that the likes of us eventually benefited. By the time we brought our first-born there in 2003 (relieved and at the same time a little miffed that she displayed no signs of separation anxiety), the Gaelscoil was well settled.

The path to school has not changed much in 15 years either. The biggest development has been an addition to the seasons in the RHK. In late spring now, the view of the meadow is often obscured not by greenery, but by marquees and giant stages, as the Forbidden Fruit music festival and other such circuses move in. There have been actual circuses too.

But the most profound changes you noticed as a parent, of course, were in your children. There came a point with each, too soon, when they didn’t need to be accompanied to school. Then you had to make excuses to go with them.

So it was a few hours ago when I told my youngest, Daniel, that I might tag along on the way to his last day in sixth class, seeing how nice the weather was.

Nice was not the word. En route, sneaking in one final history lesson, I mentioned that it was the hottest summer since 1976, when I was about the same age he is. Sure enough, even at 8.45am, while I took pictures of him on the avenue, temperatures were high enough that beads of sweat trickled down my face. Sweat is what I’m calling it, anyway.