“THE Mercy nuns had a strong influence on education in Macroom. They were the teachers who taught generations how to read and write, knit and sew. They were there every step of the way.”
That’s how current Leaving Certificate student Mairead O’Sullivan sums up the legacy of the Mercy Sisters in the County Cork town.
In her role as head girl for the academic year 2016/2017 at St Mary’s Secondary School in Macroom, Mairead is involved in the celebrations to mark 150 years of Mercy education in the town.
The Mercy Sisters arrived in Macroom in the 1860s and provided primary education for girls and boys at St Joseph’s and secondary education for girls at St Mary’s down the decades.
The huge contribution of the Mercy Sisters to education, their involvement in the community, and their dedication to serving the town of Macroom and surrounding areas in so many ways over 150 years, are being recognised through a series of events and the publication of an anniversary book this year.
Joan Chapman, 80, has fond memories of her school days at St Joseph’s Primary School in the 1940s and 1950s.
At the time, the teaching staff was mostly comprised of nuns, with just one lay teacher, in charge of third class.
“I remember my first days at school being scary but I got used to it and I loved it,” she said.
“My time with the nuns was enjoyable. The nuns were dedicated, good teachers.
“I stayed on at school until seventh class, I left then because I had got a job, I was 14 years old.
“The day I told the nuns I was leaving, they had a big talk with me not to leave. I was very sad to leave.”
“Things were different then; I remember, in second class, some children were barefoot coming to school.”
Among the subjects taught by the Mercy Sisters in the 1940s and 1950s were Irish, English, Maths, History, Geography, Domestic Science, Religion, Music and Art, and in later years this solid educational provision was expanded to incorporate areas such as science, information technology, social and health education as well as a range of extracurricular activities.
The primary and secondary schools continue to build on the tradition of Mercy education in the town, and the students have excelled at All-Ireland level in sport, science and school choir competitions and have also had several wins with the Build a Bank programme.
In more recent years as well, a buddy system and the head girl role have been introduced at St Mary’s.
Ella Curtin, now a Leaving Certificate student and this year’s deputy head girl, encountered the buddy system when she started her secondary school education at St Mary’s in 2011.
“I left the familiarity of Coachford National School behind, and remember being in awe of the vast, stately convent when I saw it first,2 she recalls.
“The school was a labyrinth at first to me. We were helped along the way by ‘Buddies’, fourth year students whose knowledge of the school we coveted.
“They made the school seem more like a home and prepared us for a wide range of subjects, from the familiar, such as English and Irish, to the ones we had never studied before, such as German and Business Studies.
Now, as head girls, Ella and Mairead are helping the younger students.
Mairead said: “Our main role is to be a good role model for the younger students and to represent the school in events such as the 150 year celebration and on Mercy Day when the nuns were invited back to the school.”
For the recent 150 year celebration, Mairead and Ella were on hand to welcome the many past pupils who returned to their alma mater.
The former pupils attended a liturgical service in St Colman’s Church, the launch of a book celebrating the contribution of the Mercy Sisters, and a reception in St Mary’s where they caught up with classmates and shared memories of their primary and secondary school days.
Among the past pupils at the celebration was Noreen Moynihan, who attended St Joseph’s and St Mary’s in the 1970s and early 1980s.
She has a lot of memories — playing French skipping in the school yard; having the freedom to walk “up the hill” and see the convent gardens, the beehives and the sunhouse; wearing a tie for the first time as part of the secondary school uniform; enduring a stormy ferry crossing on a school trip to London; and putting on the musical Oklahoma! in a joint production with the boys of De La Salle College, Macroom.
“I also remember, in the cookery kitchen in primary school, while others got to make buns and cakes, we learned how to make a proper cooked breakfast, how to fry the egg properly — took us months!”
In more recent years, Noreen sat on St Mary’s Secondary School Board of Management and saw school life from a different perspective.
“It was very interesting to go back and see the workings of the school from the other side.
“As a student, you don’t realise how hard principals and teachers have to work, you take things for granted. Then you sit on the Board of Management and you see what they’re trying to do for the school, everyone has the students’ best interests at heart.”
Reflecting on the impact of being taught by the Mercy Sisters in Macroom, Noreen said: “It gave me a good grounding in the values of respect, friendship, and loyalty.”
“It gave me a good grounding in the values of respect, friendship, and loyalty.”