Rural Ireland may be on its last legs but this school’s alive and kicking

Post-office, shop and pub closures - it’s a grim, desolate scene in our rural villages. But amidst the desolation, there are thriving beacons of hope and light, like Coachford College, writes John Dolan
Rural Ireland may be on its last legs but this school’s alive and kicking

CLASS OF 2018: The 142 first year students who began at Coachford College last week

RURAL Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave.

You’d have to be living in the back of beyond to not have heard that refrain in recent times.

It’s become a sad and unsurmountable fact of modern life: that the once-thriving villages and towns dotted across Ireland’s green fields are in an apparently terminal decline, a downward spiral, a vortex that sucks all the young people out of them and spits them out into over-priced flats in our ever-expanding and thriving urban areas.

Like moths to a flame, the young are deserting rural Ireland for the bright lights of the big cities, and in some areas it’s become a case of: Will the last person to leave the village, please switch off the lights?

The result is the strangulation of countryside communities, and the suffocation of their commercial entities.

Pubs are closing at a rate of knots — 1,500 have called last orders nationwide for the final time in the past 13 years, and Cork county has seen the most closures. The large majority of these will have been rural bolt- holes and snugs.

Few entrepreneurs would buy a rural pub today, but many are choosing to open new watering holes in our lively, thriving cities.

Rural post offices, too, are going the way of O’Leary.

An Post recently announced the closure of 159; just like that — and bang, there goes the neighbourhood.

A dozen are set to close in County Cork, among them my own local post office in Carrigadrohid in mid-Cork.

The powers-that-be will say we villagers can just hop into our cars and drive the two and a half miles to the nearest post office, in Coachford, instead. But the powers-that-be count everything in euro and cents.

What price a community? How do you put a value on an elderly, possibly a lonely, person having a place down the road to chat and catch up?

Some things are too priceless to appear on a balance sheet.

Shops, too, are going the same way. Our village store, which is attached to the post office, is set to close in the coming months, while in Coachford, the two main shops recently became one.

Ireland is a country with a booming population, but all the booming is concentrated in the cities.

And don’t expect our metropolitan elite to change that any time soon. They think rural Ireland is populated by Healy Raes, folk in flat caps, drink-drivers, people who voted against gay marriage, and poor saps who went to see Pope Francis. Oh, and they probably have a stalk of straw hanging out their mouth.

To those politicians, the countryside is the past, and the city is the future. If it doesn’t have a Coca-Cola bike stand in its main street, it might as well not exist.

All the party leaders are representives for big city constituencies, as are all the major ministers of State; rural TDs are left to jostle for the agriculture portfolio, as if that’s all they know.

It’s a grim, desolate scene in our rural villages; the scythes of the past have been replaced by the scythe of the Grim Reaper.

But amidst the desolation, there are thriving beacons of hope and light.

By rights, my local secondary school, Coachford College, should be experiencing declining numbers, given its rural location and sparse local population, but it isn’t. Far from it.

Their 2018 intake last week, which included my eldest son, was a whopping 142.

When the photo of the new class of 2018 was published on Facebook, one local guy commented: “I’d say that’s the amount of pupils that were going to the entire school in my time — just a couple of years ago!”

He wasn’t far off. There are now 706 pupils at Coachford College and 50 staff. In 1988, there were 306. As recently as 2010, there were only 530 pupils, and just 90 starting in first class.

To cope with the rising influx, the school is currently planning the construction of new buildings on its spacious grounds — another advantage rural schools have over town and city schools — which, when completed, will accommodate 800 pupils, the expected number of pupils that will be enrolled there in the next two years.

That’s a lot of children and, although its catchment area stretches from Kanturk to Bandon, and from Ballincollig to Macroom, there is a lot of competition around. Coláiste Choilm, the school with the largest roll in Cork, 1,350, is only 16km away.

Indeed, just a few years ago, the majority of pupils leaving my local Canovee National School would have attended other secondary schools further away than Coachford.

So, why is Coachford College proving so popular?

A few factors are involved — but the main one is the excellent reputation the school has fostered in recent times, led by its forward-thinking principal, Áine Máire Ní Fhaoláin, and her long-serving predecessor, Pat O’Connor.

Exam results have improved greatly. Students from the school achieved first place in Ireland in recent years in Leaving Certificate Gaeilge, Maths, Applied Maths, Construction Studies, Engineering and Physics (three times).

Moreover, 28.6% of its pupils achieved more than 500 points in 2018, compared to 13.2% nationally, and 58.5% achieved more than 400 points, as opposed to 37.2% nationally.

But it’s not just the academic performances that impress parents — the school fosters a holistic approach that embraces all pupils. The first line of its mission statement is telling: “We are a community.”

You do get that sense of pupils belonging at Coachford College, rather than just passing through

The school’s willingness to grasp new technology — it introduced the Moodle system for teachers and pupils more than a decade ago — is coupled with a strict ban on phones.

The fact that the school is inter-denominational and mixes boys and schools is important to many parents, too, as is its safe, rural location.

Of course, the extra numbers in our schools are also down to other factors — Ireland’s population is the youngest in the European Union, with 22% of aged 14 or under, compared to an average of 15.5% across our 27 EU neighbours.

The contrast with our neighbours in England is stark. In my home town in the north-west of England in recent years, huge secondary schools, which were built and expanded to cope with the post-war baby boom and its succeeding generations, are closing, as there are so few young people coming through.

But, for me, the expanding roll of Coachford College is a sign not of a booming young population, nor of a flourishing education system that appears to be the sole successful arm of our public sector.

It is evidence that when good people come together with a unified aim, they can succeed... even in our much-maligned and neglected rural towns and villages.

And that is surely a cause for celebration.

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