A small stone on my Cork farm that tells a lot about local history

Over 50 years ago John Arnold found part of a plaque when taking down a garden wall - there's a fascinating history behind it
A small stone on my Cork farm that tells a lot about local history

A stone from John Arnold’s farm in Bartlemy containing part of an engraving for the local school which opened in 1847.

IT’S just a small piece of cut limestone - only about a quarter of the original is in my possession, or should I say ‘visibly’ in my possession! I speak of a stone erected over the door of a ‘new’ National School built in 1847. ‘Black ‘47’, as it is best remembered.

Official history tells us that during and after the Famine of the 1840s, Ireland lost two million of its population. Half that total emigrated and a million died from hunger, many in workhouses and thousands in mud-walled bothains and by the roadside

Indicative of the ravages of the potato failure in this area is the stark statistic for the townland where the school was erected. In 1841, Monanig had 149 people living on its 713 acres -a decade later, in 1851, just 84 remained.

It was the same all over the district, with a decrease of nearly 1,500 souls in this parish alone.

Despite the trauma and scandal and cruelty of the so-called ‘Great’ Famine, life still went on in Ireland and on the first day of October in 1847, the first pupils walked through the doors of Monanig National School.

The name of the Civil and earlier Church parish was not Bartlemy, as it is today, but the parish of ‘Gortroe and Disert’. This was a combination of two more ancient divisions dating back to the Middle Ages. So the name Gortroe gradually became the title used. To this day, the local cemetery bears that name and the Electoral Division of Gortroe still exists.

In 1834, the awful, bloody Massacre of Gortroe which resulted in 12 deaths took place here in the townland of Ballinakilla.

As I look at the ancient piece of carved limestone, I can make out some letters, ‘AL SCHOOL’, that’s on one line, and underneath are the letters ‘ROE AD;. I presume the original full inscription read;




Somewhere on our farm, the other fragments of that stone probably exist!

You see, in the 1970s, when we were taking down a garden wall, this historical stone was found. 

Perhaps the other three-quarters of the original stone are here somewhere in the wall of the stall - ach sin sceal eile!

Back in 1824, just five years before Catholic Emancipation was granted in this country, the Irish Bishops asked the English Government to ‘enquire into the state of Education in Ireland’.

The Commission of Irish Education Enquiry was set up and went to work immediately. In the Appendix to their Second Report in 1826, Parochial Returns were included. Page 906 includes a report on the situation in ‘Gortroe and Disert’.

Out of a parish population of 2,291 (up to 2,854 in 1831), 216 pupils were attending three different schools in the area. The Commission report gave details of these.

Maurice Sinon had a school at Bartholomew Well Townland, Ballynakilly, ‘a thatched cabin’. In Ballynure John Murphy taught in ‘a wretched hovel’, whilst in ‘Bally Roberts or Rathcobane’, Laurence Ryan educated his pupils in ‘a mud cabin in the mountain’.

By 1836, there were just two schools in the district. One was a ‘weekday school kept by William Lynch’ which is ‘closed until the summer’. Payment from the children was from 1/6 to 2/6 per quarter.

The report stated that the average attendance ‘in summer, 1834, was 20’ - was this Master Lynch in charge of the first ever ‘Summer School’ in Ireland?!

The other school was ‘Laurence Ryan’s hedge School’- possibly the Laurence Ryan of the mud cabin mentioned in 1826.

In the fateful year of 1834, Rev Charles O’Donovan, a West Cork man, was appointed Parish Priest of Rathcormac, which included Gortroe. A very progressive pastor, he petitioned the Dublin-based Commissioners for National Education to build a National School in the parish. After prolonged agitation, his proposal was accepted in August, 1845.

The following year, Fr O’Donovan purchased the leasehold of a 57 acre farm in the townland of Monanig and on this holding a site for the school was selected.

Far away from chapel, village or shop, Fr O Donovan probably picked this site as being centrally located for pupils from a five mile radius. To school through the fields and by lanes, boreens and rough roads was the norm back then.

Eventually, in November, 1846, the ‘Authority to Build’ Order was issued and work commenced.

A far-seeing man, when it came to education, Fr O Donovan brought an Ahern family from the townland of Flemingstown near Kildorrery, to live on the ‘School Farm’ and act as caretakers. A small house was built for the Aherns -it still stands.

In what must have been a revolutionary ‘Agriculural College’ idea in the 1840s, Fr O Donovan also tasked the Aherns to provide tuition in farming practises to the male students in the school. Ploughing, sowing of crops, harvesting, hay-making, livestock breeding and feeding were amongst the ‘subjects’ taught.

Two classrooms of stone and slated were built - one for boys and one for girls. Rooms measured 34ft by 18ft. 

The total cost of the new school was £210.7 shillings and the Department provided a grant of £149 which was paid to Fr O’Donovan on December 11, 1847, just ten weeks after the school was ‘officially opened’.

Given the famine was raging, it’s unlikely that on Friday morning, October 1, in Black ’47, there was much pomp and ceremony in Monanig. Maybe someone officially ‘unveiled’ the limestone plaque above the door, but I doubt it.

Matt Cranitch, from Rathcormac -a relation of his namesake, the famous musician, and also related to Cork hurler Conor Lehane - was the first Principal in the school, a job he had until 1854.

For over half a century, the school served its purpose but little improvements or extra facilities were added. In 1892, Mr Hynes the Schools District Inspector, pulled no punches: “The School is situated in a backward and mountainous district and is seriously affected by inclement seasons. The school rooms are badly lighted. A porch would add materially to the comfort of the apartment.”

Some small repairs were carried out - for example, in 1901 £1.16.10d was spent on ‘Repairing Monanig School’.

Fr Edmond Barry PP, the great genealogist, writer and Gaelic Games enthusiast, had come to the parish in 1885 and died in May, 1900 - his mortal remains lie within Bartlemy Church.

Grenagh-born Fr John O’Donoghue came to succeed Fr Barry. The new Parish Priest deemed that spending money on further repairs to Monanig School was literally ‘throwing good money after bad’.

He set the process for a New School in motion in 1901. In March of 1902, Fr O Donoghue paid £12 to Batt Ahern for the purchase of a site at Hightown, Bartlemy. Things moved quickly then. Coffey’s of Midleton were awarded the building contract and the new school became a reality.

Locals Jerry Roche, Pats Brien and Martin Murley - all former pupils of Monanig NS - were among those employed as labourers on the site.

The total paid to Coffey’s was £536 and the school was open for business in 1904. Patrick (Patsy) Barry had been teaching in Monanig and he became principal of the new school - a position he held until his retirement on Friday, July 26, 1935.

In 1905, the old School in Monanig was offered for sale. 

My grandfather Batt Arnold bought the building ‘lock, stock and barrel’. The slates were removed and the building was demolished. All the stones, lintels and furniture were brought to our farm. A new cow stall was erected using the school materials and the slates. As a child, our kitchen table was from the school. We still have a stool in use in the kitchen which was used by pupils in Monanig National School some time between 1847 and 1903. As I said initially, over 50 years ago we found part of the school plaque when taking down a garden wall.

It’s just a small stone but a huge piece of history.

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