WHEN you think of your primary school days, what images do you conjure up? The view from your desk? Games of chasing? Collecting the school milk from the hall?
Throughout childhood, schools are probably the buildings we spend the greatest portion of our lives in, apart from our own homes. They hold an important place in our formative years, and then, suddenly, they’re gone, fading into memory.
Archaeologist and photographer Enda O’Flaherty didn’t realise he was involved in such a richly emotive topic when he first started photographing the deserted school houses of Ireland as an architectural project five years ago.
Originally from Galway but settled in Cork, Enda began taking pictures while on the archaeological surveys that form a part of his work.
“I had a suspicion that people would feel a connection to these buildings, but I am surprised at how far it’s gone,” Enda says. “When you introduce people to these buildings it stokes their memory. If that connection is with their youth and their childhood, it’s almost like a flashback, watching all the memories come flooding back into place.
“I started putting the photos on a blog and it started to get a lot of attention. When I started, I was looking at the architectural features, but as the project developed, it became clear that a lot of the interest in the project was in the social history more than the architecture.”
Enda’s photos show nature creeping back into Ireland’s abandoned schools: ivy growing into dusty and deserted rooms that once rang with the sounds of children’s laughter. They are poignant and haunting. But to Enda, they also tell a more important tale of Ireland’s social history, one of the pattern of rural depopulation that has marked Irish life since the famine era.
“Most abandoned school houses are in remote areas and on the western seaboard,” he says. “It’s basically in landscapes associated with rural depopulation and emigration. You won’t find abandoned schoolhouses on the East coast or in cities.”
Cork being Ireland’s largest county, nine County Cork school houses are included in the book. And Enda’s observation of the trend of rural depopulation is certainly at play here: in the 1841 census, 854,118 people were recorded as living in the county. We’ve never reached such a number again; in the 2016 census, 542,868 people lived in County Cork. When you factor in that 417,211 of these live in the greater metropolitan area, that leaves the remainder of the county very sparsely populated indeed.
Enda was particularly struck by his visit to Whiddy Island National School in Bantry Bay.
“It still had a lot of the original fixtures and desks because it had been used as a local museum,” he says.
“The population of Whiddy Island was over 200 before the famine, but is now only 20 people: a complete turn-around.”
Another memorable Cork find was the shack-like single-room school house on Cool Mountain near Dunmanway, built out of corrugated asbestos, a notoriously dangerous building material. Was Enda hesitant about entering the building?
“You’re safe enough as long as you don’t break it or breathe in any dust,” Enda says.
“It’s such a curious building and it’s in the middle of nowhere. It was used as a home for a while, and some of the belongings of the person who had lived there were still there.”
After first documenting his travels on his blog, two years ago Enda was approached by Cork publishers Collins Press to produce a book.
A lot of the interest in his work has, he says, come from Irish emigrants.
“From these small rural school houses, the children of Ireland took what they had learned and went out to find fortune and to explore the greater world,” Enda writes on his blog.
“They would have left at quite young ages. Because of that, these images seem to resonate with the Irish diaspora around the world.”
Before the advent of the car, thousands of one and two-room school houses were dotted around remote areas because children had to walk to school.
“Schoolkids had to bring the fuel for the fire with them, so they’d bring some wood or peat,” Enda says. “The fireplace was located at the top of the room by the teacher’s desk, though: the children didn’t really benefit from the fire so much themselves.”
Another memory that older generations may have is of freezing cold toilets that older school houses provided for children: in a pre-plumbing era these would have been simple outhouses, Enda says.
“Older schools were retro-fitted and they tried to bring facilities inside from about the 1920s onwards, but I’ve heard stories of people still using the outdoor toilets in the ’70s and ’80s, and they weren’t even flush toilets,” Enda says.
Architects’ plans for building school houses were provided by the Office of Public Works, which is why it’s possible to see schools built to the same design all over the country: “Building supplies and materials were local, but the plans were provided by the OPW so that’s why you can get a schoolhouse in Co Donegal that’s identical to one in Co Cork.”
Enda himself has a particular fondness for the schools designed by Basil Boyd Barrett, who was the OPW’s chief schools architect from the 1940s to the 1960s. They’re still a familiar sight and many are still in use: often pebble-dashed, and with an associated water tower and concrete schoolyard shelters, they reflect Boyd Barrett’s focus on functionality, a move away from earlier church hall-inspired designs.
“There’s an effort there to modernise the building and to combine functionality and aesthetics,” Enda says.
He has never trained in photography but displays a keen eye for detail in the collection of images that he says are “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to all the work he’s done in documenting Ireland’s deserted school houses.
“I find it interesting to see a landscape that was once populated without people in it,” he says. “It’s kind of a curious juxtaposition: some buildings have been focal points in their communities at some stage, especially the local school houses, which would have been full of life. To see them overrun by dereliction and with nature creeping back in is moving.”
The Deserted School Houses of Ireland by Enda O Flaherty, published through The Collins Press, will be launched at Nano Nagle Place, Douglas Street, Cork on Friday, March 8 at 6pm.
See Enda’s blog: www.endaoflaherty.com